Francis R. Malasig/AP
MANILA, Philippines — Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the namesake son of an ousted dictator, was sworn in as Philippine president Thursday in one of the greatest political comebacks in recent history but which opponents say was pulled off by whitewashing his family’s image.
His rise to power, 36 years after an army-backed “People Power” revolt booted his father to global infamy, upends politics in the Asian democracy, where a public holiday, monuments and the Philippine Constitution stand as reminders of his father’s tyrannical rule.
Activists and survivors of the martial law-era under his father protested Marcos Jr.’s inauguration, which took place at a noontime ceremony at the steps of the National Museum in Manila. Thousands of police officers, including anti-riot contingents, SWAT commandos and snipers, were deployed in the bayside tourist district for security.
Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, were among foreign dignitaries attending.
“Wow is this really happening?” asked Bonifacio Ilagan, a 70-year-old activist who was detained and severely tortured by counterinsurgency forces during the elder Marcos’s rule, before the inauguration. “For victims of martial law like me, this is a nightmare.”
Such historical baggage and antagonism stand to hound Marcos Jr. during a six-year presidency beginning at a time of intense crises.
The Philippines has been among the worst-hit countries in Asia by the two-year coronavirus pandemic, after more than 60,000 deaths and extended lockdowns sent the economy to its worst recession since World War II and worsened poverty, unemployment and hunger. As the pandemic was easing early this year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent global inflation soaring and sparked fears of food shortages.
Last week, Marcos Jr. announced he would serve as secretary of agriculture temporarily after he takes office to prepare for possible food supply emergencies. “I think the problem is severe enough,” he said and added he has asked his key advisers to brace for “emergency situations, especially when it comes to food supply.”
He also inherits decades-old Muslim and communist insurgencies, crime, gaping inequality and political divisions inflamed by his election.
Congress last month proclaimed his landslide victory, as well as that of his running mate Sara Duterte, the daughter of the outgoing president, in the vice- presidential race.
“I ask you all pray for me, wish me well. I want to do well because when the president does well, the country does well,” he said after his congressional proclamation without taking any questions.
Marcos Jr. received more than 31 million votes and Sara Duterte more than 32 million of the more than 55 million votes cast in the May 9 election — massive victories that will provide them robust political capital as they face tremendous challenges as well as doubts arising from their fathers’ reputations. It was the first majority presidential victory in the Philippines in decades.
Outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte presided over a brutal anti-drugs campaign that left thousands of mostly poor suspects dead in an unprecedented scale of killings the International Criminal Court was investigating as a possible crime against humanity. The probe was suspended in November, but the ICC chief prosecutor has asked that it be resumed immediately.
Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte have faced calls to help prosecute her father and cooperate with the international court when they office, a looming political dilemma.
Marcos Jr., a former governor, congressman and senator, has refused to acknowledge or apologize for massive human rights violations and plunder under his father’s rule and has defended his legacy.
During the campaign, he and Sara Duterte avoided controversial issues and focused on a call for national unity, although their fathers’ presidencies opened some of the most volatile divisions in the country’s history. Marcos Jr. appealed to be judged “not by my ancestors, but by my actions.”
His father was forced from power by a largely peaceful pro-democracy uprising in 1986 and died in 1989 while in exile in Hawaii without admitting any wrongdoing, including accusations that he, his family and cronies amassed an estimated $5 billion to $10 billion while in office.
A Hawaii court later found him liable for human rights violations and awarded $2 billion to more than 9,000 Filipinos who filed a lawsuit against him for torture, incarceration, extrajudicial killings and disappearances.
Imelda Marcos and her children were allowed to return to the Philippines in 1991 and worked on a stunning political comeback, helped by a well-funded social media campaign to refurbish the family name.
Marcos Jr’s alliance with Sara Duterte, whose father remains popular despite his human rights record, and powerful name recall as a member of one of the country’s most well-known political dynasties, helped him capture the presidency. Many Filipinos too remained poor and grew disenchanted with post-Marcos administrations, Manila-based analyst Richard Heydarian said.
“These allowed the Marcoses to present themselves as the alternative,” Heydarian said and added “an unregulated social media landscape allowed their disinformation network to re-brand the dark days of martial law as supposedly the golden age of the Philippines.”
Along metropolitan Manila’s main avenue, democracy shrines and monuments erected after Marcos’ 1986 downfall stand prominently. The anniversary of his ouster is celebrated each year as a special national holiday, and a presidential commission that has worked for decades to recover ill-gotten wealth of the Marcoses still exists.
Marcos Jr. has not explained how he will deal with such stark reminders of the past.