Explainer: What will a Marcos presidency in the Philippines look like?

May 11, 2022 - 9:34 AM
Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, gestures with a victory sign during a campaign rally in Lipa, Batangas province, Philippines, April 20, 2022. (Reuters/Eloisa Lopez)

Ferdinand Marcos Jr has swept an election in the Philippines and will begin a six-year term as president at the end of June, capping off his family’s decades-long quest to regain power after it was driven out in a 1986 uprising.

Below is what to expect from a Marcos presidency.

What do we know about his policy agenda?

Very little. Though notoriously divisive, Marcos campaigned predominantly on a message of unity, without saying how that would be achieved.

Commitments to voters have been vague, promising lower prices of basic goods, building infrastructure and steering the Philippines out of a pandemic-induced economic slowdown.

His ducking of presidential debates and interviews has frustrated opponents and some business and academic groups have complained voters had no chance to hear him argue his vision.

His avoidance of scrutiny and dominance of social media proved a winning strategy.

What will his approach be?

Conventional wisdom suggests an autocratic approach would be a mistake given his late father’s dictatorial legacy, but Filipinos have shown desire for a strongman-type ruler.

Outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte’s ruthless, decisive approach garnered consistently high public approval ratings and a cult-like following, which helped win control of the legislature and bureaucracy and tame independent bodies, making opponents think twice about taking him on.

Marcos will want to avoid showing weaknesses so he can consolidate power fast and create a favourable environment to initiate institutional changes to entrench the rule of his family and political and business network.

How might he handle the economy?

Major reform pledges could be too ambitious and backfire if like predecessors he fails to make meaningful progress. Marcos is expected to be a continuity president, picking up from where the Duterte administration left off.

He is expected to focus on reviving the country’s remittances and consumption-based economy, and completing Duterte’s “build, build, build” infrastructure works, which were delayed by the pandemic. That would help Marcos show tangible results, while creating jobs and boosting appeal among foreign investors.

Marcos will inherit a huge amount of debt from the previous administration’s borrowing to support the economy during the pandemic, which could limit his room to take on more debt to finance government projects or support growth.

Like Duterte, he will likely pursue Chinese investment, which economists warn could come with onerous conditions on loan rates, labour, technology and raw materials and the risks of projects stalling or deals not materialising.

Marcos will need to tread carefully. Duterte’s overtures to China had mixed results and surveys consistently showed Filipinos are mistrustful of Beijing.

What will his first moves be?

Critical to Marcos will be finding the right technocrats to run the economy and he might experience difficulties given the cronyism, nepotism and graft associated with the Marcos era. Some of the older, educated class that joined the 1980s revolution might be hesitant, but might find themselves isolated if the political tide changes.

Continuity could be key and his best bet might be retaining technocrats from Duterte’s administration. Marcos’s alliance with incoming vice president Sara Duterte-Carpio – the president’s daughter – could help that.

To establish control, appointments in his cabinet, the bureaucracy, judiciary and armed forces will be among his top priorities. Marcos will have favours to return among loyalists, deals to make, and new alliances to build and head off a concerted effort by opponents to hobble him.

A government-appointed body tasked with recovering billions of dollars of missing Marcos-era wealth could be among the first victims of his presidency.

What about longer term?

The Marcos family spent decades trying to get back to power. It won’t be ready to give that up soon.

Marcos has not hinted at making structural changes, but some political analysts believe he will use his presidency to amend the constitution and change the democratic system, enabling the Marcos dynasty to rule for the foreseeable future.

His outright majority should ensure a new congress and senate are aligned with him, and more sympathetic judges, allowing him to make the necessary changes.

What’s his foreign policy?

His win is more favorable to China than the United States, with Marcos expected to seek close ties with Beijing given its economic clout, but he would need to manage optics.

A shift away from the orbit of the United States is unlikely and would be unpopular with millions of Filipinos whose relatives are U.S. citizens. A decades-old defence alliance is crucial too for the Philippine military, which Marcos will need on his side. Washington stands to lose strategically by distancing itself from Marcos.

He has shown pragmatism in stressing the need to avoid confrontation with Beijing in the South China Sea, but will be wary of appearing to capitulate. The military and public will expect him to defend Philippine sovereign integrity, even if only with rhetoric.

—Editing by Nick Macfie