The Philippines Votes the Marcos Dynasty Back into Power
The Philippines Votes the Marcos Dynasty Back into Power
Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Lipa, Batangas province, Philippines, April 20, 2022. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez
Q&A / Asia

The Philippines Votes the Marcos Dynasty Back into Power

After months of campaigning, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., son of the notorious ex-dictator, will take presidential office in the Philippines at the end of June. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Georgi Engelbrecht explains the vote’s implications for the country’s internal security and foreign policy.

What happened in the Philippines’ presidential election?

On 9 May, over 30 million Filipino voters – close to 60 per cent of the electorate – cast ballots for Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., popularly known as “Bongbong”, son of the dictator ousted in 1986 by an uprising after two decades of brutal rule. Largely anticipated by pre-election polls, his landslide victory brings history full circle, completing the Marcos family’s return to power after 36 years. Marcos, Jr. will succeed the incumbent, Rodrigo Duterte, who will leave office at the end of June.

Ten candidates ran for president, but the real battle pitted Marcos, Jr. against the incumbent vice president, Leni Robredo, to whom he had lost the race for that post in 2016 (the vice presidential election in the Philippines is separate from the presidential contest). Robredo made a last-minute push with rallies attracting hundreds of thousands of pink-clad supporters and door-to-door canvassing by volunteers, but she could not pick up enough momentum to close the gap. In a second race, Sara Duterte, the outgoing president’s daughter – who had allied with Marcos in the run-up to the polls – won the vice presidency. In parallel, thousands of local positions – mayorships and governorships – were up for grabs in polls across the country.

The election was, by most accounts, free and fair despite a few allegations of fraud and attacks on voters. Defective machines delayed the vote count in some places. There were also accusations of vote-buying and pre-marked ballots, many published through social media. In the Bangsamoro region in Mindanao, the Philippines’ volatile southernmost island, violence marred the local elections, from stabbings to full-blown firefights and riots in some villages.

The elections have reinforced existing divisions in Philippine society.

The presidential and vice presidential elections further cement the dynastic element of Philippine politics, whereby personalities matter more than political party affiliations or manifestoes. Marcos’s campaign was shaped by a vaguely defined objective of “unity” and an appeal to a supposed “golden age” of economic dynamism in the early years of his father’s rule. Overall, however, the late dictator’s son said little during the campaign, even shying away from the televised debates in which all the other candidates participated. Despite the vote’s clear outcome, the elections have reinforced existing divisions in Philippine society. While some candidates who had opposed Marcos conceded defeat, others have staged protests in front of the electoral commission building, denouncing alleged flaws in the ballot.

The reasons for Bongbong’s victory are manifold. Since the ailing ex-dictator died in exile in Hawaii in 1989 – and particularly over the last decade – the Marcos clan has been actively working to rebrand itself and return to political centre stage. The elder Ferdinand’s wife, Imelda, and their children all returned to the Philippines in the 1990s, and soon regained political power in their traditional turf of Ilocos Norte, on Luzon island. Imelda served as congresswoman between 2010 and 2019, while her daughter Imee and several other relatives occupy major posts in the province. Marcos, Jr. himself was governor of Ilocos Norte and also served as its congressional representative before becoming a senator in 2016. His nephew is on track to be re-elected as governor of Ilocos, and his son Sandro, a political neophyte, was just elected as the province’s congressman.

To revamp its image, the family relied heavily on targeted social media campaigns, especially with younger voters who never experienced the Marcos dictatorship or the martial law that prevailed from 1972 to 1981 (56 per cent of the voting population is between eighteen and 41). The era is synonymous with mass arrests, torture, killings and enforced disappearances of tens of thousands of Filipinos, but the online messaging often bordered on disinformation, presenting the elder Marcos’s rule as a golden age of stability and economic growth. Disappointment with the democratic process in the era since the elder Marcos was ousted and the oligarchic nature of Philippine politics have further contributed to driving many voters into the arms of real or imagined strongmen seen as best equipped for fixing the country’s ills – first Duterte, who had largely campaigned on his intention to restore law and order, and now Bongbong, whose messaging relied on the power of his name and a romanticisation of the past to achieve a return to “former greatness”. The Marcos camp was also strategic in picking allies among political elites across the archipelago to stump on its behalf. Other parties proved incapable of uniting their forces; contenders such as Manila Mayor Isko Moreno or boxing champion Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao refused to get behind Robredo, who might otherwise have had a chance to beat Bongbong. The front runner’s partnership with Sara Duterte, until recently seen as the logical successor to her father as president, cemented his lead.

