PNA photo by Joey O. Razon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Philippines Gets a New President With A Very Familiar Name

On May 9th, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was elected President of the Philippines. If that name sounds familiar to you, it is because he is the son of Ferdinand Marcos Senior, the brutal kleptocrat who ruled the Philippines for nearly 20 years.

Marcos Jr., who is commonly known as “Bongbong,” took office on June 30th succeeding Rodrigo Duterte, whose six year term was marked by a sharp deterioration of human rights in the Philippines, including a so-called “war on drugs” in which several thousands of people were extrajudicially killed by state security forces. Bongbong Marcos’ vice president is Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte.

To help explain this new chapter in Philippines politics is Dr. Tom Smith, Principle Lecturer in International Relations for the University of Portsmouth, and the Academic Director to the Royal Air Force College.


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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

Who was Ferdinand Marcos Sr.?

 Dr. Tom Smith [00:00:00] Forming an ally of the two clans — the now very powerful Duterte clan and the Marcos clan in the presidential palace is going to be really quite formidable for liberal forces in the Philippines.

Edited News Clips [00:01:30] “His government promised President Rodrigo Duterte’s third State of the Nation address will be his best. It was meant to highlight his administration’s achievement over the past two years, but it ended up becoming one of the most chaotic national events in recent times.” “The illegal drugs war will not be sidelined. Instead, it will be as relentless and chilling, if you will, as on the day begun.”.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:05] In the Philippines, a vote for president is separate from a vote for vice president but Bongbong Marcos and Sara Duterte formed an alliance, and both were overwhelmingly elected as president and vice president…

Dr. Tom Smith [00:03:49] During the seventies, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. Was elected to be the president of the Philippines, in kind of a boom time in the Philippines, actually, when the Asian economies, the Asian tiger economies were really starting to grow. The Philippines was well-placed to take advantage of globalization. This is in the death throes of the war in Vietnam, and the Philippines had been a strong ally of the United States during that period. And Ferdinand Marcos came to power and was well supported by the United States but the sins of the father, as you referred to, those are the ones that everybody remembers now. So, I mean, the headlines really over that period of his reign, a period of martial law which instituted from 1972 to 81. These are well documented, so I feel confident in citing those but we’re talking around 3000 known extrajudicial killings, which are well cited and referenced in a fairly notorious Amnesty International report. Reports of around 35,000 people were tortured under his reign. 70,000 incarcerated and a whole plethora of other human rights abuses which were orchestrated at his behest, but it was actually the AFP, the armed forces of the Philippines, which conducted most of these. He did invent some other paramilitary units, police units, to undertake some of these as well but that was kind of the dark period which all ended in the early eighties with the People Power Revolution and the ousting of Ferdinand Marcos Senior. And he went in exile to Hawaii through the United States.

Who is Imelda Marcos?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:29] And his rule was also marked by a plundering of state coffers to personally enrich himself and his family. He left office in Philippines, was forced out, an extremely wealthy person.

Dr. Tom Smith [00:05:45] Indeed. I mean, this really is a scandal of legendary proportions and it’s been very well documented. Fairly recently in documentary films made about Ferdinand’s wife, Imelda Marcos, who’s still alive and back in the Philippines, sporting some of the same luxurious goods that she’s been accused of plundering during her time as the first lady.

Edited Documentary Clips [00:06:06] “I was always criticized for being excessive, but that is mothering.” “3000 pairs of shoes. Shipping animals from Africa, Picasso, Michelangelo.” “The demonstrators stormed the gates of the palace to take back what they said was theirs.” “It was a big reception. I had to wear jewelry and we were told, get into the helicopter. So, I pulled diamonds in diapers. It saved us later on, the great lawyers.”

What was the plundering in the Philippines?

Dr. Tom Smith [00:06:33] I mean, he was shipped out on a US military aircraft, first to Guam, then to Hawaii with as legend has it, bucketloads loads of cash, US dollars, famous artworks as well as having pilfered much of the resources of the Philippines away in Swiss bank accounts over the years and real estate around the world and what have you. So, the plunder, as is referred to in the Philippines, is well known and notorious. That’s not to say there’s been much of a criminal investigation into it. The closest we’ve got to that is cases pending against Imelda Marcos, the matriarch of the family but now the son has been elected as president. I don’t expect those cases to go very far.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:13] You mentioned Imelda Marcos’s notorious spending habits, and I couldn’t help but be bemused at this image I saw of Marcos Jr sitting with his mother in the Philippines and in the background is a Picasso painting that almost certainly was purchased through ill-gotten gains from the state coffers.

