It was no surprise, and should have been expected. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. not only expressed his unqualified support for the NTF-ELCAC during a campaign sortie in his family’s Ilocos domain. He also pledged to increase its current 17 billion-peso budget should he be elected President this May.
The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict is the principal military component of the “whole of nation” counter-insurgency strategy of the Duterte regime.
In November 2021 Marcos Junior opposed the reduction of its budget that was being proposed by some senators who were justifiably concerned over the often lethal consequences of its labeling legal workers’, farmers’, women’s and youth organizations communist “fronts” and their activist members as NPA guerillas or Communist Party functionaries. He argued that it might compromise the government campaign against insurgency.
Never mind his echoing in the same breath the contradiction between the generals’ claim that insurgency is no longer a serious threat to the ruling system and their expectations of, and demands for, a bigger counter-insurgency budget to quell it.
It made sense for him to support one of the military’s most cherished programs not only because it was its guns and bayonets that enabled his father Ferdinand Senior to install himself as dictator and kept him in Malacanang for 13 more years (1973-1986) after his term as President was supposed to end. It was also because he too will need its support should he make it to the Presidency this year.
If elected President, expect his policies in such areas as dealing with social unrest and the armed social movements to be influenced and shaped by the military’s perspectives and interests. Among other consequences, it will mean the persistence and worsening of the human rights crisis that has constricted what little remains of what passes for democracy in the Philippines.
His pandering to the military is also driven by the logic of its having been, since 1972, and no thanks to his late dictator father, a major power broker in Philippine politics whose support is crucial to any candidate for President and to any regime in power. Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo is equally aware of the latter fact, hence her also expressing her support for the NTF-ELCAC. But she did say that its powers should not be abused.
No such reservation fell from Marcos’ lips despite a number of social and political activists in his northern Luzon turf, who are armed only with their advocacies and the courage of their convictions, being “red-tagged,” threatened and harassed, and even forced to “surrender” as NPA guerillas by government agents.
But that too was as predictable as the sun’s setting in the West. Marcos after all cannot be expected to depart from his late father’s far right view that repression rather than reform would halt the rebellions, social protest, and disaffection with government that have been endemic in these isles since the Spanish colonial period.
What is not exactly expected, however, is the implication in his campaign slogans that he is in agreement with the view that is rapidly gaining ground among the citizenry despite the efforts of regime trolls and its hacks in print and broadcast media that the country is far from being the earthly paradise the Duterte regime, its bureaucrats and its apologists claim it to be.
Marcos Junior describes himself as a “unifying leader.” That specious claim presumes that it is such a President the country currently needs. It implies that the present Duterte dispensation is not a unifying one, and has been severely divisive. It also flies in the face of the regime’s triumphalism over the results of the surveys that show overwhelming approval for Mr. Duterte and company, which suggests mass unity behind and support for how Mr. Duterte has been running the country during the last five-and-a-half years of his troubled and troubling term of office.
Marcos’ appropriating his father’s 1965 “This nation can be great again” campaign slogan is equally telling. It reminds his northern base of Ferdinand Senior’s fabled oratorical skills, but ironically also recalls that those times when this country was indeed great include not only the defeat of Spanish colonial forces by the armies of the Katipunan. This nation was also universally cheered for overthrowing the Marcos Senior dictatorship in 1986 and forcing him and his family into exile. But it is in effect also saying, again in contradiction of regime claims, that the country has yet to reach that desired goal: the “greatness” that in so many words the power elite, the big bureaucrats, the trolls and Mr. Duterte’s cohorts are saying the Philippines has achieved under his watch.
Another of Marcos Junior’s campaign slogans is similarly if only indirectly critical of the regime of his Vice Presidential running mate’s own father. His “together we can rise again” (sama-sama tayong babangon muli) slogan is based on the premise that the entire nation is prostrate, down and nearly out, and needs rescuing from — what else? — the current administration.
Together with Mr. Duterte’s less than charitable assessment of Marcos Junior’s character and leadership qualities, these departures from the regime’s view of things help explain the former’s refusal to explicitly endorse his candidacy despite his alliance with Sara Duterte.
But what are we to make of all this? Does it mean that a Marcos II administration will not be halfway as bad as many think it will be, given his disagreement with some of the dearest assumptions of the President he hopes to succeed?
Not necessarily. If there is anything the electorate should have learned by now, the candidates for office in this country, or at least most of them, will promise and say anything to get elected. Marcos is merely being realistic in his implied criticism of the current regime, the incompetence and corruption of which are far, far too much in evidence to be denied by anyone with an IQ higher than that of a door knob’s.
By doing so he is trying to cover all the bases, including tapping into the simmering though silent resentment that the regime’s failings have generated among an increasingly disaffected because long-suffering populace.
What matters more than the promises of candidates is their track record, their background, and the interests behind them as well as their own that they are likely to protect and advance once they are in office. Mr. Duterte’s own failure to make good on such of his 2016 promises as authentic change and an end to corruption and the drug problem is instructive. Promises can either be forgotten because insincerely made, or else prevented from fulfillment by unfavorable circumstances, by sheer incompetence, lack of will, or other factors.
But we can assume in Marcos Junior’s case that his promised support for the NTF-ELCAC is the one thing he is likely to be true to if he wins power, given what he has learned from his father’s military-dependent rule and his own awareness of how crucial military support can be to the survival of any regime.
Mr Duterte and company may detest his take on the present state of the country they have been running into the ground since 2016. What Marcos Junior is doing is just tactics. He may not even be aware of the implicit messages in his slogans. But they could resonate enough among his supporters and those critical of the Duterte regime to drive a wedge into the Marcos/Duterte/Estrada/Macapagal-Arroyo Axis.
First published in BusinessWorld.