The Marcos clan in the Philippines is getting a second wind of sorts as a strongman dynamic courses through neighboring Indonesia.
As I wrote last week, Suharto-era General Prabowo Subianto isn't having early indications that he lost the July 9 presidential election to Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, who's known as Jokowi. With the election commission's final vote tally expected tomorrow, the third-largest democracy is holding its political breath to see if Prabowo digs in for a long and market-shaking leadership battle -- one pundits fear may spark protests akin to those in 1998 that dispatched dictator Suharto.
All this makes for fascinating watching in the Philippines where the family of Ferdinand Marcos is plotting its own comeback. Facebook and the Twittersphere are pulsating with chatter about how Prabowo clawing his way into power at any cost might embolden the former dictator's son, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., to run for president in 2016.
As Rappler.com, a Filipino Huffington Post, asked in a recentpiece headlined "Marcos, Prabowo and a Failure of Memory": "With a possible Prabowo win and persistent talk of Bongbong Marcos for 2016, are Indonesia and the Philippines in danger of an authoritarian throwback?" Social media platforms are awash in efforts to woo young voters who might not know how Marcos plundered their future from 1965 to 1986. When President Benigno Aquino gets kudos for winning his nation's first-ever investment-grade ratings, he's really getting credit for attacking the corrupt and dysfunction wrought by Marcos Inc.
On recent trips to Manila, I've been struck by the steady rise of Marcos nostalgia. For many young Filipinos, the Marcos clan is more the nation's answer to the Kardashians than the root of its poverty and economic backwardness. Ferdinand's shoe-loving widow, Imelda, is now in Congress, his son, Bongbong, is a senator and his daughter is a provincial governor. Pundits worry young voters will be wowed by the Marcos glitz and bling and forget the pain it exacted on 107 million people. Imelda makes no secret of her desire to get the family back into Malacanang, the presidential palace, come 2016. Question is, will the Marcos gang find inspiration in Indonesia's own drama?
"The ongoing uncertainty over Jokowi's victory in Indonesia represents a huge challenge to the legacy of democracy in Southeast Asia," says Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science professor at the Ateneo de Manila University. "After
all, Indonesia has served as a beacon of democracy in the region and in the wider Islamic world. Prabowo's strong presidential bid -- and potential challenge to Jokowi's assumption of power -- shows how powerful is the legacy and political capital of the deep state, and how people continue to sympathize with the rhetoric of 'strong leadership' -- precisely what the Marcoses in the Philippines, and supporters of Suharto and Prabowo in Indonesia have been touting."
Heydarian's gut feeling for 2016? "I think the Marcos bid for the top post doesn't look promising. The roster is pretty tight, and that might force him to consider the vice presidency instead." But even that would mark a spectacular and disturbing rehabilitation for a family that siphoned untold billions of dollars from the national treasury and drove a resource-rich nation into the ground.
In the 1960s, the Philippines was destined to be the Japan of Southeast Asia. Today, for all Aquino's success, it's ranked behind India, Djibouti and Colombia in Transparency International corruption perceptions index. If it’s glitz and the bling young Filipinos want then consider the Michelangelos, Rembrandts and Van Goghs the Marcoses spent their future on. Manila it trying to reclaim an estimated 150 masterpieces Imelda and his kids claim they don't have.
No one knows how far Prabowo is prepared to go to return a touch of Suharto to Indonesia's Merdeka Palace. But Filipinos are finding out all too well the lengths to which Marcos Inc. will go to reclaim its former glory. And nothing good would come if that.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
To contact the editor on this story:
Nisid Hajari at email@example.com