Popular Demand for Strongman Rule? - Transcript

Intro [00:00:02]

This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

Mai Van Tran [00:00:09]

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Mai Van Tran. I am a postdoctoral researcher at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, and today I have the pleasure of welcoming our director, Professor Duncan McCargo, to this podcast episode to talk about his experience as an election observer of the recent election in the Philippines, as well as to share some of his analysis and perspectives on Filipino politics for the podcast episode today, I'm sure that we would be able to learn a lot not only from his experience observing the election, but also in terms of the important issues that we should take into account when considering politics in the Philippines going forward. Welcome, Duncan. Thank you.

Duncan McCargo [00:01:02]

Van. Great to be here.

Mai Van Tran [00:01:04]

So first of all, can you share with us a bit about what motivated you to become an observer of this election and what did you do and where did you go? Thanks. Yeah, no, it's been a really fascinating election. Of course, I have to say from the outset, I was very much anticipating the result that that was a result that actually transpired. So for listeners who might not have followed the story, what happened on the 9th of May was that Ferdinand Marcos Junior, the son of Ferdinand Marcos, the late former president who ruled in the Philippines from the end of 1965 until early 1986, was elected to become president of the Philippines. So 35 years or more after the Marcos dynasty was sort of pushed out of power in the Philippines, they have staged a dramatic return. And this is really a pivotal moment in political history, both for the Philippines itself, because it's a coming full turn of Democratic rollback, if you like. How is it that an ousted political family that was accused of kleptocracy and abuse of power on industrial scale has been able to stage a return? And then, of course, for many of us who follow politics in Southeast Asia and beyond that moment of the ousting of the Marcos in February 1986 was a huge turning point. This moment of people power, which marked, if you like, the beginning of what came to be called the third wave of democratization in Southeast Asia, a time when it seemed as though the tide was turning against dictatorial and authoritarian regimes. And now it seems that that has come full circle. So I was very alarmed and disturbed by these trends, but I was also excited to have the opportunity to go to the Philippines and experience this election at firsthand. And that's why I volunteered to become an election observer this time. Where did I go in brief? Basically, north. I was interested in the region, which was popularly known during the election campaign as the so-called solid North, the Ilocos region, which is where the Marcoses come from, and adjoining areas in the Cordillera going up from Baguio. So I was in that northern part of Luzon for a couple of weeks during the final phase of the election campaign.

Mai Van Tran [00:03:28]

While you were in this part of the stronghold of the Marcos family, can you share about what you did at that time? Would you simply observing different electoral events or you also conducting any type of fieldwork?

Duncan McCargo [00:03:43]

Yeah. So election observing is a funny business. I've obviously been to Southeast Asia numerous times and observed elections as an academic, gone around and talked to people. But if you're an official election observers, I was accredited by the National Elections Commission in the Philippines, then the work that you do focuses very much particularly on the procedural aspects. So you go around, you talk to officials from the election agency, you talk to the police, you talk to political candidates, you talk to journalists and NGO activists and people who in different ways are involved in observing and contributing to the election process. So that's kind of what we did. We were going around in a van and we had an assistant and lots of meetings were arranged for us and we had lots of opportunities to engage in conversations with people. For the most part, we were asking them fairly standard sets of questions about I was working on behalf of an ally, the Asian Network for Free Elections, and we're obviously extremely interested in whether the election is going to be free, whether the election is going to be fair. So you tend as an election observer to have a kind of a checklist of questions. But part of your mission is also to understand the overall political context of the elections. And for me, that was often the most interesting part. And frankly, the most fascinating conversations were frequently the ones that we had with candidates and also with journalists who had. A very deep knowledge and understanding of the politics in the particular locality. So those were often, from my perspective, the most satisfying of the interviews that we were conducting.

Mai Van Tran [00:05:19]

So based on such interviews and your experience while being the election observer there, can you share your perspective on how competitive or free and fair the election was?

