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Why Philippine Politics Resembles a Modern-Day Telenovela

Want to distract the public? Little works better than family feuds ripped from soap opera plotlines. That’s how the Marcos and Duterte clans keep people glued to the drama while crowding out democratic reform.

By Cecilia Lero

July 2024

A personal feud between the families of Philippine president Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, has dominated the country’s headlines and political chatter since the beginning of the year. The clash, which began simmering during the 2022 election season, has reached a boiling point. Since January, the two men have publicly accused each other of abusing drugs and suffering mental impairment. Marcos has criticized Duterte’s bloody “war on drugs” — ironic, as Marcos has never expressed remorse for the tens of thousands of people who were tortured, murdered, and disappeared during his father’s dictatorship (1972–86). Marcos’s wife, who is a lawyer, called for his vice-president — Sara Duterte, who is the former president’s daughter — to step down from her cabinet post as education minister (which she later did without giving a reason). Before that, Sara’s brother, Davao City mayor Sebastian Duterte, had demanded that Marcos resign from the presidency, accusing him of trying to change the constitution to extend his presidency. The escalating feud, though unsurprising, has sparked hope in political reformers of an elite implosion that might lead to meaningful democratic reform.

Political performance that mimics the overdramatic style of primetime telenovelas is not new to the Philippines, even if today’s attacks are particularly brash. Having a dynastic feud at the center of political discourse, however, is new, and it is exacerbating the same authoritarian-populist strategies — historical revisionism, tribalism, and spectacle — that elevated Duterte to national power and cemented the return of the Marcos dynasty.

More than half a century of Philippine politics has been reduced to a telenovela-style family rivalry. This is damaging Philippine democracy in three key ways: by distracting attention from bad policy and the gutting of democratic institutions; demobilizing citizens, as toxic polarization and the image of politics as exclusive to elite families discourages people from expressing their opinions or getting involved; and skewing citizens’ understanding of democracy so that they view it as something transactional — merely rooting for their family of choice, usually the one that provides them with the most patronage.

As fun as it might be to watch two powerhouse families sling mud at each other, this conflict is more likely to deepen these corrosive dynamics than to create the sort of opening for democratic alternatives that reformers desire.

Historical Revisionism, Telenovela Politics, and the Comeback Plan

Bongbong Marcos’s 2022 presidential victory was the fruit of a successful rebranding strategy centered around “mythmaking, folklore and disinformation campaigning,” as media scholar Jonathan Ong put it. Bongbong’s father, Ferdinand Sr., was president of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, including a long period of martial law from 1972 to 1981. His regime was responsible for widespread violence, corruption, and mismanagement, culminating in an economic collapse in the early 1980s. In 1986, the regime was deposed by the People Power (or EDSA) Revolution, when a million Filipinos occupied the capital’s main highway, the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), for four days until the United States, under President Ronald Reagan, air lifted the Marcos family from the presidential palace to Hawaii. Corazon “Cory” Aquino, the widow of assassinated opposition leader Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. of the Liberal Party, was sworn in as president. Ferdinand Sr. died in exile. The Marcos brand looked to be dead.

Ferdinand Sr.’s widow, Imelda, and their children returned to the Philippines in 1991 with a plan to make their way back into politics. They launched a long-term rebranding campaign that used disinformation to stoke nostalgia for some imagined glorious past, a tactic that authoritarian populist movements often deploy. The rebrand painted the Marcos dictatorship as a golden age of peace, prosperity, and social discipline, while also reminding Filipinos of the corruption, poor service delivery, and social and economic exclusion that continued to plague the country after the transition to democracy. Through repetition, catchy messaging, and outright conspiracy theories, the revisionist operation convinced the nation that the Marcos family and the Filipino people themselves were undeserving victims of the “EDSA Republic” and the family most associated with democratic regime change: the Aquinos.

When sympathy surrounding Cory Aquino’s death catapulted her son, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, to the presidency in 2010, the Marcos disinformation machine ramped up its anti-Aquino operations. As early as 2009, when it was clear that Noynoy was a strong presidential contender, the Marcos political operation distributed comic books presenting Marcos Sr. as a tragic hero who was betrayed by dirty politicians like the Aquinos; posted hi-production videos on YouTube claiming that the EDSA Revolution and ensuing “yellow” regime (the campaign color of both Cory and Noynoy) were a package of lies orchestrated by the CIA; and held a press conference where a former journalist known to accept “attack dog” jobs for high-paying clients alleged that Cory and Ninoy had an autistic grandchild because they had, in fact, been first cousins in an unnatural and sinful marriage.