Dr. Tom Smith [00:07:38] The brazenness to take that picture and laud that in front of the world tells you an awful lot really of the sort of characters we’re talking about and how they feel a divine right to rule and that the things that they acquired, the wealth that they acquired, which they still hold on to — which still makes them very powerful, a very powerful political force in contemporary Filipino politics — is theirs and nobody else is to care so those pictures did shock people. The documentary I referred to previously, the Kingmaker documentary about Imelda as well, and her famous shoe collection and all the rest of it really is an excellent watch for anybody interested.

How was Ferdinand Marcos Jr. elected as the president of the Philippines?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:15] So how is it that Ferdinand Marcos, Jr, known colloquially as Bongbong, was able to rehabilitate his family’s reputation in the Philippines given the terrible sins and misrule of his father, with whom he shares a name?

Dr. Tom Smith [00:08:37] Yeah, I mean, the answer to that is going to be quite complex, Mark. He didn’t really try to rehabilitate the name. He lent into the name. The Marcos brand, as it is, the family dynasty, is what gives him credence, what gives him power. He didn’t in any way try to diminish that or apologize for his father. In fact, he when questioned about that and he avoided questions as much as possible during the election campaign, he flatly refused to condemn his father’s crimes of the past and they’ve never admitted to the plunder, they’ve never admitted to the human rights abuses. When you have a system in which the son of a dictator, a reviled dictator with an international reputation, can assume power then you have to look more forensically at the politics of the Philippines and how it elects its leaders and that’s through a very transactional form of politics. At the bottom of the electoral pyramid in the Philippines is the Barangay captain, the local village captain, he’s nine times out of ten, tethered to the local mayor, then governor and then senator and at the top of that pyramid sits the president. So, when you’re voting for your local village captain, the man that has the most say in your life, who can affect change in your life the most, who can give you fresh water, food security in your own village, that vote is then tethered all the way up the pyramid to the president. And so, the transactional nature of the politics in the Philippines means that a vote for certain barangay captains who have their loyalty to the Marcos’s is already cemented and this election really proved this client relationship of the politics there in the Philippines.

How are elections structured in the Philippines?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:14] So it’s like an old school political machine.

Dr. Tom Smith [00:10:17] Yeah or a Ponzi, you might want to call it. We refer to this, you know, in the West in various different forms but in the Philippines, it’s really quite entrenched now, and of course, there are other aspects to it as well. I mean, quite frankly, let’s call a spade a spade. Votes are bought. Manny Pacquiao, the famous boxer, came in at a distant fourth office with less than 10% of the vote was never going to be a credible candidate and this is a Western facing character because his boxing campaign very brazenly was offering money at the side of stages to potential voters of election rallies. Where people are paid to attend rallies and then vote for people; it’s not hidden. It’s quite open that transactional nature.

Who is Sara Duterte?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:59] And into this sort of transactional mix. How does Sara Duterte fix? Because there seems to be a lot of intrigue in her decision not to run for president, to succeed her father, Rodrigo Duterte, but rather to vie for the vice presidency, which is elected separately. But I take it she formed an alliance with Marcos?

Dr. Tom Smith [00:11:24] That’s right, yes. Presidents and vice presidents are elected on different ballots, so you vote for each separately, but Marcos and Sara Duterte did ally together, effectively forming a unified ticket together. I think a lot of people were surprised that Sara didn’t run and just take up the mantle from her father, continue his policies, you know, the drug war and the rest of it, his anti-American rhetoric and continue that — particularly there’s an ICC investigation pending against the father Rodrigo Duterte and obviously having daughter in office would help shield him from that. So, I was quite surprised that she didn’t run. I’m not surprised, therefore, that she went for vice president and forming an ally of the two clans that now very powerful Duterte clan and the Marcos clan in the presidential palace, is going to be really quite formidable for liberal forces in the Philippines to make any inroads in the next six years. But what that really means is it tees up, Sara, as the front runner for really the next election in 2028 to be the next president, I imagine.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:29] Because presidents serve a single six-year term, right?