Duncan McCargo [00:05:31]

Yeah, obviously these are complicated questions because electoral fairness and freedom and operate in a number of different interlocking spheres mean in terms of the overall conduct of the election. There was no real doubt amongst the election observer teams. Think of any of the teams that were deployed in the Philippines for this past election that the basic outcome, the fact that Bongbong Marcos and his running mate Sara Duterte, won the election, they won by a margin of really 2 to 1 vis a vis Leni Robredo, the next candidate. So I don't think that part of the outcome of the election was really in doubt. It was very much a case of one team being right out in front very clearly and their lead being maintained in the opinion polls and through the final polling pretty consistently right through. When you drill down, though, there are some other questions that you have to ask yourself. We're in a situation in the Philippines now where the son of a former president has just been elected president and the daughter of the current president has been elected vice president. That might give you a hint as to one of the major themes that emerges from this election, which is this continuing salience and indeed rise of dynastic politics, the importance of a relatively small number of political families who control very much of the system in the Philippines. And that was a recurrent theme. And although the headline story that everybody's been following about these Philippine elections is that presidential race, if you go down to lower levels, if you look at, for example, the congressional races, the provincial governor and deputy governor races and then the mayoral races in major cities, you see this pattern of dynastic politics replicated. And that was something that came through very, very clearly from the interviews and the travels that I was doing as an election observer going to places, certainly the two Ilocos provinces, the local saw and the local Senate where there are dominant political families who exercise very considerable control over elections in the region to the extent that, for example, in Ilocos Sur, the adjoining province to the one where the Marcoses have their stronghold, nobody was running against the candidate from that dominant family, the Singson family who ran for governor, nor indeed for the vice governor position. So members of the Singson family were running unopposed for the top positions electorally in the province. And that's a pattern that you saw quite widely replicated in other parts of the Philippines to anywhere where you see nobody competing for an incredibly important office like that of provincial governor, you have a sense that something is slightly amiss. It may be a perfectly free and fair election when everybody just has one candidate and they vote for that one candidate. But it does beg the question as to why no other candidates emerged and what that's telling us about the underlying political economy of the country.

Mai Van Tran [00:08:42]

Right. Right. So beside the factor of dynastic politics, what do you think were the main factors that have enabled Marcos and Sarah Duterte to stand out among other candidates?

Duncan McCargo [00:08:57]

So Bongbong and Sarah campaigned as the so-called Unit Team. They said that they were putting forward a platform of national unity. That was a slightly problematic statement in some ways because, of course, Bongbong Marcos in particular is a highly polarizing figure. He's associated in people's memories and imaginations with his father and with the former Marcos regime. And people have very, very sharply contrasting views about that regime. There are people who are extremely hostile to what happened during the Marcos period, especially the excesses of martial law, when a lot of human rights violations and the economic mismanagement of the country during the final years, particularly of the Marcos period. And then there are other people for whom the Marcos period was a kind of heyday. They look back to this time of so-called strongman rule when there was supposedly discipline and clear leadership and clear direction for the country. So a lot of what was going on was really about the different ways in which historical legacies and memories were understood or not understood, represented, misrepresented, erased. So to a large extent, the election became about how you viewed the image, particularly of the Marcos, and whether you saw that in a positive or negative light. And here social media played a huge part. There's been a massive debate about disinformation, about the rewriting of historical narratives, historical revisionism, rebranding of the Marcos family in a different kind of light. So that was quite central. But the other thing that was rather odd was that Bongbong Marcos himself didn't say very much during the campaign. He didn't take part in any presidential debates, even on polling day in a local senator. He went to the polling station with his family and didn't say a word to the hundreds of waiting reporters who have been dispatched there to glean some kind of insight into what what he might be thinking or what he might have to say to the world. He had absolutely nothing to say to the world. So this was the curious thing about the Marcos campaign as he became known to most people during the campaign. Bongbong Marcos really almost waged this tight lipped, very reserved campaign, believing think that the established media was not sympathetic to him and that he had very little to gain from making any kind of public statements. So the approach of the unity was that they were not going to focus on trying to win people over by making any great sweeping promises or statements about what their policies were. We had very little discussion of policy priorities and things of that kind, and indeed, they weren't going to engage in a lot of debate, though online media, trolls and people who were attacking their rivals and presenting things in a certain kind of way. But there's a sense in which Bongbong kind of floated above the election campaign that was going on around them. They were not particularly bongbong himself. He's not big on going around talking to people, pressing the flesh. The Marcos family have intermediaries who deal with voters and with the electorate. They themselves are kind of like Philippine royalty. They sort of step back from the fray of things, which compared to a lot of other election campaigns that I've seen in Southeast Asia was quite a surprising difference.

