May 3, 2022
MANILA – Next week, the Philippines will go to the polls yet again. And make no mistake: This is the most consequential elections in contemporary Philippine history. Or, at least, since the 1969 elections, which saw Ferdinand Marcos Sr. becoming the first post-war Filipino leader to be re-elected to the presidency.
And this brings us to the concept of “path dependency.” Readers who have watched the sci-fi thriller, “The Adjustment Bureau” (2011), should know what I’m referring to here: Our future options as individuals are often shaped by single important decisions we make in critical moments of our lives. And guess what? The same also applies to societies.
After six years in power, outgoing President Duterte has managed to effectively undermine our liberal democratic institutions, yet he has failed to supplant them with functional and enduring ones.
The upshot is a perilous interregnum, where the old order has perished without a new one bursting into existence. Whoever becomes our next president will be in a distinct position to shape our political system, and our fate as a nation, for generations to come.
To truly appreciate how crucial our upcoming elections are, we need to revisit a similar juncture almost half a century earlier, where, as in today, a Marcos was also chasing the highest office of the land.
Had Marcos Sr. lost in that highly contested 1969 presidential election, which the international media universally dubbed as one of the dirtiest and most violent ever, our country would have likely been on a radically different trajectory.
It’s hard to say for sure whether Sergio Osmena Jr., the losing candidate in that fateful election, would have turned out as our own version of a Franklin D. Roosevelt or, to use more “oriental” examples, Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore). Anyone who has bothered to read Benedict Anderson’s classic essay, “Cacique Democracy” (1988), would be viscerally skeptical of our landed elite.
To be fair, we saw how in South Korea feudal lords transformed into “chaebols” (think of Samsung), namely world-class manufacturers. Japan’s “zaibatsus,” and their rehabilitated post-war counterparts, followed a similar path decades earlier.
Could the Philippines have followed a similar path under leaders such as Osmeña Jr. and, likely not long after, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.? Maybe, especially if they had adopted optimal trade and industrial policy packages of developmental states in our neighborhood. Ninoy Aquino, a versatile journalist, was likely familiar with the successful economic strategies of our neighbors.
The Aquinos have clearly shown greater appreciation for institution-building than the man, who has come to shape our history over the past half a century. Had the 1969 elections, which saw Osmeña Jr. bizarrely losing in his own bailiwick, been truly fair and competitive, this would have been the likely outcome: There would have been no martial law and more than a decade of plutocratic dictatorship under a faux royal dynasty, which completely altered the trajectory of this nation.
Instead, the Philippines would have likely followed in the footsteps of more successful ex-Spanish colonies such as Chile, if not post-autocratic South Korea and Taiwan. From one of the world’s fastest-growing economies in the early 1960s, the Philippines descended into the ranks of bankrupt economies in the early 1980s. And it was no less than Marcos Sr., our “best president ever,” who oversaw this arc of long-term decline in the Philippines’ fortunes.
The damage to our institutions was so total and unmitigated that we are still living with the legacy of those dark days, including billions of dollars of odious debt contracted by Marcos cronies. The dictator’s successors, beginning with Corazon Aquino, didn’t start from zero: They started from negative ten!
Thanks to the countless shortcomings of post-Edsa administrations, and the unfathomable divisions among the opposition forces, the country is now on the cusp of electing another Marcos to the presidency. And should Ferdinand Marcos Jr. win, we will likely see constitutional change and a long-term overhaul of our political system, which would dictate the future of generations of Filipinos to come.
But should opposition leader Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo pull off yet another electoral upset, she would be in a historic position to prevent a century of Marcosian hegemony—and, accordingly, spell a new dawn in the country’s democratic struggle. So dear reader, when you vote, think of the welfare of generations of Filipinos to come.