Many feared Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s election would spell the end of Philippine democracy. But the dictator’s son has surprised nearly everyone, playing the role of a reformer while sidelining his populist rivals.
When Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the namesake son of the late Philippine dictator, won an emphatic victory in the 2022 presidential election, many feared that he would follow in the footsteps of his late father. Others worried he would build on the authoritarian-populist legacy of his immediate predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who oversaw widespread human-rights violations with impunity throughout his six-year reign of terror. As I previously warned in these pages, “Marcos Jr. could turn out to be not just a debonair career underachiever but [also] an insidious threat to Philippine democracy.”
Instead, and to the surprise of many, the new president has emerged as an unlikely “reformer” of Philippine politics as well as a tough defender of Philippine sovereign rights in the South China Sea. So far, he has neither emulated his father, who instituted a brutal dictatorship at the height of the Cold War, nor immediate predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who oversaw a demagogic reign of terror from 2016 to 2022. Instead, Marcos Jr. has advanced a radical reorientation of his country’s domestic politics as well as foreign policy. If it seems a stretch to call him a conscious champion of liberal democracy, it may not be unreasonable to note the unexpected set of more democracy-favorable conditions that his administration has ushered in.
At home, he recalibrated his predecessor’s violent drug war in favor of a more rehabilitation-oriented approach, while purging proto-fascist elements from key security agencies. Marcos Jr.’s tenure has coincided with legal victories by key civil society figures in cases dating from the Duterte years, most notably, 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate journalist Maria Ressa, who faced charges of tax evasion and libel, as well as top opposition leaders, most notably, former senator Leila de Lima, who faced drug-related charges. Eschewing incendiary and confrontational rhetoric, the urbane and soft-spoken Marcos Jr. has often spoken of reconciliation and national unity, even during the anniversary of the popular revolution that toppled his father’s regime. And he has expressed openness to the possibility of working with the International Criminal Court (ICC) as it looks into allegations of mass atrocities stemming from Duterte’s scorched-earth drug war.
Just as remarkable is Marcos Jr.’s foreign policy. Over the past year, he has tightened security cooperation with traditional Western allies as well as likeminded regional powers, most especially India, in order to check China’s maritime expansionism in the South China Sea. In particular, he has expanded the number of military bases to be opened to the Pentagon under the Philippine-U.S. Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), commenced joint naval and air patrols with allied nations, and adopted a proactive transparency initiative to expose China’s illegal activities and contravention of international law in the disputed waters. Marcos Jr. not only snubbed last year’s Belt and Road Initiative summit in Beijing, but his administration has also rolled back almost all of China’s big-ticket infrastructure projects in the Philippines.
The president has embraced a distinct form of “techno-populism” that combines authoritarian nostalgia with high-minded macroeconomic discourse. The largely unexpected trajectory of Marcos Jr.’s policy thrust, however, is less an upshot of newfound progressive convictions than a token of the ruthless pragmatism that has always undergirded the political success of his notorious dynasty. Eager to fully rehabilitate his family’s reputation, and to please his new strategic patrons in the West, the president is intent on projecting himself as a democratic reformer—if not a redeemer of Philippine democracy. He is also still very much in the midst of a power struggle with his former allies in the Duterte dynasty. Sara Duterte, Rodrigo’s daughter, currently holds the national vice-presidency (an office filled by its own separate election in the Philippines), which has not stopped the Duterte camp from opposing key Marcos policies. The result has been one of the most consequential political conflicts in Philippine history, and one that even raises the specter of civil war.
Alliance of Inconvenience
In the election year of 2022, the Marcos-Duterte axis seemed solid. Running as a “UniTeam” even though nominally each was filling a one-person ticket, Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte combined to win an unprecedented three-fifths of the total vote. It marked the first time in more than half a century that the winning presidential and vice-presidential candidates had each gleaned a majority of votes.
This also meant that the liberal opposition had lost a third consecutive election. That opposition could not stop Rodrigo Duterte’s meteoric rise to power in 2016, and then suffered complete decimation in the 2019 midterms. After only a single progressive candidate, Risa Hontiveros, won a national post in 2022 (she holds a seat in the at-large Senate), opposition leaders went into retreat. Former opposition leader Leni Robredo turned to civil society activities and academic life, while others became social-media influencers and travel vloggers.
Paradoxically, the very weakness of the opposition helped to accelerate the rise of tensions within the Marcos-Duterte alliance. With no external threat to bind them together, the two notorious dynasties began challenging each other with ferocious intensity. The first sign of trouble came right after the election, when President-elect Marcos Jr. walked back his promise to name Sara Duterte as defense secretary.
Stung, Duterte supporters cried foul and publicly demanded a reversal. The younger Duterte had been leading the polls ahead of the 2022 election only to drop out of the presidential running at the eleventh hour. She was the true force behind the “UniTeam” success, and Marcos Jr., who had lost a vice-presidential race in 2016 and was only polling around 15 percent in 2022 presidential-campaign surveys, would likely not have run had Sara Duterte continued to pursue the presidency.