Mai Van Tran [00:12:20]

Wow, that is so interesting to learn. So regarding the issue of historical memories and nostalgia, do you find that there is variation in terms of voter support for across age group or different types of demographic groups?

Duncan McCargo [00:12:38]

Yes. Obviously generational difference did play a role here, though. I guess a number of different generational groups that you can identify. One is the group that actually were of a relatively advanced age during the Marcos period and have firsthand memories of that period. Then you had the Marcos babies, the people who were born during the period between the end of 65 and 86 who are sort of the children of that era, but for the most part were very young during that era. And then you have the later generation, and there are certainly older people who continue to have a nostalgia based on their understandings of what they experienced during the martial law period. But of course, the Philippine electorate is actually rather young statistically in the country, has a young population. And what was it of greater importance in this election was those people who certainly had no memory at all of the actual era. So young people could be divided into different groups. There were young people who became passionate supporters, particularly of Leni Robredo and her running mate. Keiko became extremely critical of the Marcoses and were mobilized with progressive messaging that has parallels with the kind of messaging you'd find in other parts of East and Southeast. The sort of Milk Tea Alliance, the anti Myanmar coup group, the Thai youth protest groups, the Taiwanese and Hong Kong groups. You found people with that kind of political persuasion and then you had a younger people who were actually very passionate supporters, took a very, very different line politically from those others. So youth became a very important actor and youth was polarized into distinct camps, the pro and anti camp.

Mai Van Tran [00:14:29]

That is fascinating. So now that you have mentioned Leni Robredo, can you also share a bit with us in terms of to what extent does she represent a break from the traditional Filipino politics patterns and norms that we have observed so far and how effective her campaign was?

Duncan McCargo [00:14:46]

Yeah, the lady campaign was extremely interesting. Leni had been elected vice president in 2016 when Rodrigo Duterte was elected president. So in the Philippines you have a rather curious system where the vice president and president actually elected on completely separate tickets. So the new situation where and Sarah were actually on the same ticket is a relatively unusual one in the Philippines. Typically, you'll have a president and vice president who are politically or ideologically opposed. And that's been very much the case over the past six years. So Rodrigo Duterte was extremely uncomfortable with Leni Robredo. She represented essentially the Liberal Party, the party that had supported the previous president, Ninoy Aquino, the son of Cory Aquino. And Leni Robredo has a reputation for being somebody who's worked in the areas of human rights, worked closely with the NGO community, has a lot of sympathy for the underdog, but it's a kind of slightly paternalistic sympathy for the underdog of middle class people who are well intentioned and wish to do good in the society. That's kind of where Leni comes from and with a dose of fairly conservative Catholicism into the mix. So Lenny's not a super progressive figure in the context of the sort of people that you've seen emerging in other countries in the region. If you compare her with Tanacon and get the founder of the future Forward party in Thailand, he's way more critical and way more radical and progressive than Leni Robredo and also a lot younger. So Leni and Kiko, almost like the idealized middle class parents of these pro leni kids. And there's a campaign groups around Leni, The Mamas Boys for Leni. You know, Lenny becomes the mother of these opposition figures and Kiko the father. So there's a kind of curiously conservative paternalism and paternalism in the discourse that surrounds these figures. And Leni herself is a strict Catholic who doesn't believe in divorce, let alone same sex marriage, but ironically ends up being supported by all these LBGTQ groups who have nowhere else to go. So there's a kind of structural irony in that. But she did manage to mobilize a lot of alliances of different groups of people, indigenous peoples, doctors and lawyers from the middle classes and enlisted. Of course, a lot of support from the business community in the Philippines, the Makati elite, if you like, who saw her as somebody who could be a foil to try to prevent the rise of the marcoses with their potentially financially predatory instincts whilst in office. So Leni was embraced by a very wide range of people, ranging from victims of Dutertes war on drugs to very, very ordinary, marginalized people. The hem line, as she called them during her campaign, but also members of the elite and the middle classes. Just to give you an example, I was outside the Bongbong Marcos headquarters after the election in Manila talking to the celebrating crowds there, about 150 people three days after the election results still standing, dancing around and cheering in front of Bongbong Marcos headquarters in Manila. And as vehicles were driving past, you could hear horns being honked and asked a couple of the people there who was honking the horns because it seemed to be bus drivers, taxi drivers and truck drivers as well as motorcyclists, which they confirmed, then asked my taxi driver on the way back to my hotel and he said, yes. Anybody who's driving a car in Manila is a Leni supporter so they wouldn't be honking their horns. So that's probably a stereotype, but that was the kind of perception that the Leni supporters were the middle classes, the university students, the intellectuals, but they nevertheless were not able to tap into a sort of a deep vein of political support from people across the class divide. So that was a perception on one level, a caricature. But ultimately Leni and Keiko got half the number of votes that and Sarah did. And that's partly a reflection of the support and also dutertes popularity. He's been a very popular president. And the fact that both Rodrigo Duterte and Sarah Duterte have been mayor of Davao and they have a network of mayors all over the country, which is a very powerful political force too. So you've got competing sets of alliances that are writ large in this contestation between the uni team and the Leni Kiko team.

