On May 9, voters in the Philippines choose their next president, who will serve one six-year term. There are many candidates, but only two have any chance of winning: Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the Philippines’ longtime former dictator, and current Vice President Leni Robredo.
Although the Philippines has deep-rooted problems—its economy has been hit hard by COVID-19, graft, and growing levels of poverty—the presidential contest has not focused much on these issues. Instead, it has centered on personalities and the future of the country’s freedom. Outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte has often acted in an autocratic fashion during his six years in office. The election of Marcos Jr., who has some antidemocratic tendencies, could sound the death knell for Philippine democracy.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr. With experience serving as a senator, regional governor, and member of the House of Representatives, Marcos Jr. is a well-established figure in Philippine politics. Polling at 56 percent, Marcos Jr. has won extensive public support for several reasons. For one, he is positioning himself as a savior for a country battered economically by COVID-19. He is also drawing on some degree of nostalgia for Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s era from 1965 to 1986, which some Filipinos see as better than the country’s current dire situation. Marcos Jr.’s kleptocrat father placed the Philippines under martial law and tortured thousands of opponents, but his family has spent decades whitewashing these crimes by using sophisticated disinformation methods and emphasizing the supposed stability of that time. (Many voters also are too young to remember that period.) Marcos Jr. has never really apologized for his father’s repression and corruption; the elder Marcoses are estimated to have stolen some $10 billion from the country, while also overseeing a disastrous national economic performance.
Marcos Jr. is also charismatic, especially on social media. His campaign has been criticized by journalists and an election watchdog for overseeing social media networks that spread vast amounts of disinformation about Marcos Jr., his opponents, and his family’s legacy. These efforts are enormously effective in shifting public opinion in one of the most online populations in the world. In fact, they could be the biggest factor in Marcos Jr.’s likely victory. Marcos Jr. also benefits from the legacy of Duterte, who fostered the spread of disinformation and made it easier for another strongman to win.
What’s more, Marcos Jr. has entered into an alliance with three other powerful political families: the Arroyos, the Estradas, and the Dutertes. Duterte’s daughter is effectively running as vice president with Marcos Jr. With a Marcos Jr. presidency and this alliance, these families could dominate both the executive and legislative branches, making a mockery of democracy.
Leni Robredo. Vice President Robredo has made protecting democracy and fighting graft the centerpieces of her campaign. She is trying to turn the public against the Marcoses and gain support of other small parties. Her rallies have been packed and her poll numbers have creeped up slightly in recent months, but only to 24 percent, nowhere near Marcos Jr. Other relatively minor candidates, such as boxing champion Manny Pacquiao and Manila Mayor Francisco Moreno Domagoso, have stayed in the race, which could draw votes from Robredo. In 2016, the unwillingness of Duterte’s major opponents to form a unified front and back one candidate was one of the reasons he triumphed.
The Platforms and Foreign Policy Issues
Although Marcos Jr. and Robredo have both made vague pledges to improve health care and fight poverty, the overriding issue is the long-term survival of Philippine democracy. Robredo has emphasized this point in speeches and online appearances, and Marcos Jr. has tended to offer platitudes about the past and promises of “unity.” Yet, Marcos Jr. has indicated he would protect Duterte from prosecution by the International Criminal Court for Duterte’s extrajudicial drug wars and signaled that he would possibly continue these killings.
On foreign policy, China remains the biggest issue. Duterte, who has strong, lifelong anti-American sentiments, tried to pursue a closer relationship with Beijing early in his term, in an effort to reduce Manila’s dependence on Washington. But many promised Chinese infrastructure projects never came to fruition, and the public grew increasingly angry at Beijing’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy and incursions in the South China Sea. Duterte eventually turned back toward the United States.
Marcos Jr. has historically enjoyed a warm relationship with Beijing and could want to woo China again, as well as attempt to launch more Beijing-backed infrastructure projects. But Beijing’s enormous unpopularity in the Philippines could limit Marcos Jr.’s ability to work closely with China. In contrast, Robredo has promised a tough approach toward Beijing, vowing not to even discuss the South China Sea with Beijing until it recognizes that a 2016 tribunal at the Hague ruled in favor of Manila’s claims—something Beijing almost surely will never concede. Both candidates will likely continue the recent trend of building closer ties to the United States.
While this election’s implications for Philippine foreign policy might not be enormous, if Marcos Jr. does try to shift Manila toward Beijing, that would be a serious problem for regional security and U.S. forces. The Philippines is a U.S. treaty ally and central to U.S. posture in the South China Sea and toward Taiwan.
The implications for the future of Philippine democracy, and by extension democracy in Southeast Asia, are even more enormous. Democracy has already regressed significantly in Southeast Asia in the past decade, and a death blow to the Philippines, one of the world’s most populous democracies, would further this trend. Prominent Philippines analyst Richard Heydarian has called the May 9 vote the “most consequential election in modern Philippine history.” That is no understatement.