The Philippines could have elected a human rights' lawyer as president. It chose a former dictator's son instead.

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  • The Philippines has elected Ferdinand "Bong Bong" Marcos Jr. as president, per an unofficial tally.

  • Marcos Jr., who won by a landslide, is the son of a dictator who ruled through brutal martial law.

  • Experts told Insider how Marcos got voters to instead remember those years as a "golden age."

The polls have closed for the 2022 presidential elections in the Philippines and the country appears set for the resurgence of a political dynasty that once ruled with an iron fist for over two decades.

With around 98.27% of precincts accounted for as of 4.30 p.m. Thursday in Manila, an unofficial tally points to a landslide victory for Ferdinand "Bong Bong" Marcos Jr., the son of a toppled dictator who was president from 1965 to 1986.

The result has already been met with protests and accusations of voter fraud, though the ballots are overwhelmingly in Marcos Jr.'s favor. The 64-year-old currently holds more than 30 million votes, while his rival, the incumbent Vice President Leni Robredo, has a vote count of less than 15 million.

Marcos Jr.'s staggering lead could come as a surprise to outsiders, given his track record and family history. He's also been running against Robredo, a 57-year-old human rights lawyer and economist who spearheaded bills on spending disclosure and tax transparency in the corruption-weary country.

For Filipinos, Marcos Jr.'s win is likely no surprise, given that he already led by a wide margin in opinion surveys conducted months ago.

Political scientists who spoke to Insider explained some of the critical factors of his success: his powerful disinformation campaign, his allies among the political elite, and the reshaping of his family's image that began decades ago.

The "Golden Age" of martial rule

Describing the period of his father's harsh rule as a "golden age" has been core to Marcos Jr's presidential campaign, Maria Ela Atienza, a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines and the Editor of the Philippine Political Science Journal, told Insider.

"If we look closely at his campaign, he's not really talking about himself," said Atienza. "He's really bringing in nostalgia for what he describes as the 'golden years' of the Philippines."

Standing with his family, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. waves to the crowd after his inauguration as the President of the Philippines on December 30, 1965

The strategy has been dubbed "authoritarian nostalgia" by some experts. Remembering martial law as a time of prosperity for the Philippines requires one to overlook a plethora of human rights abuses that also took place then, they said.

According to Amnesty International, Marcos Jr's father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., had overseen years of torture, killings, and the displacement of thousands. He was finally overthrown in a 1986 "People Power" revolution.

Marcos Jr.'s characterization of his father has tried to scrub off those reputational stains. He's refused to apologize for his father's crimes, saying he's not responsible for them and defending the dictator as someone who protected the Philippines from external threats.

Through a rigorous image campaign on YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok, Marcos Jr. and his supporters have presented his father's rule to younger voters as an era marked by a booming economy, infrastructure developments, and well-maintained law and order.

However, Atienza said the facts and records point instead to a period of economic downturn, malnutrition, high unemployment, and languishing agricultural industries. The Philippines' economic growth plummeted to as low as -7.32% in those years, and the country's external debt soared from $360 million in 1961 — four years before the dictator came into power — to $28.26 billion by the time he was ousted in 1986.

Today, the Marcos family still owes more than $6.25 billion to the Philippines for what authorities have defined as "ill-gotten" wealth and unpaid taxes. However, Marcos Jr. has dismissed the charges as "fake news," and there are fears he may squash the case against his family once he becomes president.

A telephone hurtles through the air to join a portrait painting of President Ferdinand Marcos that is being lowered from the balcony of Malacanang Palace by protestors llooting the Presidential Palace, Manila, 25th February 1986. The mass demonstrations, which came to be known as the People Power Revolution, or EDSA Revolution, toppled Marcos after four days.
The People Power revolution of 1986 toppled Marcos' father in four days, and the family fled to Hawaii for three years.Alex Bowie/Getty Images

Part of the reason voters have ignored the blemishes on the Marcos family's reputation is disappointment felt in the years after Marcos Sr. was removed from power, Atienza said.

"There were very high expectations that the economy will develop, the political system will be truly democratic. But since 1986, the road to democratization has been difficult," she told Insider.

And while the economy has improved, the benefits have not trickled down to poorer Filipinos, she added.

"There's a tendency for people, especially those who are younger and were not affected by martial law during their time, who would rather go back to what they call a more orderly system," Atienza said. "After all, they said they were not affected by the attacks from the military and the police."

A comeback spanning decades

Another key to Marcos Jr.'s victory has been vice-presidential candidate Sara Duterte, the 43-year-old daughter of the Philippines' incumbent strongman, President Rodrigo Duterte.

In the Philippines, the president and vice-president are elected separately and can represent different parties, although candidates can negotiate to support one another.

