Written by Jacob Dickinson
On 30 June 2022, Ferdinand Marcos Junior, son of a former corrupt dictator, will be inaugurated as the 17th president of the Philippines. Otherwise known as Bongbong, his election marks a trend of democratic backsliding across Southeast Asia and comes at a time of escalating tensions in the South China Sea (SCS). The military Junta’s seizure of power and civil war in Myanmar and Hun Sen’s persecution of opposition parties in Cambodia, points to a wider trend of growing authoritarianism in Southeast Asia. On the frontline of the SCS dispute, the Philippines is a US treaty ally while China occupies the Scarborough Shoal. How does the return to dynastic politics for the Philippines affect democracy and what does the Marcos presidency mean for security in the South China Sea?
Bongbong Marcos is the son of Ferdinand Marcos Senior (Sr.), a former dictator of the Philippines. The Marcos’ rise as a political dynasty began in the 1965 presidential election. Back then, Senator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and his wife, Ismelda, presented themselves as the nation’s prospective saviors. With a collapsing economy and an unpopular incumbent, Marcos Sr. was elected president in 1965. Popular for his first term, he manipulated a growing economy as a result of the Vietnam War boom and elevated the military within his administration.
Ferdinand Marcos Sr. dominated political life and began to centralize power in the presidency. In 1969, he was elected for a second term with 74% of the vote and all but 24 out of 120 House candidates supported him. When he tried to overturn the presidential two term limits, widespread protests began against his government. Playing up to middle class fears against violent demonstrations, on 22 September 1972 he declared martial law. He violently repressed political opposition, jailed and controlled all media outlets, and arrested and detained up to 8,000 individuals. During this time Marcos Jr. played a part in his father’s regime. He ran as the Vice Governor of Ilocos Norte and was appointed to the head of a telecommunications company, the Philippines Communications Satellite Corp which was sold off to closely connected cronies.
For 15 years, the Marcos dictatorship committed human atrocities and plundered over $10 billion through rampant corruption. Marcos Sr. was eventually deposed in 1986 after a massive demonstration of civil disobedience following a fixed election and the rest of the Marcos family fled to Hawaii in 1986. Yet the legacy of dictatorship outlasted his presidency. The military attempted seven coups against the elected government between 1986 and 2007. The regime left the Philippines in over $70 billion in debt which was used to build luxury hotels rather than invest in industry. While he fled to Hawaii in 1986 with vast amounts of wealth, 44.7% of Filipinos lived in poverty.
The election of Bongbong Marcos to the presidency marks a continuity of popularly elected ‘strongman’ rule in which the population votes for a ‘strong’ leader with little respect for democratic norms and values. Despite the Philippines’ relatively free and fair elections, there is evidence that Bongbong Marcos employed disinformation campaigns and adopted some of the political tactics of the outgoing president, Rodrigo Duterte.
The Marcos family attempted to return to public life after coming back from Hawaii in 1991. Their reemergence in Filipino frontline politics has been a long time in the making. During the 2022 election campaign, online disinformation campaigns painted the Marcos dynasty period as a golden age for the Philippines, with investments in building world renowned bridges, roads and economic development. At the same time, Facebook groups ignored Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and his family’s pervasive corruption, high levels of debt, and the extensive crimes against humanity during the 15 years of his brutal dictatorship. In a playbook previously seen across the world, when challenged over the source of wealth by the media, Bongbong Marcos decried it as ‘fake news’ and portrayed himself as a victim of a witch hunt by the mainstream media.
Bongbong Marcos has politically positioned himself closely to Rodrigo Duterte, the outgoing president of the Philippines. During his tenure as president, Duterte was one of the world’s most popular leaders, even as he carries out a brutal ‘war on drugs’, which has led to extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest and detention. Up to 12,000 Filipinos have been killed, with at least 2,555 carried out by the Philippines’ national police, The campaign has mostly affected the urban poor. Duterte’s daughter, Sara, ran on the same ticket with Bongbong Marcos during the 2022 elections. This is unusual as the president and vice president are usually elected on a separate ticket. By running with his Duterte’s daughter, Bongbong Marcos has cultivated a strong affinity with Duterte’s hardline approach.
Bongbong Marcos has also adopted Duterte’s anti-elite rhetoric, despite belonging to that same elite himself. The Philippines has high levels of income inequality and wealthy families and politically connected business people have continued to plan the Philippines economy in their own interest. Over 18 wealthy Filipino families have at least two seats in Congress. There has been a gradual reduction in poverty over the past 6 years, but economic inequality within the Philippines remains entrenched. 43% of Filipinos consider themselves to be poor. Bongbong Marcos’ adoption of Duterte’s methods of rewriting his family’s history, presenting himself as a continuity candidate, and railing against an elite demonstrates that political life in the Philippines remains embedded in protecting vast inequalities in wealth.
Philippines’ foreign policy
How will Bongbong Marcos' rule differ from his predecessor in foreign policy? Southeast Asia remains a key area of intense competition between the US and China. Like every other ASEAN state, the Philippines faces structural challenges of traditional relationships with the US, as well as growing economic links with China. Nevertheless, Marcos could become a pillar of US foreign policy in the region.
In the 2022 election, Marcos could take a more hawkish approach to China than his predecessor. Duterte only acknowledged the landmark 2016 International Court ruling against China’s occupation of the Scarborough Shoal after four years. He was silent on China’s occupation to promote continued trade with the country. However, following widespread protests against China’s actions, Bongbong Marcos said that the Philippines will uphold the 2016 ruling and made clear that he contested China’s continued occupation. Of course, China’s military capabilities and economic clout cannot be ignored by Bongbong. However, Marcos' return to the presidency does not entail a smooth ride in US bilateral relations.
The Philippines is a US treaty ally and remains a strategically important partner in the SCS. In comparison to Duterte, who threatened to expel US troops from the country, the election of Bongbong Marcos could heal the relationship. He has stated he would improve ties, and given the popularity of the US among the electorate, as well as the strong military support for the US, suggest that this will be the case. Yet his election could also alert the US to worsening democracy and human rights in the country. Strongman rule and disregard for democratic norms could strain the US-Philippines relationship. Marcos' family has faced a class action lawsuit in the US since 1995, that theoretically could lead to his arrest in the US. The structural realities facing the US suggest that the US will be unlikely to make democratic backsliding a cornerstone of US foreign policy.
The return of the Marcos political dynasty to the presidency of the Philippines demonstrates a wider trend of democratic backsliding in Southeast Asia, with acute challenges for human rights and security in the region. In a weakening context of democracy in Southeast Asia, where elites manipulate the political process to maintain their hold on power, the rule of law and human rights are not likely to improve soon. In terms of security in the tense SCS, Marcos will seek to balance the US-China alliance to retain national autonomy. In contrast to Duterte, Marcos could be firm in his relationship with the US in light of China’s assertiveness in the SCS.
About the author: Jacob Dickinson Jacob studies Global Political Economy at Leiden University. He is passionate about international development and is looking to expand his expertise in geopolitics and crisis management. Curious about other cultures, he has travelled in Europe and Asia for both academic study and professional purposes. His expertise includes subjects like the geopolitics of energy, China’s international political economy, and the implications of globalized supply chains for industrial policy. He is particularly interested in the evolving political and economic relationships between China and ASEAN, and the consequences for regional development and security.