- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
Although the actual election isn’t for another six weeks, current polling suggests Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is all but a lock to succeed Rodrigo Duterte as the Philippines’ next president. Marcos, a former senator and son of the late longtime Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., has opened up a massive lead against his nearest challenger, current Vice President Leni Robredo. A survey released by the respected Pulse Asia in March found that Marcos led Robredo by a whopping 44 points, with 60 percent of respondents expressing a preference for him. That actually increased his polling lead by 11 points from a prior Pulse Asia poll.
Given what a divisive figure he is among sections of the Philippine population, Marcos will also benefit from the rules governing the country’s one-round presidential election, in which a simple plurality, rather than a majority, suffices to win. The opposition, currently fragmented around six candidates, might stand a chance if it rallied around one clear rival to Marcos, but so far that hasn’t happened, and it seems unlikely.
As a result, it’s not premature to consider what to expect from Marcos, commonly known by his nickname Bongbong, should he become president as expected. When it comes to form, he would almost surely run a more businesslike and orderly administration than the vulgar, unpredictable Duterte. But when it comes to substance, he would probably continue some of Duterte’s most disastrous foreign and domestic policies, while adding other problematic elements of his own.
In his term-limited six years in office, Duterte has done massive damage to the Philippines’ democracy, which, though imperfect, had been one of the strongest in Southeast Asia. His extrajudicial drug war resulted in the killings of thousands of innocent people, and even targeted political opponents. He also undermined the independence of the country’s highest courts and cracked down on the free press, among other blows to democratic governance and freedoms. In 2016, the year Duterte won office, Freedom House gave the Philippines a score of 65 out of 100 in its annual global survey of political and civil freedoms, with 100 being the highest possible score. By contrast, in the organization’s 2021 survey, the Philippines scored only 56.
Marcos’ family past alone would have troubling implications for Philippine democracy. He and other members of the Marcos family have continued to celebrate the legacy of his father, a longtime, brutal dictator who was immensely corrupt. Far from denouncing his father’s record, the younger Marcos has tried to rehabilitate his image, claiming that Marcos Sr. could have transformed the Philippines into a wealthy, well-run state in the model of Singapore, had it not been for the obstruction of the democratic opposition.
In addition to being a symbol of impunity through his connection to and defense of the former autocrat, Marcos will likely continue some of Duterte’s authoritarian policies. He has already suggested he will continue the extrajudicial drug war and, like Duterte, most likely prevent any investigations of it by outside actors like the International Criminal Court. Moreover, his likely vice president will be Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio. Though the two positions are elected separately in the Philippines, Marcos has endorsed Duterte-Carpio, and she has a massive lead in the vice presidential race. As mayor of Davao, the same southern city where her father began his political career, Duterte-Carpio seems to have displayed little more commitment to democracy than Marcos, ruling at times by fiat and issuing orders that seem to contradict democratic norms.
On foreign policy, Marcos may also represent continuity with Duterte, particularly when it comes to courting China, even though that approach has met with little success. The United States, Manila’s treaty ally, is still enormously popular with the Philippine people, and anti-China sentiment is rising. Yet, Marcos may go even farther than Duterte in tilting toward Beijing. He has openly promised to do so, while also pledging to abandon the Philippines’ victory in a 2016 international tribunal ruling that rejected China’s expansive maritime claims to the South China Sea.
But there is little guarantee Beijing will offer much in return. Duterte hoped that by toning down Manila’s opposition to Beijing’s growing control of the South China Sea, he would win massive Chinese infrastructure contracts. But he actually reaped only modest investment, even as Beijing’s seizure and militarization of contested reefs angered Filipinos.
Not every policy Marcos is likely to pursue will be a disaster. With a more professional, well-run administration, he would probably respond more effectively to the pandemic and its economic impact than Duterte, who badly botched the pandemic response. As a result, the Philippine economy took a hit last year, exacerbating the horrendous inequality and lack of robust social welfare programs that already characterizes the country.
Given his somewhat more conventional political background compared to Duterte, Marcos will likely appoint respected economic technocrats and public health experts to manage the post-pandemic recovery, while redoubling the focus on upgrading the country’s woeful infrastructure and channeling money to smaller and medium-sized enterprises. The next government will have to control COVID-19 and improve vaccination rates, bolster consumer spending and infrastructure investment, and put the services industry back on track. It’s a tall order, but if accomplished, the economy could rebound strongly this year.
Perhaps worst of all when it comes to Philippine democracy, Marcos’ rise to presidential front-runner status is in part the result of an informal alliance with three other powerful and dynastic Philippine families. In addition to endorsing Duterte-Carpio for vice president, Marcos has allied with the powerful family of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who likely would serve in the House, as well as with the family of former President Joseph Estrada, whose sons are running for Senate. (Both Estrada and Macapagal-Arroyo were jailed for crimes of corruption committed during their terms as president.)
This four-way alliance, unprecedented even by the Philippines’ long history of powerful families working together to advance their political interests, once again underscores that power in the country is concentrated in just a few hands.
To be sure, Philippine elections are often wild and chaotic affairs. Huge leads have vanished before in the final days of campaigns, and surprise candidates have won. And among segments of the population, hatred for the Marcoses runs deep. Large street protests erupted in Manila in late February to celebrate the anniversary of the overthrow of Marcos Sr.—and send a message to Marcos Jr.
Yet with his enormous lead, his alliance with politically powerful dynastic families and the feeling in the Philippines that the race is all but over, Marcos is very likely to prevail. And that would be bad news for Philippines’ democracy.