Wednesday, May 4, 2022

BANGKOK — It’s a back-to-the-future election campaign for the Philippines, with uncertain consequences for a key U.S. ally in an increasingly volatile region.

Polls say Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. is on course to be elected president of the Philippines on Monday. A victory would bring him to the front lines of U.S.-Chinese confrontations in the South China Sea despite denials that he is Beijing’s puppet “Manchurian candidate.” The 64-year-old former senator would replace outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, whose harsh crackdown on drug dealers and regular rhetorical broadsides brought problems of their own for relations between Washington and Manila.

More than 18,000 positions will be decided in the polls, including senators and city council members.

Mr. Marcos’ most significant electoral advantage is his famous name. He is the son of the man he calls his idol: former President Ferdinand Marcos, a sometime U.S. ally who was driven from office and died in exile in Honolulu in 1989, and his flamboyant wife, Imelda, who is now 92. The family has long talked about Mr. Marcos carrying on his father’s legacy. Mr. Marcos staunchly defends his father’s record and refuses to apologize for what critics say were the abuses and brutality of his father’s tenure.

“When I miss the precious presence of Ferdinand, I call Bongbong and ask him to come,” Mrs. Marcos said in a 1991 interview when she and her children were permitted to return to the Philippines from exile. “He sounds like his father. I listen to Bongbong. It’s eerie. … I feel surely Ferdinand the First was born again in Ferdinand the Second.”

Marcos’ 30-year rule included 14 years of martial law, the imprisonment, torture and extrajudicial killings of opponents, and the reported theft of billions of dollars. The Reagan administration cleared the way for the Marcos family to flee to Hawaii with currency, jewels, gold bullion, antiques and foreign bank accounts in what became known as the “People’s Power” insurrection. Mrs. Marcos is on bail, appealing to the Supreme Court to overturn her 11-year prison sentence in 2018 for concealing her assets. 

SEE ALSO: South Korea weighs tighter ‘cohesion’ with U.S. as North tests another ballistic missile

Despite the checkered history, dynastic power heavily influences who wins many of the elections in the Philippines.

The wealthy Marcos family is one of the most powerful dynasties and is admired by many Filipinos, including those too young to have experienced the strains and brutality of the martial law period. Mr. Duterte contributed to the rehabilitation of a fellow political strongman in 2016 by reburying Marcos in Manila’s Cemetery of Heroes.

The corpse had been on public display in a glass showcase for more than 20 years in the family’s mausoleum.

In a dynastic double helix, Mr. Marcos’ running mate is Mr. Duterte’s popular daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, a lawyer and former mayor of Davao City.

Her appearance on the ticket strengthened the Marcos campaign, consolidating Marcos family supporters in the northern Philippines and the Duterte clan’s strength in the south.

Dynastic politics dates to 1898, when the U.S. colonized the Philippines. Wealthy Filipinos scrambled to buy plantations and concentrate power within a small number of favored families. Most politicians recently elected had at least one relative in office, researchers say.

Mr. Marcos became a governor in 1998, 12 years after his father’s presidency collapsed, and a senator in 2010. He also has carried on his father’s history of ethical troubles, with a tax evasion conviction in 1997 and multimillion-dollar tax cases pending in the Philippines and the U.S. over his father’s vast estate.

The China question

For U.S. military and diplomatic officials, the big question is what a Marcos administration would mean for the larger struggle to contain Chinese ambitions in the region. Mr. Duterte sent conflicting messages on whether Manila was prepared to confront or cooperate with Beijing.

China denies it improperly influences Mr. Marcos. The assertion will be tested if China again enforces what Beijing claims as its territorial waters in the South China Sea, which splash western beaches on many of the Philippines’ islands.

During Mr. Duterte’s administration, the two countries experienced hot and cold relations while Beijing constructed strategic facilities in the disputed waters and confronted Philippine ships asserting Manila’s rights in one of the world’s most heavily trafficked maritime passages.

The Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim sections of the South China Sea’s surface, fisheries and underground resources. China claims about 90% of the area, including the Spratlys archipelago. Its neighbors and the U.S. staunchly reject the claim. Analysts say it is not clear how firmly Mr. Marcos would stand up to a combination of threats and sweeteners from China.

“Marcos might be a bit more pro-China than Duterte, given his stance that he will just continue the current policy of the Duterte administration,” said Aries Arugay, a University of the Philippines political science professor. “Beijing can offer a package of incentives that will give Marcos options if he is being pressured or squeezed by the U.S. or Western powers.

