Marcos takes office

FP – June 30, 2020

Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is now the president of the Philippines, 36 years after he fled the country along with his dictator father. Marcos took the oath of office today at a muted ceremony in Manila, urging citizens to look ahead to the future, as his mother, Imelda, looked on.

Marcos, known in the Philippines by his nickname Bongbong, has risen to the country’s highest office after a social media-driven campaign helped to rehabilitate his family’s image, transforming memories of the bloody days of martial law, when thousands were tortured and killed, to a nostalgic golden era.

The chances of Marcos bringing in a real golden era today come up against the same realities facing other economies: rapid inflation and uncertainty caused by war in Ukraine as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, Marcos benefits from inheriting an economy with some of the highest growth levels in Southeast Asia. The economy grew by 8.3 percent in the first quarter of 2022, and is on track to beat previous estimates made by the Asian Development Bank.

Though Marcos Jr. is on the rise, that doesn’t spell the end for Rodrigo Duterte. The brash president may have handed over the office, but his family retains plenty of power. His daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio is Marcos’s vice president, his son Sebastian is now mayor of the family’s hometown of Davao, and another son, Paolo, holds a seat in the House of Representatives. (Daniel Bruno Davis, writing in Foreign Policy in April, explained why political dynasties hold such power over Philippine voters).

The Dutertes are sticking around, as is Rodrigo’s infamous drug war. The government claims roughly 6,000 drug suspects were killed by security forces during Duterte’s term; human rights groups say the true figure is as much as five times higher. Marcos has pledged to continue the fight, albeit, he said, “within the framework of the law.”

The Philippines press, under constant assault under Duterte, expects little to change under Marcos who largely circumvented the traditional media during his campaign. Before Marcos took office, Rappler, the popular news site whose work won co-founder Maria Ressa the Nobel Peace Prize, has recently been ordered to shut down. Ressa has vowed to appeal the ruling.

While the country’s domestic future may not be too different under Marcos. Jr compared to Duterte, the Philippines may find itself on a different footing when it comes to foreign policy. As Derek Grossman wrote in FP in May, “Marcos is likely to tweak Duterte’s foreign policy just enough” to avoid the pitfalls of his predecessor.

U.S. officials hope that Marcos means a much more friendly disposition to the United States—a country that Duterte refused to visit—and, despite his own family’s connections, a tougher line on China. Washington is even willing to forget a contempt order against Marcos after a Hawaii court ordered his family to pay $2 billion of the Philippines stolen wealth to victims of Marcos Sr.’s martial law crackdown. “When someone is head of state, they have [diplomatic] immunity and would be welcome in the United States,” Sherman told reporters in Manila in June.

As the diplomatic tug of war begins, Washington is still playing cautious. While China has sent Vice President Wang Qishan, a close confidant of President Xi Jinping, to lead the country’s delegation at today’s inauguration, the United States is led by Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris.

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