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The 2022 Philippine Election: Trouble for Democracy and Foreign Relations Ahead?

Lucas Myers

 

On May 9th, Filipinos went to the polls to cast their votes for President to succeed Rodrigo Duterte. The acerbic former Mayor of Davao oversaw a decline in Philippine democracy, a bloody drug war, the proliferation of disinformation, and a foreign policy that failed in its pivot to China but distanced Manila from Washington. Continuing this populist authoritarian trend, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the son of the former dictator ousted in the People Power Revolution of 1986, won by historic margins, along with his incoming Vice President, Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte.

The run-up to the election was marked by a shifting series of alliances and betrayals before the field solidified under a solid Marcos lead. While a late polling surge by Leni Robredo—the outgoing Vice President, a position that is elected separately from the President—raised some hopes for the opposition to mount a victorious campaign, Marcos held his early lead through election day. Many youth in the Philippines are unfamiliar with the corruption and human rights abuses of Marcos’ father’s dictatorship, and a rampant disinformation environment altered perceptions of history and amplified his populist appeal. Marcos and Sara Duterte, despite occasional criticism from Rodrigo Duterte, represented continuation of the current administration’s populist style of politics, which duly secured them victory alongside the influence of entrenched political dynasticism and online misinformation.

The implications of a six year term under Marcos-Duterte are significant for everyday Filipinos and the country’s standing in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, the new administration is likely to continue many of Duterte’s policies, including efforts to court Beijing, thus heralding further declines in Philippine democracy and human rights, as well as in its relationship with the United States.

Dark Days for Philippine Democracy and Human Rights

From 2016 to 2022, the Philippine democracy declined substantially due to Duterte’s autocratic policies, from a 65 to a 55 in Freedom House’s democracy rankings. A violent wave of extrajudicial killings of thousands of suspected drug users, repression of journalists and civil society, and crackdowns on the opposition abounded under Duterte. These efforts led to the deaths of more than 6,200 according to the government’s own data, while others estimate up to 30,000 extrajudicial killings. Nobel Peace Prize recipient Maria Ressa, a journalist and founder of independent news outlet Rappler, exemplifies the impact of Duterte’s authoritarian turn. Convicted of cyber libel in 2020, Ressa was targeted by the Duterte administration for her criticism of human rights abuses. While the case against Ressa is the highest profile, it is far from the only instance of government repression in the Philippines. The environment for civil society and the media is far more restricted in 2022 than in 2015.

With their victory, the Marcos-Duterte administration appears poised to continue many of Duterte’s autocratic policies. Although ambivalent about Duterte’s federalist push, Marcos appears set on continuing the “Build, Build, Build” program, perhaps through further investment from China. When questioned regarding his father’s human rights abuses, Marcos dismissed the allegations. Early on in his campaign, the candidate said that he would continue the drug war, albeit in a “different way” by focusing on prevention and education, but he also reiterated that he will “behave as a non-signatory” towards an International Criminal Court investigation of Duterte’s drug war. He further explained that “we have a functioning judiciary, and that’s why I don’t see the need for a foreigner to come and do the job for us.” Regarding disinformation, Twitter suspended at least 300 accounts associated with the Marcos campaign for spreading misinformation. On issues of corruption, the Marcos family largely evaded justice for an estimated $10 billion theft of Philippine wealth during his father’s dictatorship, and a last ditch effort to disqualify him on the basis of tax evasion came to naught. These warning signs imply that the already serious damage to democracy and human rights in the Philippines will likely worsen during the next six years of Marcos’ tenure.

Courting Beijing

On foreign policy, Duterte similarly upended longstanding practice. Shortly after his win in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte announced that he would be ignoring the Philippines’ legal victory against Beijing in a Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling regarding disputed claims in the South China Sea. He promptly extended an olive branch to China. At the time, Duterte argued that “’there is no sense in going to war. There is no sense fighting over a body of water.” Within his first year, he embarked on a visit to Beijing to discuss the South China Sea with President Xi Jinping of China, which led to a Memorandum of Understanding for joint energy development. Much of impetus for this stemmed from Duterte’s fundamental distrust of the U.S. alliance’s reliability against China’s growing dominance in the region.

