With the Philippine presidential election campaign season kicking off in earnest, the Southeast Asian nation’s huge diaspora are picking sides among the contenders, a race.
Team Leni Robredo Europe, a volunteer group set up in November, is busy on social media trying to convince the 800,000-odd Filipino nationals on the continent to vote for the current vice-president at the May presidential election.
“Robredo inspired her supporters in Europe to harness their diverse skills and knowledge and bring together resources, which represents her people-centered brand of governance,” the volunteers told Asia Times.
Leni Robredo, 56, vows to restore the country’s liberal traditions after six years of the Rodrigo Duterte presidency, which stands accused of major human rights violations in its “drug war”, as well as systematic attempts to undermine the country’s constitution and democratic institutions.
But Robredo is up against a formidable challenger in Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son of the country’s former dictator who is pitching himself as “Duterte lite.” He is running with Duterte’s daughter, Sara, as his vice-presidential candidate.
That strongman and strongwoman mix is apparently appealing to Filipinos. A recent opinion survey conducted by the Pulse Asia pollster put Marcos miles ahead with 53%, well ahead of Robredo’s second-placing 20%.
But with numerous candidates vying for the Malacañang Palace and scandal constantly lurking around Marcos’ campaign, much could happen between February 8, when the campaigns officially begin, and the elections on May 9.
Despite an earlier ruling in his favor, doubts remain whether Marcos, or “Bongbong” as he is known locally, will be allowed to run for the presidency, with possible disqualification over alleged tax law violations still on the table, local media reported last week.
Robredo, who has served as vice-president since 2016, a position not associated with the president that has made her the nation’s de facto opposition leader vis-à-vis Duterte, has said she would prioritize human rights and champion liberal policies if elected.
“A Robredo victory would bring a lot of promise to improving the human rights situation in the Philippines,” said Carlos Conde, a senior researcher at the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
One of the key changes Robredo would be expected to make, said Conde, is to stop or suspend the “drug war” and “craft a way forward in dealing with drugs that is more rights-respecting.” Robredo has said she wants to overhaul the “drug war” from its extrajudicial killings of drug suspects to the rehabilitation of users and dealers.
In off-the-record comments, some EU officials say their fingers are crossed for a Robredo victory. Europe’s relations with the Philippines have been strained since Duterte won the presidency in 2016, not least over his administration’s chronic and widespread rights abuses.
The following year, the populist Duterte lashed out at the “stupid European Union guys” and threatened to reject European aid contributions, despite the EU being one of the largest providers of development assistance to Manila.
Since then, the EU has become a convenient target for Duterte’s anti-Western tirades because it is not as important to the Philippines as the United States, analysts say. But Duterte’s relationship with Washington has also been strained, with the leader infamously calling then-president Barack Obama a “son of a bitch” in 2016.
Donald Trump somewhat repaired relations with America’s treaty ally by deemphasizing rights concerns, but until last year Duterte toyed with canceling the Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows US troops rotational access to Philippine military bases, in a clear nod towards China’s preferences.
Recent improvements have been made in EU-Philippine relations. In a speech last year, Duterte said that “the Philippines and the EU share a deep respect for democracy and the rule of law,” a comment that raised some eyebrows in Brussels. Yet his verbal tirades against the EU have essentially stopped.
The EU-Philippines Partnership and Cooperation Agreement came into effect in 2018, but lingering tensions and the Covid-19 pandemic meant its subcommittee on trade and economic cooperation only met virtually for the first time in January 2021.
The first subcommittee meeting on “Good Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights” took place the following month. Around the same time, Luc Veron, an experienced diplomat, arrived in Manila as the new EU ambassador.
Dealing with a Marcos presidency would present its own complications, but the EU has ably handled relations with difficult leaders in Southeast Asia, including Duterte, said Richard Javad Heydarian, an academic and columnist.
“I don’t think Marcos Jr would be as aggressive in his rhetoric towards the West, especially the European Union, as President Duterte has been, so that may smoothen out things a little bit,” he said, adding that, of course, Brussels would prefer a more liberal, reformist leader in the Philippines.
That would allow the “two sides to move forward with all of those plans that they had” back in the days of the Benigno Aquino III presidency, he added. Exploratory talks for an EU-Philippines free trade agreement started in 2013 under the now-deceased Aquino’s premiership.
“I think if someone like Robredo becomes the next president, or someone similar, then I think the European Union can really explore some big plans with the Philippines,” said Heydarian.
Regardless of who wins the upcoming presidential election, the next leader will need to tackle the “human rights situation that has rapidly deteriorated under President Duterte,” Heidi Hautala, the vice-president of the European Parliament, told Asia Times.
“The European Parliament has repeatedly called on the Philippines to put an end to extrajudicial killings related to the so-called “war on drugs” and to recognize and protect human rights defenders,” she added.
The European legislative adopted a motion in 2020 calling on the EU to remove the Philippines from its Generalized System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) trade scheme due to its human rights violations. GSP privileges remove import duties on products from preferred developing nations based on their rights and labor records, making their imports more price competitive.
As the European Parliament’s rapporteur on GSP reform, Hautala noted that the Philippines’ place in the GSP+ scheme will be up for review in 2024 when new regulations come into force. The EU was the Philippines’ fourth-biggest trading partner worldwide in 2020.
“At the moment it is hard to see how the Philippines could retain its access to the GSP+ benefits unless there is a marked improvement in the country’s human rights record under the next president,” she added.
That ought to be a warning for the next Philippine president. But the EU also has reasons for wanting to play friendly with Manila.
The Philippines will remain the ASEAN coordinator for Dialogue Relations with the EU until 2024. Brussels, eager to sign new free trade agreements in Southeast Asia, reckons the Philippines is interested.
The first round of trade talks took place in 2016 but stalled the following year. Last September, Brussels hinted at a restart of the talks, which would be made much easier if the next president in Manila moves significantly to improve the human rights situation.
Follow David Hutt on Twitter at @davidhuttjourno