Former Philippine First Lady and long serving member of Congress Imelda Marcos was just convicted of engaging in graft stemming from decades old allegations. The conviction which is likely to be appealed casts doubt on Imelda’s planned election run for the governorship of Ilocos Norte. Beyond this, the conviction has one obvious and one far less apparent implication for Philippine politics as a whole.
Firstly, the conviction of Imelda Marcos in 2018 is if anything more controversial than it would have been in the 1990s. After the fall of President Marcos in 1986, the popular sentiments across much of the Philippines (as engineered by the pro-Aquino mainstream media) tended to portray the Marcos years as uniformly negative while both pro-Aquino Philippine media and US media tended to obsess over the perceived excesses of Imelda Marcos in particular.
Today, the public space in The Philippines is very different as the free flow of opinions and information on the internet and on social media in particular has led to a revival of the public image of Ferdinand Marcos and his still influential family. This has happened for two distinct reasons. First of all, in the late 1980s when a corporate controlled media built up the Ninoy Aquino pseudo-personality cult, it was done at the expense of any objective and balanced views of the Marcos years. Now, many Filipinos realise that while the Marcos years certainly present subject matter that invites justified criticism, the Marcos years prior to the mid 1970s were generally economically productive times and socially secure times compared to the chaos and the general political brain drain of the post-1986 years. Furthermore, as the health of President Marcos deteriorated in his final years, it becomes clear that the many problems of late 1970s and early 1980s Philippines had to do with others and that therefore a simplistic anti-Marcos blame game isn’t a sufficiently fair way to portray the history of that period.
Secondly, the many failures of Noynoy Aquino’s 2010 Presidency compared with the more competent track record of Bongbong Marcos, the political heir to the Marcos dynasty, have led many Filipinos to revise their overall views on two of most influential families in modern Philippine history.
But there is another aspect to the conviction of Imelda Marcos that is hardly being discussed. If The Philippines moved towards a genuine parliamentary democracy, the conviction would have more historic and personal rather than short term political and public implications. Even in parliamentary systems that are less than perfect due to the phenomenon of dynastic politics, which incidentally is a phenomenon in many nations including the non-Parliamentary United States (e. g. the Clintons and Bushes) and non-parliamentary Argentina (the Perons and the Kirchners), the loss of a single individual due to a judicial conviction in a parliamentary system still allows for party politics to proceed under comparatively normal circumstances.
This year, Pakistan’s parliamentary democracy which for decades was suspended by dictatorial presidents who retarded the growth of genuine parliamentary politics, at long last underwent its second ever peaceful transition of power after voters elected the pro-reform and anti-dynastic PTI party. The parliamentary elections in Pakistan were a substantial test of the maturity of the parliamentary system as prior to the vote, long serving Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was arrested on charges relating to corrupt activities. Prior to that, he was prohibited from holding public office by Pakistan’s highest court.
Such a move would have been disastrous in a presidential system such as Brazil’s where former President Lula remains behind bars and disqualified from public office in spite of being the country’s most popular politician according to many recent polls. Yet in Pakistan’s rapidly maturing parliamentary system, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party continued to operate as normal with brother Shehbaz Sharif leading the party to a respectable second place in a peaceful election that saw a pro-reform party come out on top.
In Bangladesh which will shortly have an election, parliamentary democracy continues to be retarded by a system where often violent dynastic political ping-pong is continually the rule rather than the exception. At present, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League will face an opposition alliance led by Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party in spite of Zia remaining in prison for what her supporters have called trumped up politicised charges. By no means is the Bangladeshi system a perfect one and thus, by no means is the piece intended to advocate for The Philippines emulating the politics of Bangladesh. What the Bangladesh examples does prove however is that even in the worst of parliamentary systems, opposition voices are heard even when important individuals remain physically removed from the electoral process.
On the other side of the spectrum in what is arguably the world’s best parliamentary system, Singapore has never once had a violent or controversial democratic election since independence in 1965. Furthermore, the rigorous meritocracy of the party system in Singapore has made it so that while the current Prime Minister is the son of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Hsien Loong’s government has a track record of delivering results in a non-corrupt environment that has led accusations of “dynastic politics” to fall by the wayside as it is clear that the younger Lee achieved his position based on intelligence and capability. Furthermore, in a meritocratic system, just as no one should be automatically favoured because of their lineage, nor should they be automatically disqualified for this reason. Meritocracy means that every man and woman, irrespective of who they are gets an opportunity to prove their worth. This is why Singapore continues to function as the most successful nation in ASEAN and one of the most successful nations in the world.
In one of the world’s oldest parliaments in Britain, here too dynastic politics takes on an insignificant role due to centuries of parliamentary discipline. Last week, a British government minister called Jo Johnson resigned due to the fact he felt the government was taking too much of an anti-European stance in the framework of Brexit negotiations. By contrast, Jo’s family relation Boris Johnson resigned as Foreign Secretary in the summer because he felt the government was taking a too pro-European stance. Thus, as parliamentary systems mature, even when members of the same family fulfil important roles, they can do so while being tested on a meritocratic basis as in Singapore and as the Johnson family in Britain demonstrates, they needn’t even have the same policies.
Thus, if at both a national and regional level The Philippines had a parliamentary system, there could be a Marcos party without Imelda Marcos just as there could be a Yellow party without an Aquino. In parliamentary systems, parties are formed around ideas and even in young and maturing parliamentary systems like Pakistan, this year’s election proves that a pro-reform party can be elected peacefully while an old dynastic party can still have its opposition voice heard loudly in spite of the arrest of its nominal leader.
None of this is to comment on whether or not Imelda’s conviction is an act of vengeance or an act of justice, but rather it is to say that if The Philippines had a parliamentary system, politics would be bigger than any one person or family, even one such a person is as iconic as Imelda Marcos.