Yet, his foreign policy resulted in few, if any, wins for Manila. The Philippine public disfavors China, and only a fraction of promised Chinese investment has been implemented since 2016. Indeed, Chinese harassment of Filipino fishermen and island militarization in the South China Sea continued regardless of Duterte’s supposed détente with Beijing, leading to a major standoff over Scarborough Shoal in 2021. In spite of his best efforts, Duterte’s outreach to China came up short.

Regardless of the Philippines ability to court China, Marcos and Sara Duterte seem poised to carry this maverick foreign policy forward. While Marcos has advocated for a military presence in the disputed maritime region to defend Philippine interests, he said that he would order them “’not to fire upon’” Chinese vessels. Indeed, Marcos appears to share Duterte’s view that appeasement with China is in Manila’s best interests. He has stated his intention to not enforce the 2016 Arbitration ruling and expressed support for a bilateral deal with Beijing. He has argued  for persuading China to accept Filipino fisherman in the South China Sea—despite Chinese vessels continuously harassing them regardless of Duterte's past efforts—and for an ASEAN Code of Conduct on maritime disputes, which would likely be to Beijing’s benefit. Marcos will also likely seek greater Chinese investment, including in what some have alleged are questionable deals and gifts beneficial to the Marcos family’s personal interests. In short, Rodrigo Duterte’s recent warning to his successor to continue the stalled Memorandum with China will likely be heeded.

Strain with the United States

In a corollary to his outreach to China, the Duterte administration oversaw significant strain to its ties with the United States. Almost immediately upon taking over, President Duterte damaged relations with the United States through personal attacks on President Barack Obama and the fallout of his human rights violations during the drug war. This, and the commensurate courting of Beijing, came out of a larger drive from Duterte to practice an “independent foreign policy,” where Manila would strive to be “friends to all and enemies to none.”

Although ties improved somewhat during the Trump administration as Washington quieted its concerns over Manila’s human rights abuses and democratic decline, the downward trend reached a new low in 2020. Duterte threatened to end its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States in a serious blow to the alliance. The VFA enables the United States military to maintain legal jurisdiction over its forces operating in the Philippines, including those assisting Philippines troops in the fight against Islamist militants in Mindanao and those attached to the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that provides for U.S. access and pre-positioning at five bases. The Duterte administration kept the United States in limbo with a VFA extension into the Biden administration before a high profile visit by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin ultimately resulted in its restoration. Despite its eventual resurrection, the VFA’s loss could have been catastrophic for the U.S.-Philippine alliance and reflected Duterte’s unpredictability.

While U.S.-Philippine ties now appear more stable—Washington and Manila recently celebrated the largest ever Balikatan military exercises—the risk of a resurgence in tensions under Marcos is likely. Beyond his outreach to China, Marcos has troubled history with the United States, having fled to Hawaii following the 1986 democratic uprising against his father. A U.S. court issued contempt of court proceedings against Marcos in 1995 over a class action lawsuit against his family, a judgement which reportedly reached $353 million in 2011 and could theoretically lead to arrest upon his entry into the United States. Furthermore, while in the Philippine Senate in 2014, he pushed back against EDCA as unfair. During his electoral campaign, Marcos claimed that his negative history in the United States would not impact his foreign policy, but his message largely emphasizes a balanced approach between Beijing and Washington. Even if he abides by the VFA and EDCA, as he has stated he will, the relationship will likely be rocky.

From a U.S. perspective, the Philippine alliance and EDCA are hugely important for competition with China, because U.S. force posture remains over weighted towards Northeast Asia, and the Philippines is the only Southeast Asian candidate for a sizable U.S. military presence. Under Marcos, the potential that the Philippines moves away from EDCA and the VFA, or simply delays EDCA's implementation further, could threaten the wider U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. At the very least, Washington and Manila are likely to butt heads again after reaching a modicum of understanding in 2021, which would complicate the wider effort to face China.