“This is why Marcos might not be able to assert the country’s rights in the South China Sea.”

China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, rejected charges that his country was poised to exploit the change of administration in Manila. “China never interferes in the internal politics of other countries, and the election is an internal politics in the Philippines,” he said at a recent symposium.

Still, China can mix military pressure with economic blandishments.

“China remains the largest trading partner, the largest source of imports [into the Philippines], the third-largest export market and the second-largest foreign investor in the Philippines,” Mr. Huang said.

Some private analysts say fears about Chinese influence over a Marcos administration run deeper.

“In today’s popular parlance, a Manchurian candidate popularly refers to someone who is China’s puppet, one that the Chinese government propped up to win top government positions to forward Chinese interests,” wrote Alvin Camba, an international studies assistant professor at the University of Denver. “In the 2022 Philippine elections, this so-called Manchurian candidate is supposed to be Bongbong Marcos.” 

Mr. Camba said in a statement published by Rappler, a Philippines online media site, that the charges remain “unsupported.”

A veep on the ballot

Challenging Marcos on the campaign trail is Mr. Duterte’s vice president, Leni Robredo, who has already bested Mr. Marcos once at the polls. In 2016, the human rights lawyer narrowly defeated Mr. Marcos to become vice president. 

She and Mr. Duterte gradually fell out politically during the president’s six-year term.

“She is supported by the leftists, by the [communists] … who are very adverse to the president,” Mr. Duterte’s political adviser said in March.

“Many are heckling us, saying we don’t have a chance to win,” Mrs. Robredo told supporters on April 23.

Some perceive Mrs. Robredo, 57, as an elitist trying to channel her political predecessor, Corazon “Cory” Aquino, who married into yet another Philippine political family dynasty and became president from 1986 to 1992 after Mr. Marcos’ father fled. Mrs. Aquino is the wealthy widow of Benigno Aquino, an opposition leader who was assassinated in 1983 in one of the most spectacular incidents of the Marcos presidency.

Mrs. Robredo’s late husband, Jesse, was Mrs. Aquino’s interior secretary when he died in a 2012 plane crash. Her personal image could undercut her record on the issues after six years of the relentlessly populist Duterte administration.

“Her projects as vice president helped the disadvantaged,” said Jean S. Encinas-Franco, political science associate professor at the University of the Philippines. “Her weakness is that she has been associated with the Aquinos and the Liberal Party, which has been perceived as elitist by some Filipinos.”

If Mrs. Robredo can persuade less-popular presidential candidates to support her, she might defeat Mr. Marcos, analysts said.

Despite having recruited an energetic army of campaign volunteers, polls say, Mrs. Robredo faces a steep uphill climb. A Pulse Asia poll released Monday found Mr. Marcos with 56% of the vote in the 10-candidate field, with Mrs. Robredo a distant second at 23%, The Associated Press reported. The April 16-21 survey polled 2,400 voters nationwide and had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso, who is third in the polls, has criticized the Marcos and Robredo dynasties.

“They may have different surnames, but their interests align,” said Rom-Voltaire Quizon, a spokesman for Mr. Domagoso’s campaign. “Look around you and see if your lives, and your country, have been bettered under the rules of the two families who have lorded it over our beloved country’s politics for over 50 years.”

Adding even more color to the field is Sen. Manny Pacquiao, a retired boxing champion and one of the most well-known Filipinos on the world stage. He is portraying himself in his campaign as a rags-to-riches voice for the poor.

“His lack of accomplishments and absenteeism as a legislator are his weaknesses. His strength is his pro-poor platforms, and name recall, since he is a national figure in the Philippines,” Ms. Encinas-Franco said.

The majority Roman Catholic country is also locked in a smoldering insurgency by Islamists on the Muslim-majority, southern island of Mindanao, and by communist rebels.

The presidential race is not the only consequential choice facing voters.

The “local elections also matter… specifically in Mindanao, where the interim government run by the former [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] rebels will face off with traditional clan-based politicians in a test of the peace deal’s grip on the region,” said Georgi Engelbrecht, a senior analyst for the Philippines at the International Crisis Group.

“The next president will shape a number of policies — not just foreign policy and the obvious question about [U.S.-China] allegiance or hedging — but also the peace process in [Mindanao], as well as the way how [the next administration] would deal with the communist insurgency.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC.