Philippine Elections 2022: The End of Accountability? Impunity and the Marcos Presidency.

AuthorCoronel, Sheila S.

Elections are supposed to hold leaders to account, but in some countries they have advanced not accountability but impunity. A victory at the polls can wash away allegations of crime and corruption, allowing those accused to escape the long arm of the law.

This is not a recent phenomenon in the Philippines. For decades, politicians seeking to evade justice have pinned their hopes of exoneration on the polls. But the 2022 elections took this to a new level: it was not just impunity that won, but the normalization of that impunity--and perhaps also the end of any illusion of future accountability.

The biggest winners of the 2022 vote--Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte--are the children of strongmen who have been accused of some of the most egregious crimes ever committed by Philippine presidents. The current president's father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., is believed to have amassed billions of dollars of ill-gotten wealth during his 20-year presidency. (1) Thousands were killed, disappeared, tortured and jailed during his rule. (2) The vice-president's father, the outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte, presided over a war on drugs that the police say has killed more than 6,000; human rights groups claim the death toll is likely four to five times higher. (3)

By running--proudly and unapologetically--as the political heirs of their fathers, the next-generation Marcos and Duterte also made the 2022 elections a referendum on their parental legacies. Their stunning victories, therefore, have been construed as the people's verdict: forgiveness for the sins of their fathers.

Two past presidents, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, have been similarly absolved. Both were detained for plunder--the accumulation of US$1 million or more of ill-gotten wealth--but subsequent election victories wiped their slates clean. This cycle--wash, rinse, repeat--is familiar to Filipinos where politicians stay 30 years or more in office and political families rule for generations despite the shame and scandals that surrounded their forebears. The 2022 election was but the cycle's logical culmination.

The crimes of which the elder Marcos and Duterte have been accused are of a different order of magnitude. The prosecution of these crimes has consequences for both accountability and historical memory. Up to now, the Marcoses are still entangled in unsettled lawsuits around the world. (4) Thirty-six years after a popular uprising ousted them from power, the long and tortuous road to reclaim the country's wealth from the family's hands--and hold responsible those who had helped them steal--has yet to be completed. A president who denies, despite a mass of documented proof, that his father looted the economy and plundered the treasury is not expected to continue the effort. Given the Marcos-Duterte alliance, the new government, like the previous one, will also likely refrain from a vigorous prosecution of police excesses in the drug war.

Even before this election, the Marcos and the Duterte families were already poster children for a broken justice system where the wealthy and the powerful are beyond the reach of the law. What is at stake in this presidential election, therefore, is not so much impunity, which both the Duterte and the Marcos families have enjoyed for decades, but the entrenchment of that impunity as a fact of political life and the likely collapse of hope that such impunity can be challenged.

Over the years, the victims of the Marcos regime, along with human rights lawyers, anti-graft investigators and well-intentioned judges, government bureaucrats and legislators, have invested time and energy in making the Marcos family pay. The system was seriously flawed, but they could count on some victories. They could also count on public--and international--support for their efforts.

No longer. Since around 2017, opinion polls have shown most Filipinos considered high inflation and low wages the most urgent issues; fighting corruption and ensuring the fair application of...

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