Ideas

Gaddafi And Marcos Jr., When A Dictator’s Son Runs For President

Over the past few weeks, the offspring of two of the 20th centuries most ruthless strongmen have announced they'd like to become the (democratically elected) leaders of Libya and the Philippines.

Gaddafi And Marcos Jr., When A Dictator’s Son Runs For President

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and Ferdinand Marcos Jr

Carl-Johan Karlsson

-Analysis-

PARIS — The son of the brutal Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi announced this week he is running for president, which follows a similar headline last month from Ferdinand Marcos Jr. What does this say about the state of democracy?

It was about a half-century ago that two of the most brutal dictatorships of the modern era began.


Muammar Gaddafi took power in Libya in 1969 following a military coup that overthrew the British-backed King Idris. The grim and eccentric 42-year reign of Colonel Gaddafi included mutilation and assassination of dissidents, televised executions and, towards the end of his rule, starvation and cluster bombing of rebel-held areas.

Living in infamy

It was three years later, some 6,700 miles to the east, that Ferdinand Marcos seized dictatorial power in the Philippines — a year before his second presidential term was due to expire — placing the country under martial law. The diminutive Marcos padlocked Congress, arrested political rivals and ruled by decree. During 14 years, widespread extrajudicial killings and the torture of opponents were commonplace in Marcos' Philippines.

After pilfering the country of a reported $10 billion, the leader, along with his high-profile wife, Imelda Marcos, were forced into exile in 1986 after the rise of a democracy movement. Gaddafi's rule came to a bloody end in 2011 after the Arab Spring sparked a civil war — and each of their names has since lived on largely in infamy around the world.

And yet, those same names are making headlines again: the son of each strongman is now running for president in their respective countries.

Accused of crimes against humanity

It was last week that photographs started to circulate on social media coming out of the southern Libyan town of Sebha, showing a bearded and traditionally robed Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the 49-year-old second-born son of the dictator, signing documents at the registration hall in for Libya's December 24 presidential election.

There's something different about the offspring of tyrannical fathers making a democratic bid

Gaddafi had spent the last decade out of public sight. At the time of the 2011 uprising that spelled the end to his father's brutal rule, he was captured at the desert outpost of Ubari and taken to the mountain town of Zintan, where he was held by his captors and tried in absentia in 2015 for his role during the uprising. He was sentenced to death for war crimes, including the killing of protesters during the uprising a decade ago, but was later pardoned. He is still wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.

In the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, popularly known as Bongbong, announced his candidacy in a video post on Facebook in early October. The 64-year-old only son of the Filippino strongman has pledged to bring "unifying leadership" to the country as the latest politician to announce an intention to succeed President Rodrigo Duterte, who is barred by the constitution's term limits from running again.

A supporter of Ferdinand ''Bongbong'' Marcos Jr in the Philippines

Basilio Sepe/ZUMA

Friend of Duterte

A close ally of Duterte, who himself has been accused of authoritarian tactics, Marcos Jr served as a senator from 2010 to 2016, before narrowly losing out in a run for the vice-presidency in 2016. On Tuesday, it was announced that Duterte's daughter will be running mate of Marcos Jr, confirming weeks of speculation of an alliance between the two powerful families.

While familial hereditary dictatorship is nothing new, there's something different about the offspring of tyrannical fathers making a democratic bid, and garnering support, for national leadership. The presidential runs of Gaddafi and Marcos Jr. also come at a time marked by the twin advances of authoritarianism and nationalism — a trend that has been further accelerated by the pandemic.

It is said that sons should never be judged for the sins of their fathers

While most experts say there is very little chance that the Libyan Colonel's son will win, the name "Gaddafii" on a ballot is troubling in a country that has devolved into a case study in domestic chaos following a half-baked Western intervention. Not only does Gaddafi's presidential bid threaten the wider peace process but casts an additional shadow of futility over a conflict that has left nearly one million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

In the Philippines, activists who were jailed and tortured during Marcos Sr.'s martial law asked the Commission on Elections on Wednesday to disqualify Marcos Jr from running for president. The petitioners expressed fears of continued "whitewashing" of history, and that a new Marcos presidency would make it hard for victims of the previous dictatorship to be compensated for their suffering. Marcos Jr's camp has called the effort "propaganda" and vowed to address "this predictable nuisance."

It is said that sons should never be judged for the sins of their fathers. It is also said that a democracy can be measured by the freedom it grants for all to participate. And yet Libya and the Philippines are both far from ideal democracies, and the sins of these two fathers speak for themselves.

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