Duterte and Marcos Jr., both from powerful political dynasties, did just that in November, with the former dropping out of the presidential race to vie for the number two spot in solidarity with Marcos Jr. As of Wednesday, Duterte holds an unbeatable lead in the vice-presidential race.

Sara Duterte gestures to supporters during her last campaign rally before the election on May 07, 2022 in Paranaque, Metro Manila, Philippines.
Sara Duterte, the daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte, has served two stints as mayor of Davao, her family's political stronghold, and one term as vice-mayor.Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Ronald Holmes, a professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila and president of polling firm Pulse Asia, told Insider that the Marcos-Duterte alliance allowed Marcos Jr. to cover regions where support for him is weak, but sentiment for Duterte is strong, like in the vote-rich central province of Cebu.

Getting to partner with a Duterte isn't a political feat that Marcos Jr. could have achieved overnight; he's worked for decades to re-climb the political ladder.

Marcos Jr. was allowed to return to the Philippines in 1989 after his father's death in exile. He and his family soon started sowing the seeds for a return to power, re-establishing ties with local leaders in regions where support for them still lingered, Holmes said.

Their efforts started paying off as early as 1992, when his mother, Imelda Marcos, ran for the presidency, Holmes noted. "She had more than double-digits in support. More than 10%. Which is remarkable because it was just six years after 1986," he said.

"And you're talking about the person who was so ostentatious that globally she is known as the one who had 3,000 pairs of shoes," Holmes said.

Rival presidential candidates Fidel Ramos (L) and Imelda Marcos shake hands after a prayer meeting 10 May, one day before the national elections. Ramos was instrumental in ousting from power his cousin and then president Ferdinand Marcos during the 1986 people power revolution which brought Corazon Aquino to power.
Imelda Marcos (right) spent nearly 15 years as a member of Congress after her husband's death and exile.STR/AFP via Getty Images

And it was in those early years that the Marcos family started rebranding itself, Holmes said.

Marcos Jr. later won a congressional seat in his father's old stronghold — Ilocos Norte — and became governor and senator between 1998 and 2016, although Atienza said his political career was unremarkable for a presidential candidate.

In 2016, he ran for the vice presidency, narrowly losing to Robredo by 250,000 votes. Marcos Jr. spent the next five years claiming that the election was "stolen" from him, though the Supreme Court ruled that the vote had been fair.

That narrative has fed into a malicious campaign aimed at Robredo, who's been called the "biggest victim of disinformation or negative messaging" in the Philippines by fact-checkers.

False online claims about Robredo have ranged from her flashing a satanic symbol at youth volunteers to her daughter being connected to sexually explicit material.

Presidential candidate Vice President Leni Robredo talks in front of supporters during the last day of their campaign in Ayala, Makati City, Philippines on May 7, 2022.
To her detriment, Vice President Leni Robredo has not addressed many of the false claims levied against her online, Holmes told Insider.Ryan Eduard Benaid/NurPhoto via Getty Images

On the other hand, Marcos Jr. has benefited from the disinformation, with fact-checking group saying that 92% of flagged false information is favorable to him. These include false claims of him receiving endorsements from celebrities or heads of state.

Atienza said that Marcos Jr., who's shunned presidential debates and media interviews, has been vague about how he will run the country or fulfill promises like lowering food prices and unifying the country.

And while he may seek to continue President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs, it remains to be seen if he'll forge and maintain relationships with the police and military the way Duterte has, she said.

Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. speaks to supporters during his last campaign rally before the election on May 07, 2022 in Paranaque, Metro Manila, Philippines. Candidates for the May 9 presidential elections held their final campaign rallies two days before millions of Filipinos head to the polls to elect the country's new set of leaders. The son and namesake of ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who was accused and charged of amassing billions of dollars of ill-gotten wealth as well as committing tens of thousands of human rights abuses during his autocratic rule, has mounted a hugely popular campaign to return his family name to power. Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. enjoys a wide lead in opinion polls against his main rival, Vice President Leni Robredo, owing to a massive disinformation campaign that has effectively rebranded the Marcos dictatorship as a "golden age." Marcos is running alongside Davao city Mayor Sara Duterte, the daughter of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte who is the subject of an international investigation for alleged human rights violations during his bloody war on drugs.
Marcos is often referred to by his childhood nickname, "Bong Bong," which is a common moniker given to those who share the same name as their father, Atienza said.Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Some signs indicate that tensions concerning Marcos Jr.'s rule have already taken root among the presumptive president-elect's critics. One political expert who declined an interview with Insider cited the risk of speaking out against Marcos.

"While there are a lot of fears about another Marcos presidency, what we are also curious to know is how he will actually govern, that's still a very grey area," Atienza said. "We don't really know much about 'Bong Bong' Marcos as his own person. We only know him as the son of Ferdinand Marcos."

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