Dr. Tom Smith [00:12:32] That’s right. Yeah. I mean, the Constitution does prevent anybody running again but I suspected that Rodrigo Duterte, especially during the pandemic, thought about overturning that Constitution and making an amendment to that. He didn’t in the end, but a powerful president certainly could and that’s not beyond the realms of possibility, they could change the Constitution on that.

What are Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte’s policy priorities?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:53] So Marcos and Sara Duterte, they didn’t just eke out a victory, they won overwhelmingly in these elections, and they take office in the context of Rodrigo Duterte’s last six years of sidelining liberal forces of campaigns against the free press and generally of a shrinking space for civil society within the Philippines. What do these next six years portend for that kind of creeping authoritarianism that we’ve seen in the Philippines over the previous six years?

Dr. Tom Smith [00:13:35] Yeah, it doesn’t bode well for those liberal forces that you referred to, Mark. Bongbong hasn’t been that articulate in his views around policy, domestic or foreign policy during the campaign. He dodged questions as much as possible so even some time after the election, we’re not able to flesh out and really understand what policies he’s going to follow and be direct with. But with Sara on his shoulder as the vice president, we’ve got to imagine that if the drug war is to continue, maybe there’ll be a rebranding, there’s not going to be the full scale investigation that the country needs to get to the bottom of that and look at the deaths of the 20, maybe 30,000 extrajudicial killings that happened over the last six years under the brand of the war on drugs, as well as the human rights abuses, particularly in Duterte’s time with the practice of red tagging: tagging liberal allies as a so-called red, a communist, an enemy of the state. And that became a really pernicious. So that went against lawyers, journalists, activists, even academics, where from time to time they would publish sort of a matrix of the enemies of the state. And that has had crippling impacts on people’s lives, as you can imagine and on the liberal inroads that they can be made in domestic politics. And I can’t see how that tactic, which is served the Duterte clan very well being put to one side and replaced with anything else by the Marcos clan with Sara there so sadly, I think we’re in for something of the same, maybe some slight rebranding, but these policies have had a devastating effect, and nothing bodes well for their continuance, I’m afraid.

How much power will Sara Duterte have over Filipino policies as vice president?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:21] To what extent does Sara Duterte share her father’s bombast and outlandish behavior? And to what extent is she, as vice president, able to steer policy?

Dr. Tom Smith [00:15:36] As vice president she’s largely ceremonial. The previous vice president under Duterte was a liberal, Leni Robredo, and while she was a thorn in his side to speak out against things like the drug war, she wasn’t able to do anything. Under a different administration, Sara may be given more responsibilities. Maybe she’ll be given a post as Secretary of State for some department, there’s talk of being the Secretary of State for Education. And so, one of the core policies, the only policy they really held to both Bongbong and Sara during their campaign, was to implement compulsory ROTC service for college students. This is really quite pernicious as well. This is going to militarize the society of the Philippines even more.

What is Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC)?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:18] I should say, for those not in the United States, ROTC is Reserve Officer Training Corp. It’s a way for college students and even high school students to be socialized into the military and receive training as students.

Dr. Tom Smith [00:16:35] Yeah, they receive all basic training, there’s usually an officer class to that as well. This mirrored what goes on in the US, in the Philippines for quite some many years, but they want to implement that as a compulsory level of service, which is difficult because in the Philippines, during the Marcos dictatorship, because it was the army that did the bidding of the President, carried out much of the violence. A lot of the trust of the society in the Philippines was lost in the military and it’s taken an awful long time for that to be rebuilt. I mean, I’ve worked very closely with Filipino military people who’ve been the US to the UK, to Sandhurst and West Point to get all that training, they’re very credible and good people, and over the last six years under Duterte, all that goodwill has been lost because the military have got back in bed with politics, society has become much more militarized and so I expect that to Sara herself — yes, she’s quite bombastic, like her father, slightly different shades, perhaps, but there’s some fairly famous footage of her in Davao.

