The election of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., or BBM, son and namesake of the former deposed Philippine dictator, is a high point in the Philippines’ tumultuous history as a democracy. His majority win (capturing 58% of the vote) is the first in the country’s post-1986 multi-party presidential system. The last time a presidential candidate won by a solid majority was in 1965, and the victor then was Marcos, Sr. BBM’s win came as no surprise: he had already demonstrated his viable political potential during his vice-presidential bid in 2016, which he narrowly lost to Leni Robredo. The 2022 Presidential BBM-Robredo match was thus considered a redux, although polls since February 2022 consistently gave BBM a double-digit lead over Robredo.
BBM’s garnered support from multitudes of poor and middle-class people and raked in huge numbers from Mindanao, the stronghold of his running mate Sara Duterte, daughter of incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte. His strongest following in the polls came from young persons and his ethno-linguistic group, the Ilocanos. Voter-rich areas like the National Capital Region and Cebu also went for BBM, as did provinces whose local elites were Marcos allies. Although he was not endorsed publicly by incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte, he was widely perceived as continuing the Duterte legacy of populist rule.
BBM’s victory is more than just an ironic turn of events for a democracy that was created in the fall of his father’s dictatorship. It portends to the very weaknesses of the liberal democratic brand vis-a-vis the enduring hold of patronage, clientelism, and dynastic rule. The strategy of running both a son and daughter of prominent politicians was lifted straight from the same playbook that gives dynastic candidates an electoral edge in local contests. The BBM-Duterte ticket was brokered by ex-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, bringing together the “Solid North” vote of the Ilocano ethno-linguistic group and the Visayan-speaking south. It was also built on a strong network of provincial allies who delivered crucial votes, carried on the waves of a social media campaign that capitalized on disinformation and misogynistic targeting of Leni Robredo.
The BBM campaign parlayed the “golden years” of his father’s rule, adapting campaign songs and slogans that portray an antithetical version of the government’s official account of this period. He ducked accusations of his family’s ill-gotten wealth and refused to acknowledge human rights violations committed under his father’s rule. His nebulous call for “unity” was matched by his ambiguous stances on certain policies. An analyst referred to him as an avatar, with supporters and detractors seeing in him his father’s likeness, coupled with a strong desire to restore his family’s image, despite his frequently repeated claims that “he is not his father.” He is ultimately riding on the coattails of populist President Duterte, whose anti-rich, pro-poor discourse resonates loudly amongst those disappointed by the democracy’s failed promises to deliver economic well-being.
With a convincing win, what then might be expected of a Marcos 2.0 Presidency? BBM, who did not participate in any of the presidential debates, also did not present a clear foreign policy position in his campaign, except to reiterate the Philippines’ legal win over China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on disputed territories in the South China Sea. He made early references to defending national interests and pursuing an independent foreign policy, while simultaneously announcing that his administration will level up its relationship with China and negotiate with the US-backed Indo-Pacific Economic Forum. With China, he hints at broader bilateral ties beyond the economic realm to include cultural exchanges between the two nations. With the US, he dangles the prospect of updating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
It is clear that President-elect Marcos is seeking to stabilize international expectations, given the baggage his name carries, as well as assuage the general apprehension that he will follow in his predecessor’s mercurial and erratic foreign policy footsteps. Recall that President Duterte pivoted towards China by choosing to ignore the latter’s militarized activities in the South China Sea and attempting to unilaterally abrogate the VFA with the US in 2020. BBM’s top priority, however, is fixing the country’s economy, which is still recovering from the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, mounting public debt from pandemic spending, and skyrocketing fuel price. His initial cabinet appointments of old-hat civilian bureaucrats (communications and technology specialists, overseas workers, etc.), and seasoned economic managers (finance, budget, and economic planning) suggest this desire to focus on economic fundamentals first. He has yet to name anyone to the crucial defense and foreign affairs posts, positions which his predecessor chose to fill-in with ex-generals. As these are sensitive appointments, BBM is expected to choose people from among his inner circle rather than treat the appointments as a reward to political supporters.
The long shadow cast by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine over the China-Taiwan Strait is undoubtedly foremost in the mind of the president-elect. In an effort to recalibrate Duterte’s moribund approach, military and hardcore security issues are back in the government’s agenda, front and center. BBM cannot afford, nor is willing, to ditch the Philippine-US alliance, even though he will likely depend on Chinese loans to underwrite ambitious infrastructure projects. The Philippine military is also critical of China and supportive of the US, as the institution has long socialized under joint military exercises and training exchanges with its US counterparts. As shown during the successful campaign in Marawi, US military assistance remains crucial for the Philippine military’s internal security role. Duterte’s suspension of the VFA abrogation in January 2022 was a welcome reprieve to the military’s already stressed training calendar.
While we may not see BBM copying Duterte’s practice of recycling ex-generals to cabinet posts, he is expected to continue sovereignty patrols in the South China Sea and make more concrete efforts at bolstering the military’s territorial defense capability. To this end, Marcos will likely sustain the investments in military modernization started by Presidents Benigno Aquino III and Duterte, because the military’s shift towards external defense has to happen soon. The world still remembers that the Philippine military’s failed coup in 1986 was the catalyst for the popular uprising that deposed BBM’s father. But the 36-year interim has since produced a professional body within the military that is no longer incentivized by illicit power grabs, a notion that will inform relations between the Marcos 2.0 administration and military top brass for the next 6 years.