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Ideas vs. Realities in Philippine Politics

Last September 21st, thousands of Filipinos remembered the 50th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by the late president Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. Martial law lasted for 14 years, from 1972 to 1986. During the anniversary, there were street protests, vigils, exhibits, testimonies by survivors, and other public expressions recalling the human rights abuses of the Marcos regime. Over 11,000 martial law victims have been officially recognized and have received compensation from Marcos wealth hidden in Swiss bank accounts. Human rights groups estimate more than 100,000 were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. The words “never again” and “never forget” echoed in the streets and social media weeks before and after this tragic anniversary.

A troubling reality, however, collides with this commemoration. Last May, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., the son of the former dictator, was elected as the president of the Philippines, with 31 million votes compared to 14.7 million votes of his closest rival, former vice president Leni Robredo. During the election campaign, those who opposed the younger Marcos’s candidacy focused on the memories of the martial law era. The Church and other concerned groups warned of historical distortions that projected the martial law period as a golden age marked by prosperity and peace. Despite these efforts to discredit his candidacy, Marcos still won the presidency.

During the recent martial law anniversary, supporters of the newly elected president called on Filipinos to “move on.” An opposition senator countered by saying, “How can those who were unjustly detained, tortured, and murdered move on when there is no remorse, not any act of atonement, no acceptance and recognition of wrongdoing on their part?” While the call to “move on” may appeal to some, it was gravely hurtful and offensive to those wounded by martial law.

This debate about moving on uncovers a complicated truth. In an archipelago of 7,000 islands, martial law has a different meaning for every person. Filipinos’ personal memories of martial law depended on where they lived, family experiences, and political affiliations. Those who lived in Metro Manila may have witnessed upheavals and harsh repression during martial law. There are places that enjoyed relative peace and even prosperity because they were governed by relatives or allies of Marcos. While student activists, journalists, political rivals, and some prominent families experienced imprisonment, torture, extra-judicial killing, or exile abroad, other families did not directly experience oppression. Some even benefited from land reform and agricultural programs of the government. Those who lived in areas where there was banditry and lawlessness were thankful for the order and safety brought about by curfews and military patrols during martial law.

When considering how Filipinos are to remember martial law, we have to avoid the two extremes of a “forgive and forget” approach and a one-dimensional presentation of that period, either as the dark ages or a golden age. Rather than insist on only one martial law narrative for the country, there has to be an honest recognition of the diversity of experiences of Filipinos who lived through that time. This recognition is not meant to dismiss or disvalue the suffering of martial law victims; rather, it calls for more effort to foster active solidarity with them from all sectors of society, including those had a more benign martial law experience.

There also has to be a more realistic approach to Philippine politics. Filipinos are very forgiving people. The country has maintained warm ties with its former colonizers, such as Spain, the United States, and Japan, even if abuses, discrimination, and wars marked their respective colonial periods. Politicians who are tainted by scandals can rehabilitate their careers later in the future. Some Filipinos believe that the younger Marcos will try to be better than his father and not commit the same abuses of the past. The image of a son seeking to redeem the tainted Marcos name in national politics is a compelling narrative that resonates with most Filipinos who believe in second chances. Voters were willing to give the Marcos family a chance at redemption, even at the cost of ignoring accountability for injustices in the past.

A related reality that also needs to be acknowledged is that patronage politics remain a crucial factor in local politics. Efforts to pass an anti-dynasty bill have failed because the legislators who are needed to pass the bill are members of influential political families. Philippine politics is almost always about persons and families rather than issues. The critical question for every voter is not which candidate will promote the common good but which political dynasty can help one’s family in times of need. The Marcoses are known for their generosity to loyal supporters, and it is no surprise that most Filipino voters chose the Marcos family brand.

Many of the country’s clergy engaged in a partisan campaign against the candidacy of Marcos, Jr. His landslide victory came as a shock and raised questions of whether the Church had become disconnected from the flock it was supposed to lead and guide. There is some truth to this. Pope Francis reminds us in Evangeli Gaudium that “realities are greater than ideas.” The local clergy that campaigned against Marcos rallied around ideas such as democracy, justice, and integrity but ignored realities such as political dynasties, patronage politics, the forgiving nature of Filipinos, and the diversity of martial law experiences.

The election of President Marcos seems to have stunned the Church into silence. More than a hundred days after the presidential inauguration, the bishops’ conference has not come out with a statement on the elections or the new government administration. The hierarchy seems to have momentarily lost its political voice after massively misreading its flock. We hope that the Church’s leadership will eventually learn from its missteps, grasp the realities and challenges of Philippine politics, and recover its voice to prophetically and prudently engage the present Marcos administration.