Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, greets his supporters at his headquarters in Mandaluyong City, Metro Manila, Philippines after his presidential election victory. Photo: Reuters
Then & Now
by Jason Wordie
Then & Now
by Jason Wordie

Nostalgia helped ‘Bongbong’ Marcos to power in the Philippines. Will Hong Kong one day feel nostalgic for Carrie Lam’s time as chief executive?

  • The election of ‘Bongbong’ Marcos in the Philippines shows how nostalgia for previously discredited regimes is being cynically exploited by modern politicians
  • Around the world, the follies and horrors of the past – with all their material waste and human tragedy – seem destined to repeat themselves

Political nostalgia is a curious phenomenon. Were “the good old days” really that great, except when safely observed through memory’s selective rear-view mirrors? Or were earlier times much like today, just populated by long-dead, differently dressed people, whose thoughts, feelings and motivations were otherwise similar to now?

That grimly humorous behind-the-Iron-Curtain-era observation about Communist-ruled societies – the present and future are predictable, but the past can suddenly change beyond recognition – remains true in today’s world.

Racial nationalism, stoked by perceived challenges to national identity, combined with well-choreographed historical grievances and confected nostalgia for a supposedly brighter past, becomes potent, readily exploitable political currency for authoritarian regimes, especially in economically uncertain times.

A nagging sense of being short-changed, dragged down and done-unto by the machinations of “foreigners” – or shadowy “elites” in league against the average person – are exploited by populists with their own agendas. Once discredited ideologies, which – optimists earnestly hoped – had been permanently consigned to history’s ash heap have been resurrected by these methods in recent years.

All over the world, the 20th century’s follies and horrors – with all their material waste and human tragedy – seem destined to repeat themselves.

Earlier this month, two leadership elections occurred within days of each other; one in the Philippines and the other in Hong Kong. In the Philippines, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jnr, son and namesake of the late dictator and his former beauty queen wife, Imelda, won in such a massive landslide that any possible electoral shenanigans would have made little ultimate difference.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and his son “Bongbong” (far right) on the balcony of the presidential palace in Manila in February 1986, days before the family fled amid a “People Power” revolt. Photo: Getty Images

News photographs from 1986 – a warning from history – show the entire Marcos family (including Bongbong in combat fatigues) defiant on the balcony at Manila’s Malacañang Palace, shortly before dramatically changed public sentiment saw them evicted from the country.

A new generation of Filipino voters, with no memory of the Marcos era, pockmarked as it was with widespread human-rights abuses, economic decay and wholesale looting of the national exchequer, clearly regarded Bongbong as a fit successor to his late father.

Placing another Marcos in power was the Filipino people’s right and privilege; thus, we see one democratic process in action, in all its majesty and flaws. And now, having made their bed, that same long-suffering people must lie on it, at least until enough eventually remember more clearly whose parents it was that made off with their country’s spring mattresses, boldly hocked the pawnbroker’s chit, and gave them bamboo mats in return.

Hong Kong chief executive-elect John Lee waves as votes are counted in this month’s election. Photo: Sam Tsang
Hong Kong’s chief executive election was quite different. Here, only one candidate existed for a limited number of preselected voters to choose from, and the general public had no role in the proceedings, except as observers. Within that framework, however, democratic choice remained intact; Election Committee members could vote in favour of the sole candidate, or vote not to support his candidacy, or else abstain, and cast no vote at all.

Elections, by definition, provide for such personal autonomy, however otherwise limited a specific electoral franchise might be, and a small number of electors duly made one of those alternative choices.

Judged by this metric, Hong Kong had a democratic election that was transparently conducted throughout, scrupulously fair to the candidate and all participants, and therefore above wanton criticism from any quarter, whether at home or abroad. That absolutely nobody was even slightly surprised when the winner was declared remains neither here nor there.

But back to possible future nostalgia for “the good old days”. Will Hong Kong’s people eventually look back with wistful melancholy on soon-to-be former Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s eventful time in office, as many Filipinos evidently did for the not-so-long-ago, wilfully forgotten Marcos years?

Like everything else away in the future – only time will tell.