By expanding the narrative from mythicizing the Marcos name to also demonizing the Aquinos and blaming them for all post-1986 woes, the Marcos rebranding campaign essentially reduced recent Philippine history to a family feud centered around classic telenovela tropes. The Marcoses assigned themselves the role of bida: the underdog protagonist, often entitled by birthright to a place of glory, who overcomes adversity to win love, riches, and social status. The Aquinos, meanwhile, were relegated to the role of contrabida: the jealous and vindictive antagonist who uses privilege and status to keep the bida down, mistreating peripheral workers along the way. Thus, distinctions between authoritarianism and democracy, not to mention the objective human-rights and economic improvements made during the democratic period, ceased to matter in the national narrative. What mattered was whether you were on the side of the bida or contrabida.

Distraction and Demobilization

It was in 2016 that this telenovela narrative began to substantially shape national politics, with Rodrigo Duterte reaping the biggest benefits. Outgoing president Noynoy Aquino’s satisfaction rating was topping 50 percent at the end of his term that year (Philippine presidents are limited to a single term). Yet, Duterte managed to combine his violent promises and contrived outsider image with the Marcos narrative, machinery, and money to claim a decisive presidential victory against his Liberal Party opponent. Bongbong Marcos ran for vice-president that year, losing narrowly to Liberal Party candidate Leni Robredo, who proudly wore yellow at her campaign events.

Disinformation and telenovela-worthy performances thrived during Duterte’s presidency. The Aquino family and Liberal Party were politically decimated not long into Duterte’s term, so the definition of “yellow” then expanded to include anyone who criticized his regime, especially critics of the so-called drug war that killed an estimated thirty-thousand people. The regime fully embraced conspiracy theories and shock theater. It waged what has been referred to as the “firehood of falsehood,” bombarding the public with so many contradictory and outlandish theories and purported facts that in the end nothing seemed true. The result was an unfocused and exhausted populace that was eager to pay attention to anything but politics. This continuous, manufactured spectacle succeeded in distracting public attention away from the Duterte regime’s poor governance and deepening corruption.

Together, the disinformation warfare, nonstop political distractions, and poor public services, plus a heavy dose of fear from the mass murders conducted in Duterte’s drug war, twisted the popular understanding of Philippine democracy into a simple equation: If you are an average citizen, your only real role is to back whichever camp you think is the bida based on the patronage you receive or who is less likely to kill you. As Duterte could not run again, these factors gave the Marcos family an advantage as they put their pieces in play for the 2022 election and beyond.

Telenovela Politics and Long-term Democratic Erosion

Bongbong Marcos won the 2022 presidential election in a landslide. In the Philippines, the president and vice-president are elected separately, though candidates usually campaign in tandem, and Sara Duterte’s vote share was even bigger than Marcos’s. With the Aquino family and Liberal Party politically neutralized and progressive democratic forces in need of major rebuilding, the Duterte family’s continuing popularity is the only potential threat to a new era of Marcos domination.

The Dutertes, however, have set themselves up for failure. If citizens’ only role in the democratic process, as it’s currently understood in the Philippines, is to cast their vote for whichever family gives them the most patronage or is less likely to kill them, the Dutertes cannot win. The Marcos family has exponentially more money (thanks in no small part to billions of dollars stolen during Ferdinand Sr.’s reign that have been accumulating interest in European financial markets), and Bongbong boasts that his government carries out drug operations without killing people. Marcos’s supposedly more humane approach to controlling illicit drugs has also made him more attractive to Western governments, who see him as a softer leader than Duterte as well as an ally in containing China.

In the meantime, telenovela politics continues to distract and demobilize. Scandalous accusations and nasty barbs, not policy, occupy the top headlines. The public continues to see politics as a family drama in which they play, at best, the role of maid or driver, observing from the sidelines. The vitriolic rhetoric is likely to worsen as the two families vie for influence ahead of the 2025 midterm elections. Rodrigo Duterte, who is under investigation by the International Criminal Court for his brutal drug war, will undoubtedly increase his bitter attacks if the case against him moves forward and Marcos does not take an active stand to block it. Marcos, in turn, will use the bully pulpit to ridicule Duterte as an aging relic. He will also use the resources of the presidency to isolate the Duterte family politically by bringing influential political families and personalities to the Marcos side and securing a strong political coalition to field for the midterms.

As the Duterte-Marcos rivalry intensifies, with new players waiting in the wings, this family feud with its telenovelaplotlines will continue to dominate Philippine politics, overshadowing all else. Democratic activists must think beyond exploiting this elite rift. They should instead take a page from the Marcos playbook and start playing the long game, beginning with shaking people out of their stupor from the show.

Cecilia Lero is a political scientist and former civil society activist, campaign strategist, and congressional staffer in the Philippines. She completed a Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of São Paulo. Her research focuses on democratization/autocratization processes, social movements, and political violence.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images



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