The Marcos dynasty, and the importance of keeping leadership in the family
Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos’ election as president of the Philippines makes us think that celebrity plays a key role in politics, rather than ideas. Sad.
Learning that Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr is to be the Philippines’ next president started me thinking about hereditary leadership beyond actual inherited monarchies, and why they seem so popular.
People have been calling Ferdinand Jr “Bongbong” for at least 50 years or so, so let’s just go with them on this one.
Bongbong ran for president in that island nation and he crushed his opposition — massively. (Two of his sisters are in the country’s Congress and another is apparently a drummer for an indie band.) It is a real question about what triggered this astonishing rush to embrace a man who is heir to his father’s (and mother’s) political record, but who has now apparently transcended the elder Marcos’ reputations for cruelty, corruption, moral turpitude, murder and incompetence.
In an odd, perverse way, Bongbong’s success has come by milking the celebrity of being next in line from a globally branded family. Back in the 1980s, it was hard to avoid hearing about Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, their political excesses, her collection of every pair of expensive shoes ever made as long as they were showy and ostentatious, and their surprising exile in which they ended up living on an estate in Hawaii — once the country’s citizens were sufficiently fed up with the pair’s corrupt, criminal shenanigans.
Of course, like most Southeast Asian nations, the population of the Philippines is a young one, and it is a reasonable supposition that many of the people who voted for Bongbong had not even been born when mom and dad decamped from one set of islands to another back in 1986.
Bongbong’s political resume is not exactly stellar, but at least it was deeper than Donald Trump’s when he ran for office. Bongbong had actually been in the country’s parliament and had been governor of one of the less important states, for a spell.
Marcos senior, of course, had been a genuine hero in World War 2, and that history was still recent enough at the time for it to have been a core element in his political rise; that, and the fact he seemed to give his fellow citizens a sense of pride in their nation with little or no tugging of the forelock in the direction of the country’s former colonial masters — the US — from 1898 to 1946, let alone the 400 years of Spanish rule.
But the avarice bug truly got to the couple and Imelda Marcos demonstrated her real skill was in building up a gargantuan collection of clothes and shoes, and then showing them off at lavish parties.
Perhaps some of this activity is actually politics and governing as performance. Filipinos seem to warm to politicians who can sing and entertain a crowd, perhaps from the understanding that politicians are not really meant to be serious policy wonks or deep thinkers about national issues.
Consider the most recent president, Rodrigo Duterte, a man who has basically made — or at least seriously embellished — his reputation by boasting about how many drug dealers he has had killed, including some, apparently, by his own hand, as he tooled around the streets, armed, in a presidential jeep.
Meanwhile, right next door in Indonesia, a soldier turned businessman turned defence minister, Prabowo Subianto, is going to run for president there in 2024, despite his rather chequered career in the military. And as things stand, analysts say he is likely to win, too.
Now, neither of these two nations are small, inconspicuous collections of islands. The Philippines has at least 80 million inhabitants and has a plentiful commercial agricultural and aquacultural base and boasts one of the finest natural harbours in the world at Subic Bay, as well as being the original home of the Jollibee fast food empire.
Subic was a major US naval base until 1991 and is now the site of a large light industrial zone and free port. Both the Philippines and Indonesia flank one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes between East Asia and the Middle East and Europe — a route that brings in much of East Asia’s petroleum from the Persian Gulf.
Indonesia is even larger in size and population, with hundreds of islands and a population of 275 million people. It has vast quantities of natural resources including tin and oil, as well as rubber and rice cultivation. Importantly, the country produces much of the world’s palm oil — the product that is crucial for everything from shampoo and soap to cooking oil, along with a multitude of other uses.
Hundreds of years ago, some islands in the archipelago were the fabled Spice Islands, and access to those crucial products was fought over by Portuguese, Spanish, Arab, English and Dutch navies, adventurers, pirates and traders.
South Africans will recall that Cape Town was established by the Dutch trading company, the Dutch East India Company, or VOC, as a “refreshment station” for the crews of its ships headed to or from those Spice Islands. Indonesia was also the original home of many of the enslaved people brought to the Cape, and whose descendants — with other populations — became a major share of the genetic inheritance of the people who are now referred to as coloured, or more recently, the Camissa people.
Prabowo Subianto is elder son and power-broking heir of the late Prof Sumitro Djokohadikusumo. The professor’s heritage was from among minor Javanese nobility and he had the unusual opportunity — at a time when the entire East Indies was a Dutch colonial empire — to travel to the Netherlands in the 1930s to study for a PhD in economics, just as World War 2 was breaking out in Europe.
After the war, and when the Japanese occupation of the Indies had ended, he was a member of the provisional Indonesian government that negotiated an end to the fighting between the indigenous Indonesians and the Dutch, and the end of the Dutch colonial empire in the islands.
Thereafter, he had held senior political/economic posts under presidents Sukarno and Suharto, with a brief break as he joined the forces of the rebel government based in Sulawesi and central Sumatra, attempting to overthrow Sukarno’s increasingly erratic regime. (In case one is wondering, that rebellion had received some discreet aid from the US in the late 1950s, but it was eventually crushed by the Indonesian military.)
