Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. addresses the crowd during his mother, Imelda R Marcos' 90th birthday celebration, July 1, 2019, in the Open Air Auditorium at Rizal Park, Ermita, Manila, Philippines. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Artur Widak

A years-long election result challenge pending at the Philippine Supreme Court could soon result in the removal of President Rodrigo Duterte’s most prominent political rival, a ruling critics say would eliminate one of the last checks on his strongman rule.

The country’s highest court, acting in the capacity of a Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET), this week deferred judgment on ex-Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos’ complaint against incumbent Vice President Leni Robredo’s 2016 election win.

The pending case, pitting a key Duterte ally against the political opposition’s de facto leader, has placed unprecedented pressure on the judiciary, which has been rocked by scandals and record-low public trust in recent years.

Analysts suggest the pending verdict could have major implications for 2022 elections, a contest in which many expect both Marcos and Robredo to make runs at the presidency.

Analysts suggest Marcos’ election chances will rise or fall on the court’s verdict, with an acquittal undercutting his chances.

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr addresses a crowd on July 1, 2019, in Rizal Park, Ermita, Manila, Philippines. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Artur Widak

Duterte is legally limited to one six-year term, though a move afoot to amend the constitution and change the political system could provide a backdoor to a second term.

Marcos, the only son of former president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos, ran as an independent candidate in 2016 but has cultivated strong political ties with Duterte.

Robredo, leader of the opposition Liberal Party, defeated Marcos by only 263,473 votes, or .64%, at the 2016 vice presidential elections. All of the past three vice presidential races were contested by the losing party, with the 2016 race the closest on record.

Marcos initially sought to overturn the result by questioning the integrity of the entire elections, a motion that was junked by the high court. His lawyers also called for a partial vote recount, specifically in three provinces where voting fraud was allegedly widespread.

Three years into the case, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled on October 15 to release the results of the vote recount in three central Philippine pilot provinces picked by Marcos’ camp, namely Negros Oriental, Iloilo and Camarines Sur.

The full results of the recount are yet to be released, but Robredo’s camp has already claimed that the partial recount has actually increased her votes by as much as 15,000, further solidifying her win.

“The elections are over…Congress proclaimed us, we won. There was a recount, we won again. So how many times do I have to win for him to accept defeat?”, Robredo claimed at an October 15 press conference where she called for the complaint’s full dismissal.

Philippine Vice President during a wreath laying ceremony of the 121st Independence Day celebrations at the Rizal monument in Manila, June 12, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/ Artur Widak

According to the PET’s Rule 65, absent a substantial increase in the votes of the defeated party during the pilot recount “the protest may forthwith be dismissed without further consideration of the other provinces mentioned in the protest.”

The Supreme Court, packed with Duterte appointees, has however prolonged the proceedings, stating with the exception of two outgoing independent-leaning justices that a third complaint lodged by Marcos’ camp should be reviewed.

Justices have since been asked to submit their respective comments on Marcos’ call for a full nullification of the election results in three pilot provinces on the southern island of Mindanao, namely Lanao del Sur, Basilan and Maguindanao, due to alleged voting irregularities.

“I am happy that the case continues. So the case lives and it continues,” Marcos said in response to the court’s decision. “You have to trust the wisdom of our justices. Also the case is complicated. It is the first time that any presidential protest has reached this stage.”

Robredo carried those three southern provinces with 477,985 votes against Marcos’ 169,160. If those results are nullified by the court, it would eliminate Robredo’s slim win and give Marcos 45,352 more votes in total.

The court has not yet decided on the latest complaint, which would put the integrity of the entire elections, and the junking of Marcos’ first complaint, into question.

In apparent support of Robredo, Deputy Speaker of the Philippine Congress and former governor who oversees the three Mindanao provinces in question, Mujiv Hataman, called for the dismissal of Marcos’ “baseless” electoral protest.

Residents looks for their names prior to casting their votes at a polling station in the financial district of Manila on May 9, 2016. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

“We call on the PET to dismiss such a baseless protest. The people in the now-defunct ARMM voted according to their conscience and decisively elected Vice President Leni Robredo,” Hataman said in an October 16 statement, referring to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. “She deserves to serve the people who gave her the mandate to the second-highest post in the land.”

Significantly, the election challenge is also starting to raise questions about the Supreme Court’s independence. Judges have tacitly acknowledged they have come under political pressure in the case.

“I wanted to delay the vote because I did not like to take part in it,” Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin admitted in a recent interview about the court’s agreement to hear a third Marcos’ challenge of the election result.

“I did not like the public, the media speculating that I cooked or orchestrated the result,” the chief magistrate said, underscoring the high court’s rising predicament.

That, in turn, is taking a toll on business confidence.

In response to perceptions the high court is stonewalling a final dismissal of the complaint, the Makati Business Group, the country’s most influential business association, has called for a full dismissal of the complaint.

“We hope this is a step toward dismissing the protest, and reducing the political and judicial uncertainty that came with it – uncertainty that manifests in risk premiums for those who would invest in Philippine jobs and industries,” the group said in an October 16 statement.

Dismissing the case, the business group said, would “free both the Court and the Office of the Vice President to focus on pressing issues” facing the country.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in campaign mode in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

Duterte has repeatedly berated Robredo, who has spearhead opposition to the president’s authoritarian tendencies. The government has repeatedly threatened to unseat the popular vice president, who now faces what many see as politically-motivated sedition charges.

In contrast, the tough-talking Duterte has consistently expressed support for the Marcoses, who were among his 2016 election supporters and have since actively defended his most controversial polices, including his controversial drug war.

In an apparent quid pro quo, just months into his elected tenure, Duterte made the highly controversial decision, to bury the former dictator at a cemetery of national heroes. That top-level support likely explains why Marcos won’t readily put his unending 2016 election challenges to rest.

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