Who is the new president and what are his priorities?

Aged 64, Marcos, Jr. is the son of Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the Philippines from 1969 to 1986 with an iron fist. In addition to the human rights abuses noted above, his father’s rule was marked by rampant cronyism and saw escalations in the Moro Muslim and communist rebellions that brought the country close to civil war.

Given the family history, the incoming president carries a heavy load of baggage. So far, he has managed to sweep the excesses of his father’s authoritarian rule and his clan’s ill-gotten wealth under the rug. When asked about the immense riches his family amassed – now deposited in Swiss banks or held as property and other assets – he infamously pronounced: “I cannot return what I do not have”. But he will inevitably need to address these subjects more forthrightly if he truly wants reconciliation among political camps to achieve his stated objective of “unity”. For many Filipinos, it is hard to imagine that Marcos, Jr., who also has unresolved plunder suits against him, will go beyond lip service to clean governance and actually allow “the courts to do their work”, as he promised, in investigating malfeasance. The day after the vote, the electoral commission dismissed remaining petitions that questioned the legality of Marcos’s candidacy on the grounds of tax evasion.

While he comes into office with more experience in national politics than Rodrigo Duterte had at his term’s outset, Marcos, Jr.’s governing record is mixed. The family bastion of Ilocos fares better than most provinces in terms of poverty, but is hardly an economic juggernaut. Marcos himself steered the province in a laissez-faire manner when he was governor, largely leaving administration to underlings. His legislative achievements as senator and congressman are by and large unremarkable.

Thus far, Marcos, Jr.’s plans for his presidency are as opaque as his victory was clear. A first indication of what his six-year term will look like should come from the list of officials he selects to join his administration. During the campaign, the Marcos camp ventured into coalition building with the help of influential powerbrokers, for example, former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who hammered out the deal with the vice president in waiting, Sara Duterte. The incoming president will thus need to reward the political clans and allies who secured his victory in their respective locales. All eyes will be on his choices to handle vital departments, such as foreign affairs, defence and finance. Marcos is likely to follow a playbook similar to Duterte’s, by which the president tended to rely on an inner circle including long-term confidantes from his time as mayor of Davao. Marcos’s relationship with the military, which benefited from the appointment of dozens of retired officers to government posts in the Duterte era, will also be crucial to watch.

One imminent challenge the new president will face is the state of the Philippine economy. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos live in poverty, both in cities and in the countryside, and the country’s protracted lockdown during the pandemic – one of the world’s longest – has hurt vast portions of the population, from the poorest to the middle class. While the post-pandemic recovery is now slowly taking off, experts warn of hiccups and a growing wealth gap – risks exacerbated by the Ukraine crisis, which is driving inflation. Rising fuel and commodity prices are of particular concern, even if these trends have so far not translated into social unrest. Marcos would be well advised to hire experienced technocrats in order to revive the economy, but many observers fear he will instead follow in his father’s footsteps by appointing cronies. Following his election, he identified infrastructure, energy and jobs as economic priorities.

How will the election affect Philippine foreign policy?

As with the rest, Marcos, Jr. has been vague about his foreign policy vision, perhaps partly due to inexperience in the subject. A telling case of his uncertain approach to foreign affairs was his stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Adopting a neutral position at first, he later emphasised the need to “respect Ukraine’s freedom”. He did not explain what prompted this shift, but both Filipino public opinion and the Philippine vote at the UN General Assembly condemning the invasion are likely to have played a role.

The president-elect is likely to have a steep learning curve when it comes to international affairs. A key foreign policy challenge for Manila is how to manage the maritime disputes in the South China Sea against the backdrop of heightened geopolitical competition between the United States and China. While the Philippines are a U.S. treaty ally, President Duterte pivoted toward China early in his term, before backpedalling to shore up the alliance with Washington, partly on account of China’s continued assertiveness in the South China Sea. Marcos’s statements on the subject have so far been an amalgam of perspectives devoid of a clear strategy. Like Duterte, he appears to be sceptical of the practical value of the 2016 Arbitration Award that dismissed Beijing’s territorial claims overlapping with Manila’s, since China has refused to accept the ruling. In addition, his statements indicate that he prefers bilateral channels with Beijing to manage tensions over multilateral efforts to try regulating the disputes more sustainably.

