Democracy and the Left in the Philippines

Daniel Rudin

August 10, 2022

In the Philippine presidential election in May, Bongbong Marcos Jr., the son of Ferdinand Marcos, received nearly thirty million votes, representing 59% of the total, far more even than Duterte in 2016. The main contender, Leni Robredo, received less than half Marcos’ total. In a response penned for Sublation Magazine, Eunice Barbara C. Novio attributed the overwhelming victory to manipulation. Novio’s article added a caveat to the Maoist formula that some voters “vacillate” between “democracy and imperialism” — in this case, the “old elites have discovered in social and digital media new tools to maintain power.”

It is counterintuitive to claim that the popular vote does not reflect public sentiment — an analysis the Left nevertheless often prefers when it comes to Philippine elections. Joseph Scalice, for instance, has argued Marcos’s win arises out of a historical “mass despair at the possibility of a democratic solution to the country’s immense social ills.” Rather than admit that thirty million votes constitute a strong mandate, Scalice claims the electorate overtly embraces dictatorship, which must be countered by independent working-class organizing: “The fight for democracy must become the fight for socialism.”

Another example can be found in the Twitter post shared by Walden Bello entitled “FUCK YOU, MARCOS, THE BATLLE HAS JUST BEGUN.” In his post, Bello claimed the president’s administration would fail to fulfill its promises, undermining its coalition. This would in turn produce a legitimation crisis and split the bureaucracy, military, and electoral base. Considering the coming destabilization, Bello believes that “the conditions under heaven are excellent” for growing a democratic socialist mass base in the Philippines.

Slavoj Žižek said something similar after the election of Trump. And yet, if the decline of social democratic politics worldwide is any indicator, the circumstances for organizing socialist politics seem less than ideal. The Philippine Left is in no better shape than SYRIZA, Podemos, Sanders, or Corbyn, and one need look no further than the poor showing of Bello's Partido Laban ng Masa (Fight of the Masses) at the polls to gauge the chances for social democracy in the Philippines. Bello garnered only ninety thousand votes for his vice-presidential run.

Journalist Manuel Quezon more reasonably attributes the success of Marcos to his running mate, Sara Duterte — Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter — who was elected vice-president by a landslide.[1] Quezon believes Marcos boosted Duterte in Luzon, while Duterte amplified her running partner’s votes in Mindanao — in certain instances, by a margin of more than 1000% since the 2016 VP election that Marcos narrowly lost to Robredo.

Even if the Duterte-Marcos coalition fractures, a constitutional crisis is unlikely. Philippine politics lacks party discipline, and congresspeople often gravitate to the winning coalition. In the event that the government is significantly delegitimized, does Bello expect to ally with Robredo’s discredited Liberal Party? Bello considers the latter to embody the crisis of neoliberalism and the collapse of the “ideological scaffolding”