News Report [00:17:34] “This is Sara Duterte, mayor of Davao City. This is Sara Duterte when things don’t go her way. The target of the rage, a sheriff… he was carrying out a court order to tear down houses in a slum area. Duterte says she’d asked for a two-hour delay so she could ask the residents to peacefully dismantle their homes. He ignored her request and got in return four blows to his left eye, face and back.”

Dr. Tom Smith [00:18:05] She’s certainly capable of grabbing headlines, just like her father.

How will Bongbong Marcos handle the Philippines’ foreign policy with China and the United States?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:10] On foreign policy, Rodrigo Duterte, somewhat surprisingly, at least early on in his administration, started to warm ties with China. This is despite the fact that the Philippines and China have an ongoing territorial dispute over islands in the South China Sea. Yet Rodrigo Duterte had generally warm relations with China. What do we expect from Bongbong Marcos in terms of how he might balance the Philippines’ historic security alliance with the United States, with the Philippines’ relationship with China?

Dr. Tom Smith [00:18:55] I think that’s really interesting and to be honest with you, I think he’s feeling out for himself. He has, to his credit, employed quite a few technocrats thus far into positions, and one of those is a career diplomat in the foreign policy position and that bodes well for a serious person to look at th foreign policy for the Philippines if it’s not to Bongbong’s taste or interests, and he’s probably given his previous utterance on the topic, he’s going to talk about sovereignty, going to talk about territorial integrity, which play all well to the South China Sea issue. However, I think just like Rodrigo Duterte found out, Bongbong Marcos is going to find trying to get some leverage either out of China or the United States and find itself to a path to enlightenment for the Philippines between these two powerful forces is going to be very, very difficult. Rodrigo Duterte ultimately talked very strongly about pushing back against US influence, for which he has a fair point and perhaps cozying up to China a more closely aligned regional superpower of which you can understand, but really got nowhere with that. The foreign investment promised from China never materialized. The infrastructure projects which Duterte promised off the back of that never materialized. And so, we still have a fairly close security relationship with the United States. So, it will be interesting to see how much the Philippines leans on the United States to assert its sovereignty in the South China Sea of the disputed islands. The other big policy issue which will come to the fore pretty quickly for Bongbong, will be something called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, and that really is the pen and paper, the legitimacy of all the US bases and military personnel in the Philippines, which makes it that landing spot for the pivot to Asia.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:50] So is there going to be a moment in the coming weeks or months or early in Bongbong’s tenure in which he will have to somehow confront that U.S. military alliance and as you said, put pen to paper and sign agreements.

Dr. Tom Smith [00:21:06] I think all parties will avoid that. I think the US will avoid putting Bongbong in a difficult position where he has to choose. I think the Chinese will as well and I think Bongbong will avoid that, so I imagine actually for the next few months we’ll see a lot of handholding. I know Bongbong has been invited to Washington to meet Biden, and the foreign minister of China has already been to Manila, he was the first guest, actually. So, they’re all making plays and making good, positive noises. I don’t think any crescendo to this relationship is going to happen any time soon. There are other things, though, which might force the US’s hand. I mean, the historic relationship with his father, I think is going to cast a light on the US relationship with the Philippines back in the spotlight of the seventies and then obviously his exile. But Maria Ressa, the famous journalist who won the Nobel Prize, she’s facing jail, trumped up charges in the Philippines, entirely politicized under the Duterte reign, have rolled over now into the Marcos administration and again, with Sara’s influence, I think she’s facing jail and that will put the U.S. and Western allies in a very difficult position. Are they going to speak out and object against that? And then, of course, there are all these sorts of dissidents and famous people languishing in jail, not least a sitting senator of the Philippines, Leila de Lima, who’s already been in jail for five and a half years. So, it kind of feels a little bit churlish, maybe spoken about Maria Ressa, who hasn’t gone to jail yet when one female senator has been in jail for five and a half years without any restitution. So, I think these things are more impending spotlights maybe than the South China Sea, which I think all parties would rather just ignore.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:47] Well, Tom, thank you so much for your time. This has been very helpful.

Dr. Tom Smith [00:22:51] No problem. Good to speak to you as always.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:00] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.