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Opinion | The Philippines Braces for President Bongbong

When Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was sworn in as president of the Philippines on June 30, he took his oath in front of the former legislative building where his father entered politics and swore on the same Bible used by the elder Mr. Marcos at his 1965 inauguration.

For victims of Mr. Marcos’s tyrannical reign, it was an insulting homage to the dead dictator. But it came as no surprise.

The younger Mr. Marcos rode to a landslide election win with a campaign that leaned heavily on the fiction of a triumphant golden age under his father. It was promoted by a well-oiled disinformation machine that brazenly ignored the thousands of people jailed, tortured or killed by the regime and the estimated $5 billion to $10 billion siphoned off by the Marcos family.

No, truth and accountability will not be hallmarks of Marcos 2.0, and we Filipinos fear what comes next. The world has already seen the consequences of autocrats and their false narratives.

Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” dog whistle appealed to delusions of lost white privilege, eventually leading to the deadly assault by a pro-Trump mob on the U.S. Capitol. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India invokes a mythical golden age of Hindu glory that has worsened communal violence. Vladimir Putin’s repression and military adventures are driven by rose-tinted memories of the Soviet Union and czarist Russia.

Now it’s the Philippines’ turn, and it comes at a vulnerable moment for our country.

Philippine democracy is already under threat after the six-year term of Mr. Marcos’s predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, a bully who spews hatred and insults, and belittles and threatens the press, and whose brutal war on drugs has resulted in thousands of people killed.

Mr. Marcos, now 64 but still known by his childhood nickname, Bongbong, is more agreeable by comparison, even anodyne. He parries anger over his family’s crimes with an easy smile and empty appeals for unity, dismissing critics as dividers. But he is his father’s son.

Mr. Marcos has repeatedly denied or trivialized his family’s crimes and refused to apologize. He stood by as his supporters unleashed a fire hose of historical distortions painting the elder Mr. Marcos as a brilliant leader who lifted the Philippines to heights of peace, prosperity and global leadership unmatched by democratic governments that followed. In one claim promoted by Marcos loyalists, the clan’s legendary wealth came not from plunder but from thousands of tons of gold that were given to the elder Mr. Marcos by a nonexistent Filipino royal family. According to this fairy tale, U.S.-backed liberal elites unjustly seized power and plunged the country into penury and despair.

Missing from this narrative is the huge 1986 People Power uprising by Filipinos fed up with the Marcos family’s arrogance and extravagance. After propping up his corrupt regime for two decades, the United States also turned on Mr. Marcos, fearing that a regime collapse could threaten U.S. military bases in the Philippines. The family — a 28-year-old Bongbong among them — was whisked away aboard U.S. Army helicopters that they had filled with loot and ended up in exile in Hawaii, where the elder Mr. Marcos died three years later.

Dictatorship gave way to a liberal Constitution and multiparty elections. But democracy faced an uphill battle. Entrenched political families lorded over their fiefs, blocked land redistribution and other reforms, and used public office to expand their privileges. Corruption thrived, institutions remained weak, and little was done to address crushing poverty. Many Filipinos began to feel that democracy had let them down.

The remaining Marcoses were allowed to return home in 1991 to face various charges. The younger Mr. Marcos was convicted in the 1990s of failing to file tax returns during the family’s years in power, and his mother, Imelda Marcos, was sentenced in 2018 to 42 years in prison for corruption. Neither served any prison time. They set about resurrecting the family’s image from their northern stronghold of Ilocos Norte, winning office and leveraging their money and networks to forge alliances with national political leaders.

And now we have President Bongbong. Mr. Marcos has never shown himself to be presidential material. He was known as an absentee governor of Ilocos Norte and as a senator was often a no-show. He continues to lie about obtaining a degree from Oxford.

The signs of what sort of president he will be are already emerging. His cabinet appointments include a justice secretary who, as a congressman, accused the liberal opposition of being communists and was instrumental in blocking a new license for the nation’s largest broadcaster after it angered Mr. Duterte with reports critical of him. Mr. Marcos also indicated last fall that he will not aid an International Criminal Court investigation into Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs.

Unfortunately for Filipinos, one of the few remaining institutions that can act as a check on his power — the country’s traditionally rambunctious press — is on the defensive. Under Mr. Duterte, the Philippines has steadily slid in world press freedom rankings. One day before Mr. Marcos’s inauguration, the Duterte administration ordered the shutdown of Rappler, the feisty news site co-founded by the Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, sending a chill through Philippine media. That should suit Mr. Marcos, with his distaste for accountability, just fine. He shunned the media and its inconvenient questions during the campaign and skipped most presidential debates.

He is likely to face continued opposition from the remnants of the democracy constituency that brought down his father’s regime — liberal elements of the Catholic Church, the business community and the middle class — and will undoubtedly do his best to neutralize them. Since his inauguration, pro-Marcos trolls have begun training their sights on opponents, accusing opposition supporters and journalists of being communist allies and a respected historian of being an opposition lackey.

True to form, Mr. Marcos’s otherwise unremarkable inaugural address praised his father’s strength in the face of unspecified foreign threats and boasted of the roads built by his father and bumper rice harvests during that mythical golden age.

The Philippines doesn’t need his brand of selective amnesia. More than ever, it needs a strong commitment to democracy founded on accountability, respect for opposition and the will to confront painful truths.

Those elements were sorely lacking under the first Marcos presidency. Don’t expect the second one to be much different.

Sheila Coronel (@SheilaCoronel) is a co-founder of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the director of the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.

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