English News


The Philippines Presidential Election: A consequential one for its domestic politics and foreign policy

Presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr., with running mate, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, in Bulacan Province, the Philippines (Photo: Xinhua/Rouelle Umali/IANS)

On Monday, May 9, Filipinos voted for their next President. A development that seems to be special this time as never since 1986, when peoples’ power ousted dictatorial Ferdinand Marcos Sr. who ruled most of his tenure through martial law, has such interest been aroused in a Presidential election. This is a consequential election, a kind of a referendum on the future political pattern in the country – whether the Filipinos can escape from the clan-based dynastic rule and electoral autocracy to a democratic order, a transparent government with empathy for common man and poor. It is also a referendum on what kind of foreign policy the country is likely to pursue, particularly its relationship with the United States and China.

The two most prospective candidates, Bongbong Marcos, son of the former dictator and Leni Robredo, the current Vice President, have diverse visions regarding the internal politics and foreign policy of the country and face a legacy left behind by Rodrigo Duterte of thousands of deaths in his war on drugs and of an economy hit heavily by the pandemic. Marcos Jr. has a strong lead in the polls thanks to a majority of voters being under 30. He campaigns on a broad pledge to bring unity. Robredo, promises a more transparent government, which gives priority to marginalized groups and invests billions for better housing and job creation.

Issues in the Election; Role of clan-based dynastic families

Most issues in this election arise from the erratic misrule of Duterte that caused the economy to slide down from long years of electoral autocracy. Unemployment sits at 6.4 per cent. Additionally, 13 per cent workers are underemployed. Before the pandemic, 2.2 million Filipinos had to go abroad to find work. Filipinos would like their next President to concentrate on job creation. Corruption and dominance by clan-based dynastic families is another important issue. Political parties do not matter much in the Philippines, it is the top man or woman from the powerful families that calls the shots with a patronage system that is called ‘pork barrel,’ a metaphor for the appropriation of government spending for localized projects secured solely or primarily to bring money to a representative’s district. A handful of families govern the Philippines and it won’t change if Marcos Jr. wins the elections. On top of it, he has chosen Duterte’s daughter as his Vice-Presidential candidate. The duo not only enjoys support of their own powerful political families, but also of the clans around former presidents Arroyo and Estrada. Multiple powerful positions in the government are held by the families that allows them to monopolise power.

Powerful families like Marcos’ have monopoly over the infrastructure of information though which they can shape public opinion to their choice. The Philippines is one of the most online countries on earth. The average Filipino spends nearly four hours a day on social media. TikTok and the likes are the main source of trusted news for an overwhelming majority. Bongbong Marcos has been playing the game like a master, which is an important factor for his strong lead in the polls. His team runs an unparalleled disinformation campaign, exposed by Rappler, the online publication founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa. Marcos Jr. has used social media and information architecture to whitewash past abuses that his father was guilty of. As bulk of the voters are below 30, they have not experienced the dictatorial rule of Marcos Sr. and are vulnerable to propaganda and misuse of social media.

Ferdinand Marcos speaks during an election campaign (Photo: IANS)

Marcos Jr. not only presents the strong-man rule approach of Duterte but also wants to continue with the latter’s war on drugs, though his approach is more focussed on prevention rather than enforcement. It is the same on creating infrastructure even though the record was poor. Duterte’s big infrastructure investment plan resulted in only 18 out of 119 projects being delivered, for which he alone cannot be blamed, as China reneged on its promises to support with investments.

Leni Robredo, Marcos’s rival, on the other hand, comes from a middle-class background and was one of the staunchest critics of Duterte. She has the support of the poor and civil society groups who want a fundamental change in the way the Philippines is governed. Though she looks a weaker candidate compared to Marcos Jr., she can still spring a surprise at the last moment and secure a miracle win. Robredo promises transparency in the public sector, better healthcare, and to lead ‘a government that cares about the people’, with a strong focus on marginalized groups. She plans to revive the pandemic-hit economy by launching a 192 billion pesos (US $3.7 billion) jobs program and to channel 50 billion pesos (US $960 million) a year to housing for the poor. Robredo was against Duterte’s drug war as it indulged in senseless killings.

Contrasting views on foreign policy

On foreign policy again, the two candidates have contrary views. Duterte brought the Philippines closer to Beijing. He even joked his country could become a province of China. It was his attempt at creating an ‘independent’ foreign policy, meaning less reliant on the United States. But the real reason behind his closeness to Beijing was the fact China bankrolled his election to the Presidency. Marcos’ approach to China is closer to Duterte’s. Marcos is expected to continue Duterte’s pragmatic approach to China, although probably less erratically. He would keep a keen eye on any economic benefit to be drawn from China, having put pandemic recovery at the centre of his election campaign. Marcos has vowed to maintain the “special relationship” with the United States but “be friends with everyone”. China is likely to seek as close a relationship with Marcos as Xi Jinping enjoyed with Duterte, which they have described as a personal friendship. Such an approach would leave China well-positioned to increase its influence in the Philippines. On China, Marcos has repeatedly said that the Philippines’ 2016 arbitral win against China could not be enforced and that a bilateral deal on the South China Sea (SCS) was practical (this is China’s preferred option). He, however, changed his position under pressure from a strong anti-China sentiment in the country and even promised to deploy warships to defend the country’s sovereign rights in the SCS.

Robredo, on the other hand, has promised a course change. She has been critical of Duterte’s “reckless” China policy and has criticised his transactional approach to foreign policy. She has outlined an “inclusive and independent” foreign policy that favours no specific country and has mentioned the importance of traditional partners, including the United States, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Europe. Robredo has said she would pursue deals with China but called the 2016 ruling “non-negotiable” and has pledged to build alliances and rally ASEAN in establishing the Code of Conduct for the SCS (in the making for over 20 years). She wants China to recognize the Philippines’ sovereignty over an area of the SCS, as granted by the Hague ruling. However, she is open to cooperation with Beijing in other fields, especially trade and investment.

South-east Asian countries, including the Philippines, by and large prefer an independent foreign policy and is not inclined towards taking sides between major powers, but as the region is faced with geopolitical changes in recent years they are increasingly under pressure to align with either China or the US. Under a Marcos presidency, the country would likely draw closer to China, while a Robredo presidency would probably see strengthened ties with traditional allies, including some ASEAN members, the United States, and Australia.

Under the banner of its Act East Policy (AEP). India’s ties with the Philippines have been upgraded over the past few years with the two countries expanding their defence partnership and negotiating a PTA (Preferential Trading Arrangement). It is hoped that the relationship will be further strengthened under the new leadership.

Read More: With BrahMos, will the Philippines be able to stand up to China’s bullying?