The Domestic and Foreign Policy Risks of a Marcos Presidency are Real

Overall, the likely domestic trajectory under a President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is the continued tumult and authoritarianism of his predecessor. While Philippine democracy was never perfect, the decline under Duterte is notable and mirrors broader regional trends in the consolidation of strongman rule. The new administration may build off of Duterte’s popularity and represent a democratic electoral result, but it is fair to say that the outcome is a threat to Philippine democracy. The likelihood that the new president maintains Duterte’s anti-democratic policies oppressing civil society, the media, and the most vulnerable Filipinos is high.

On foreign policy, the erratic zig-zag in Philippine policy between the United States and China is liable to continue. To be sure, President Marcos is not likely to completely reject the U.S. alliance, nor entirely embrace China. Rather, he will likely follow a balancing effort. This is not unlike other countries in Southeast Asia, who prioritize non-alignment in great power competition, but it is a challenge considering that the Philippines is one of the United States’ most crucial allies in the Indo-Pacific.

For the Philippines’ interests itself, a balanced approach to the United States and China may not be all that Marcos hopes it can be. Beijing has shown little compunction about deploying coercive gray zone tactics to push Filipino fishermen out of the South China Sea regardless of Duterte’s best efforts to accommodate China, and few of the promised economic projects have come to fruition. From a regional perspective, a potentially more pro-China Philippines will further undermine an already struggling ASEAN and hamper its ability to stand up to Beijing. If it acquiesces too much to Beijing and alienates the United States or undermines ASEAN’s collective response, then Manila may find itself dictated to by a much more powerful China, the exact situation Duterte and now Marcos hope to avoid through accommodation.

The United States will need to prepare itself for unpredictability in one of its oldest allies, and it will have to decide if it can continue to look the other way at Philippine democratic decline in favor of narrower security interests"

But, Washington has little ability to change Marco’s mind on these issues. The United States will need to prepare itself for unpredictability in one of its oldest allies, and it will have to decide if it can continue to look the other way at Philippine democratic decline in favor of narrower security interests, such as EDCA and the VFA. To be sure, an overemphasis on “democracy versus authoritarianism” in foreign policy can be problematic for Washington’s relationships in the Indo-Pacific, but there are legitimate human rights concerns that will be difficult to ignore as well, especially considering the Marcos family's record. Going forward, there are storms ahead in U.S. relations with the Philippines.

In the end, the biggest potential losses under another autocratic Marcos presidency will be borne by the most vulnerable Filipinos. The rise of misinformation has clouded popular understanding of the Marcos’ crimes and corruption, and many in the Philippines now feel nostalgia for the earlier Marcos era. But, the realities of the dictatorship were harsh, with widespread corruption (an estimated $10 billion stolen) and human rights violations. According to Amnesty International, President Marcos himself reported in 1975 that 50,000 were arrested during martial law while over 3,200 killed and tens of thousands tortured, which Marcos Jr. publicly denies.

If past is precedent and the many warning signs come to fruition, further damage to already fragile institutions in the Philippines is likely under the new administration.

In his victory statement, incoming President Marcos asked to be judged not by his father's record but by his own actions, all while promising to be a president for all Filipinos. Yet, if past is precedent and the many warning signs come to fruition, further damage to already fragile institutions in the Philippines is likely under the new administration. If he is to continue the crackdown on civil society and the media or mirror his father’s corruption, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte pose a substantial risk to Philippine democracy over the next six years.

Follow Lucas Myers, Program Coordinator and Associate for Southeast Asia, on Twitter @lucasdeanemyers

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2022, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Lucas Myers

Lucas Myers

Program Coordinator and Associate for Southeast Asia, Asia Program
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Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more