Mai Van Tran [00:19:24]

And so looking forward to the future, what do you think is at stake now that and Sara are elected?

Duncan McCargo [00:19:31]

Well, obviously the future of Philippine politics is something that many people are going to be extremely interested in in some degree. Rodrigo Duterte, who was this notoriously foulmouthed, aggressive president who took no prisoners and insulted the pope, insulted Obama and insulted everybody that he came across really with his obnoxious remarks. He sort of roughed up the Philippine electorate and prepared them for the idea of a return to fully fledged strongman rule, which allowed them them to re-embrace the Marcoses remember that Bongbong Marcos ran against Leni for vice president and was narrowly defeated in 2016. This time he got twice as many votes as she did. So during that six year period, there was a shift. The unthinkable return of the Marcoses became a much anticipated and expected reality during that period of time. So Dutertes prepared people for this sort of return to at least the symbolism of authoritarian rule. Now, what did Ferdinand Marcos Bonbons father do? Of course he did a couple of things. First, he tried to revise the Constitution, ultimately succeeded in doing it in such a way that he could bypass term limits. And of course, the 1987 constitution brought in after Marcos left limits all Philippine presidents to one six year term. The second thing that Ferdinand Marcos did was famously, 50 years ago, declare martial law in September 1972. The question that people are asking themselves is, will Bongbong Marcos be happy just to serve one six year term as president, or will he attempt to entrench his rule further, perhaps by changing the Constitution or in some other way ensuring that he can stay beyond the initial term that he has, which would take him up to 2028. A second question is, Sara Duterte, I suspect, went into this election not quite feeling confident enough to run for. She could have run for president herself. She might have been able to to defeat Bongbong Marcos because she has quite a lot of personal popularity and the backing of her father, despite all the rumors of the complicated relationship between them. I don't doubt that if she had run for president, her father would have thrown some degree of support behind her. So if Bongbong himself doesn't continue beyond 2028, are we then to assume that Sara would be more or less a shoo in to replace him unless something goes badly wrong? So that is another concern that people have. And this dynastic politics and the rule of the families would then be very, very entrenched. Because if Sara Duterte followed Bongbong Marcos, you then be up to 18 years of continuous dynastic rule. And then Bongbong has, you know, his son Sandro, who just got elected to Congress and and other members of his family potentially waiting in the wings. You can see how we could just alternate between the Dutertes and the Marcoses for quite a number of decades to come if things started to move in that direction. So that's a big fear. Is this not just a particular moment of these two figures being elected to power, but is this a turning point when we're really going to reestablish dynastic politics in a very serious way and it'll be even more impossible for anybody else to break into the system going forward? And we'd love to believe that that wasn't true, that it's all going to collapse of its own internal contradictions that Bongbong and Sara will both be horrendously unpopular. A couple of years from now, but don't count on it.