While Prof Sumitro went into political Coventry for several years as a result of his political dalliance, his connections in the West, as well as his economics nous and policy skills, were too valuable an asset to lose. So, soon enough, he was back in government after a period of exile in London, once General Suharto had eased his predecessor out of his job. Meanwhile, his son, Prabowo, had attended the American School in London.
While various of Sumitro’s children went into business, Prabowo was headed for a military career that eventually included some less-than-auspicious command decisions in what was then the occupied territory of East Timor (before its independence) and in Irian Jaya (the western half of the island of New Guinea). At one point, those military actions led him to being banned from entry into the US due to charges of human rights abuses. Nonetheless, he now serves as the country’s defence minister.
The real question facing Indonesians is whether they will pick a “man of action” in their 2024 election who has a degree of charisma and a major amount of name recognition, a brand, over any other possible candidates.
That he is the scion of one of the country’s more widely known Javanese public figures and would have access to the financial resources of family members in business, will no doubt assist in his ambitions as well.
The Indonesians do not, apparently, put as much store in singing politicians as Filipinos do. (South Africans might begin to wonder, about now, whether Duduzane Zuma sings as well as his father does, and if that would be a real asset to him in his increasingly obvious political ambitions.)
But Prabowo’s lineage back through the Javanese traditional elite can only help him once the campaigning begins, as well as his reputation as a military commander who took no nonsense from any of those sometimes rebellious tribes in the outer islands. It should be noted that a majority of the country’s population is ethnically Javanese, living mostly on their overcrowded home island, and that ethnic tie cannot hurt him in his hunt for the presidency.
But thinking about both Bongbong and Prabowo should lead us to think about the interplay between celebrity and politics — and where dynasties fit in as part of that question. It is far too easy to stand in judgement of this pattern if one comes from the US, Canada or France, among other advanced nations.
Even after the father-son and grandfather-grandson pairings of the two Adams presidents and the two Harrisons, Americans should also recall the Bush family’s political run began with Prescott Bush as a senator from Connecticut, who was the father of President George Herbert Walker Bush of Texas, and who was also the father of two sons, one of whom also became president, and a second one who had hoped to achieve that same position while he had been governor of Florida.
The Bush lineage’s efforts at the presidential level may be over, but some of the new generation in that family will undoubtedly try to achieve political success, albeit lower down the pecking order.
The Kennedy family has had multiple generations of successful politicians too, even if the current generation’s elected member of Congress has turned into an anti-vaxxer. Then there is the saga of Mario Cuomo and Andrew Cuomo as governors of New York. We can even begin to shudder at the thought that at least one of Donald Trump’s wild-eyed children is beginning to fix on a political career as well.
Canada, of course, has had a father and son duo as prime minister, while in France, Jean-Marie Le Pen and Marine Le Pen had (so far, unsuccessfully) hoped to achieve presidential power during two succeeding generations.
In Japan, many members of parliament — and some prime ministers, including powerful ones like Shigeru Yoshida — have had successful political forebears, while China’s Xi Jinping’s father had been a senior technocratic-style political figure until he had been rusticated during the Cultural Revolution.
And how can we forget the three-generation run in North Korea of the socialist monarchy founded by Kim il-Sung in 1945?
Meanwhile, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Haiti, Kenya and others have all had a parental offspring, spouse or widow (or even cousin) taking over as top dog. In South Africa — both during and after apartheid — political families have sometimes followed the same scenario… or at least tried to.
And none of that roster of nations even considers the question of hereditary winners where elections are irrelevant, as in the Gulf states or Morocco, Jordan and Eswatini.
So what is it that allows one generation to piggyback on the political fortunes of a prior one? For a start, of course, there is the familiar and easy name recognition and the realisation that a candidate is standing for election in the tradition of “service” (or at least the hope on the part of a candidate that such an idea can be sold to voters).
A candidate riding on his or her forebears’ coattails has also had the benefit of watching the political game being played since they were infants, eventually taking over a parent’s or a spouse’s political and financial networks to benefit their own political rise. This is probably more important in places where a good seat at the political table is financially remunerative than it is in countries where there are other avenues to wealth and fame.
But politicians now seem, more and more, to thrive on the basis of celebrity. Such wide recognition can lead to political contributions, endorsements from yet other celebrities and electronic influencers, and increase chances to appear in the media — especially on electronic media — as talking heads and commentators, and as the applause lines of their other public appearances get repeated ad nauseam in the media as well.
What all of this seems to indicate is the decreasing importance of ideas and thought-through policy proposals and more focus on an ability to deliver gut-punching sound-bites that fill up the conversational space.
None of this drives significant, substantive public discourse at all. But this is how one gets a Bongbong as the president of a nation of 80 million people. Or a Donald Trump, for that matter.
It is almost enough to make one wish for Plato’s philosopher king and his wizened council of elders. DM