The central question is whether Marcos will try to hedge between the two superpowers, nurturing the alliance with the U.S. while reaching out to China for investment, or if he will side with one major power or the other. Continuing Duterte’s recent approach of boosting external defence capacities and strengthening military ties with Washington could cause Beijing to be more confrontational, though for now Chinese President Xi Jinping has said he looks forward to a “good working relationship” with the new Filipino president. Still, Marcos cannot ignore the reality of an assertive China that showed no sign of abandoning its territorial ambitions, even when Duterte tried to cosy up to Beijing. For now, there are divergent views on how Marcos will tackle the dilemma, but one thing is certain: maritime tensions with China are likely to persist.

The incoming president will need to take into the account the widespread distrust of Beijing among the Filipino public.

It is noteworthy that the Marcos family bastion, Ilocos Norte, has a track record of friendly ties with Beijing, from the opening of a Chinese consulate in 2007 and growing Chinese investment over the years to the “vaccine diplomacy” Beijing practiced during the pandemic. The president-elect regularly highlights his contacts with the Chinese embassy. During the campaign, these contacts led some commentators to portray him as a “Manchurian candidate”, while others suggested that he may be more skilled in garnering Chinese economic support than his predecessor. Whatever his China policy is, the incoming president will need to take into the account the widespread distrust of Beijing among the Filipino public. The Philippine security establishment is also traditionally pro-U.S., something that he can hardly ignore.

Personal factors may also influence Marcos’s decision-making in international affairs, starting with the court cases against him in the U.S. Acting at the behest of victims of human rights abuses during his father’s rule, federal courts in Hawaii have indicted the remaining family members (most recently in 2012) for contempt of court, demanding significant fines. Since the president-elect has not obliged, he could theoretically be arrested should he visit the U.S., though his status as head of state would probably grant him diplomatic immunity. Whatever the case, the new president’s approach to bilateral relations with Washington will likely be shaped largely by how proactively the Biden administration engages with him, particularly during his first months in office. U.S. officials are hoping for a “good start” of the relationship but acknowledge that “challenges” remain.

What does the election mean for the country’s internal conflicts?

The incoming president will have to deal with two longstanding internal security issues: the peace process with Moro Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines and the prolonged communist insurgency spread across the country.

Marcos faces a complicated picture in majority-Muslim Bangsamoro, on Mindanao island. With most of the traditional politicians in the region having endorsed his candidacy, he secured more than 60 per cent of ballots in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. But the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a former secessionist movement that is leading the interim authority in the newly self-governing region, extended its support to his rival, Robredo. Marcos may thus feel tempted to reward the region’s political clans, many of which are at odds with the MILF. The crucial question is how far he would go in trying to diminish the role of the former rebels in the peace process and boost the powerful clans instead. Some observers have speculated that he could emulate his father in splitting the Bangsamoro into two sub-regions – one in central Mindanao (where the MILF is strongest) and one in the Sulu archipelago (where it is weakest). An operative from the Marcos camp told Crisis Group that the president-elect is not “vindictive”. But many in Bangsamoro, particularly those close to the MILF, are wary of him given both his track record and the transactional nature of Philippine politics, where patrons traditionally compensate allies and chastise rivals.

Should Marcos try to clip the MILF’s wings, some in the MILF’s top leadership would likely abide by the peace process nonetheless. But frustrated ground commanders, other Moro rebel groups or younger, independent renegades could violently express their dissatisfaction.

[Marcos'] scepticism may have faded now that the autonomous region [Bangsamoro] is a political reality.

Marcos has made few statements on the Bangsamoro transition. In the past, he openly criticised some aspects of the peace process. For example, during the congressional deliberations on the legislation that paved the way for Bangsamoro autonomy in 2015, he questioned the proposed legislative and executive powers of the new entity, stressing that the peace deal should be in line with the constitution. He even filed a substitute bill that proposed amending 80 per cent of the original draft, drawing flak from the MILF and leading Moro civil society figures to tag him as “anti-Moro”. His scepticism may have faded now that the autonomous region is a political reality, but it is unlikely his mistrust of former rebels running part of the country has entirely disappeared. It is also unclear whether Marcos would push to fulfil key provisions of the peace agreement, for example, speeding up the normalisation process, which is supposed to bring peace dividends to the population in the form of development projects, but has fallen behind schedule.