Further signs of an unhealable rift emerged after Marcos Jr’s first State of the Nation Address, delivered in July 2022. He left out any discussion of the drug war, constitutional change, or the fight against communist rebels—the three issues most dear to the Duterte base. Instead of embracing his predecessor’s policy agenda, Marcos Jr. signaled his commitment to economic development and winning over the international community.
Nevertheless, both Rodrigo and Sara Duterte reluctantly kept mum in the opening months of the Marcos Jr. administration. The incumbent tried to appease them by repeatedly trying to project an image of policy continuity, even welcoming a “new golden era” of bilateral relations with China and choosing Beijing (as Rodrigo Duterte had) to be the site of his first presidential trip abroad.
The Gloves Come Off
Marcos Jr.’s trip to China, however, ended in bitter disappointment, setting the stage for a radical reorientation of Philippine foreign policy. When China’s President Xi Jinping refused to offer any concessions on either the South China Sea or unmet Chinese pledges to invest in the Philippine economy, Marcos Jr. pivoted back to Western allies who warmly embraced a new President Marcos who, like his dictator father, embraced them.
Just weeks after returning from Beijing, Marcos Jr. greenlighted the expansion of EDCA, thus granting the Pentagon access to four new military bases, including two close to Taiwan. For good measure, Marcos Jr. then pressed for a new Japan-Philippine-U.S. alliance and welcomed new defense deals with several Asia-Pacific regional powers.
Revitalized ties with traditional allies were joined by tougher posturing in the South China Sea. The Philippine Navy and Coast Guard began regularly publicizing their encounters with Chinese maritime forces. The Marcos Jr. administration vowed to fortify the country’s position in the disputed waters, especially in the Second Thomas Shoal and the Spratly Islands.
Marcos Jr.’s new foreign-policy direction made solid political sense. He was pleasing both his Western allies and the U.S.-trained Philippine military while burnishing his image as a patriot in the minds of most Filipinos, who back a tougher stance against China in the oil-and-fisheries-rich South China Sea.
Enraged by all this, Rodrigo Duterte stepped up his anti-Marcos attacks. He warned that the Philippines was inviting a potential nuclear war with China by welcoming more U.S. forces onto Philippine soil. In an unprecedented move by a former president, he unilaterally arranged a special meeting with China’s leadership in Beijing without coordinating at all with the new administration. Meanwhile, another former chief executive, Duterte ally and Deputy Speaker of the House Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, allegedly tried to oust the Marcos-aligned leadership of the House of Representatives.
In response, House Speaker Martin Romualdez, the president’s first cousin and righthand man, gradually purged Arroyo and her allies from the congressional leadership. Vice-President Duterte sought to defend Arroyo by slamming Romualdez, and a public feud in the top ranks of the Philippine political class was on. The now firmly Marcos-aligned leadership of Congress retaliated by depriving Duterte of her access to special confidential funds amid a public outcry that taxpayer monies were being abused.
Rodrigo Duterte condemned Congress as a “rotten” institution, while a pro-Duterte media outlet, the Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI), accused Romualdez of corruption. The pro-Marcos camp swiftly hit back by threatening to impeach Sara Duterte, and by orchestrating the suspension of SMNI, where Rodrigo Duterte hosts a regular television show. Most troubling to the Duterte camp, however, have been the wins in court of opposition leaders such as Leila de Lima (a staunch critic of the former president), who has threatened to pursue her former tormentors after spending more than five years behind bars on politically motivated charges, plus Marcos Jr.’s expressed openness to potential cooperation with the ICC, which has been reportedly preparing its case against top Duterte administration officials.
Marcos’s Western partners like this move, as do his liberal domestic critics, who find that they are developing a classic case of proverbial “strange new respect” for the dictator’s son in light of the less authoritarian environment that has developed under his administration. Widespread protests by Duterte supporters could still disrupt things, though, and the new openness may (however inadvertently) be helping the Duterte camp to mobilize its base ahead of the 2025 midterm elections. By all indications, Marcos Jr. seems to prefer holding the ICC card as a potential source of leverage rather than risk all-out confrontation with the Dutertes. The generally risk-averse incumbent is, by all appearances, playing cautiously. He seeks to gradually marginalize the Duterte dynasty before laying the foundation for constitutional change as a follow-on to the 2025 midterms.
Should his plans succeed, Marcos Jr. may favor switching to a parliamentary system—run perhaps by Speaker Romualdez—after the six-year, nonrenewable presidential term won in 2022 ends in 2028. Thus, the namesake son of the former Philippine dictator may still end up as an insidious threat to Philippine democracy, albeit in a more surreptitious manner, as well as to his former “UniTeam” allies. But will the Dutertes go gently into political oblivion? It seems doubtful. Marcos Jr. may be a natural avoider of conflicts, but he will need to prepare for an all-out one with the powerful dynasty from Mindanao that still harbors ambitions to occupy the Malacañang Palace.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a senior lecturer at the University of the Philippines, Asian Center, and a columnist at the Philippine Daily Inquirer. His books include The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy (2018) and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China, and the New Struggle for Global Mastery (2020).
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