Mai Van Tran [00:23:00]

So if we take into account the bigger picture, where a number of scholars and analysts have talked about an illiberal turn across electoral regimes in Asia and beyond, do you think that this victory by is part of this larger illiberal turn.

Duncan McCargo [00:23:19]

Mean do on balance? Yes. I think this is the thing that many of my Philippine friends and colleagues who are has to be said overwhelmingly Leni supporters really struggle to come to terms with how could it be that over 30 million people in the Philippines have voted for as president and Sara as vice president? What is really going on here? On the one hand, this isn't a case where the election has simply been manipulated. This is not Hun Sen's Cambodia, where you've abolished the opposition party in order to win or nor is it Thailand in 2019, where you fiddle around with the electoral system to make sure that the military comes out on top when really they. Didn't have anything like a proper mandate to continue running the country five years after the coup. But they've had to fiddle things here. But the alarming part is no very substantive fiddling has gone on. People have actually embraced this illiberalism rather wholeheartedly. I think that's the most alarming element of this. Yes. If we see it within that wider trend, people are sort of voting willingly for individuals whose track record, whose family's track record and whose general orientation seems to be highly authoritarian. And that's the rather worrying part about this. On the one hand, yes, it's democratic, clearly. And Sarah have a mandate and we can't deny them that electoral mandate. But why have people voted for figures who are essentially more or less a synonym for hardline strongman authoritarian rule? And however you want to frame it.

Mai Van Tran [00:24:48]

On this issue and many other important aspects surrounding Filipino politics in general, what do you think would be important research avenues going forward in light of this election outcomes?

Duncan McCargo [00:25:02]

Well, think a lot of things to research. Obviously, people will be delving deeper into the ongoing discussions about disinformation, about social media, about the role of new platforms like TikTok in this election. The role of vloggers. I saw again outside headquarters the other day these guys who are basically making a living vlogging about and posting their output onto YouTube and where they generate quite a lot of income from advertising. So there's a whole new emerging political economy of online media information, disinformation, which is ripe to be studied. Another phenomenon is the political trends of Philippine youth. On the one hand, one element strongly embracing Leni and seeming to position itself in a progressive space. Another element of youth really being attracted to the effectively authoritarian messaging. And then there's continuing questions about the underlying structures of power in the Philippines, the nature of dynastic politics, the closed nature of the system, and how that system could potentially be opened up. But it's very difficult to see how with Sara and in Malacanang Palace, you're going to see much political will to move in the direction of reducing the power of established, powerful political dynasties any further.

Mai Van Tran [00:26:24]

What about your own research plans? You have any project that you would like to share with us?

Duncan McCargo [00:26:29]

Yeah, I'm doing a roundtable for the Journal of Contemporary Southeast Asia, which will be a short 2500 word pieces that I'm commissioning from various people, including some absolutely fantastic early career scholars. So that should be out later on this year. And I'll also be writing something about my impressions for the journal Pacific Affairs. And yeah, I'm wondering about whether I should go back and write more about the so-called Solid North, the Marcos country, and what is going on there and what it tells us about the Philippines as a whole. So I'm still trying to process the extraordinary impressions and experiences of the past few weeks and try to come up with a way forward in terms of telling a story and offering an analysis of what think is going on. So I'm trying to formulate the next step of what my project would be. But I have to say it's been incredibly both disturbing and stimulating. Few weeks.

Mai Van Tran [00:27:18]

That's a very accurate way to characterize the election, as well as your experience observing the election in the Philippines. Whichever research outcomes that you would be sharing with us in the future, I think we would all be very much looking forward to them. Well, thank you so much for being here with us in this important podcast episode. Duncan My name is Mai Van Tran. Thank you all for joining the Nordic Asia podcast showcasing Nordic collaborations in studying Asia.

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