Still, many Moro Muslims voted for Marcos and he cannot simply dismiss the peace process, which put an end to decades of conflict in Mindanao and made substantial progress under Duterte. Whatever his direction, Marcos will most likely start by appointing new members of the interim regional parliament, as Duterte left this task to his successor. His choice of presidential adviser on the peace process will also be crucial, as this official will be tasked with steering it forward.

In the coming weeks and months, conversations between Marcos and the MILF will be vital for ensuring that the peace process remains on track. Both sides need to be clear about their priorities and red lines. The MILF may be weakened since its political vehicle, the United Bangsamoro Justice Party, did poorly in the Bangsamoro local elections, losing several key mayoral battles and the governor’s race in Maguindanao province, the group’s heartland. But it won municipal elections in the regional centre, Cotabato, and remains a significant armed political movement with around 20,000 combatants still to be decommissioned. For the hard-won peace process in the Bangsamoro to be sustainable, Marcos, the Moro clans and the ex-rebels urgently need to develop consensus on how to build its momentum.

Marcos’s stance on the communist rebellion, one of the oldest armed conflicts in Asia, is even murkier than his outlook on Bangsamoro. While the incoming president shunned explicit policy statements on the topic, he seems to be broadly in line with Duterte’s approach: counter-insurgency operations, on one hand, and socio-economic projects and livelihood support for surrendered guerrillas, on the other. The military has significantly weakened the insurgency in recent years, but villages across the countryside, for example, on Samar and Negros islands, in the Bicol region and in parts of Mindanao, are caught in the vicious cycle that gave rise to the rebellion in the first place: abject poverty and inequality, local dynastic rule and stubborn violence.

Many new presidents have given negotiations with the communist rebels a shot – including Duterte, who took this tack before changing his mind on account of renewed hostilities. So far, Marcos has said nothing about resuming talks, and with most of the political class portraying the communist movement as a threat to national security, the political climate is not conducive to a significant policy shift. The clan-based politicians Marcos has associated himself with across the archipelago are keen on maintaining the status quo and the military remains strongly opposed to high-level peace negotiations. Whether the communist insurgency will regather steam as a reaction to Marcos’s election, as some in progressive and leftist circles opined in the past, is also uncertain. The communist movement as a whole did not comment on the Marcos victory. A Communist Party of the Philippines spokesman, however, alleged widespread fraud, which he said would push people to “join the revolution”, perhaps leading to “civil war”.

What happens to Duterte now?

As he prepares to leave office, Rodrigo Duterte leaves behind a mixed legacy, even though he will end his term with the highest approval rating (67 per cent) ever registered by an outgoing Philippine president. Over the last six years, “The Punisher”, as he has been nicknamed, regularly drew attention for his unorthodox policies, not least his murderous anti-drug campaign. In typically blunt style, Duterte again made headlines after the election by advising his son, the incoming mayor of his hometown of Davao, to learn “how to kill” so that criminals will fear him. In 2017, he also presided over the country’s deadliest urban battle since World War II, when jihadist fighters took over the city of Marawi in Mindanao. His response to the COVID-19 pandemic was uneven, and not just in terms of public health and economic policy. It also bordered at times on cronyism, for example, in the so-called Pharmally case that alleged severe anomalies in the government’s purchase of medical equipment. On a more positive note, Duterte increased social spending during his term and moved ahead with making the long-awaited Bangsamoro autonomy a reality.

The outgoing president has announced that he wants to lead a quiet life in retirement when June comes around. But his tumultuous term may come back to haunt him. The biggest spectre is the International Criminal Court’s investigation of alleged crimes against humanity committed during his anti-drug campaign, which killed between 6,000 and 30,000 civilians, most of them shot by police in the first half of his term. The Office of the Prosecutor launched an official investigation in September 2021, zeroing in on the roles that Duterte and his erstwhile ally, former police chief Ronald Dela Rosa, played in this “drug war”. There was talk that Duterte would run for senatorial or vice presidential office, which many observers saw as an effort to secure immunity from these proceedings. But in the end, the president decided to throw in the towel and will soon become an ordinary citizen, making him vulnerable to international justice. That said, with his daughter occupying the country’s second-most powerful office, chances are that the new government will shield him from prosecution and possible extradition. Marcos, Jr. himself has stated that he will not allow the ICC to investigate in the country as the Philippines already “have a functioning judiciary”.