In a stunning landslide victory, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr won the Philippines’ presidential election, bringing him to the frontlines of US-China confrontations in the South China Sea amid early rumblings that he is Beijing’s puppet “Manchurian candidate.”
Marcos Jr’s election advantage was that he is the son of his “idol,” the somewhat popular, late US-backed dictatorial president Ferdinand Marcos Sr and his flamboyant wife Imelda, who is now 92.
“When I miss the precious presence of [husband] Ferdinand, I call, ‘Bongbong’ and ask him to come,” Imelda Marcos told me in a 1991 interview when she and her children were permitted to return to the Philippines from exile, two years after her husband died in Hawaii.
“He sounds like his father. I listen to Bongbong, it’s eerie. Like Ferdinand was there. Even in his mannerisms. His voice. His movements. His hand movements. When he walks. I feel surely Ferdinand the First was born again in Ferdinand the Second.”
More than 18,000 positions were decided in the polls including senators, city councilors and others.
Marcos Sr’s corrupt 1965-86 regime included 14 years of martial law, the imprisonment, torture and extrajudicial killing of opponents, and his theft of billions of dollars worth of state assets.
Washington helped the Marcos family flee to Hawaii with currency, jewels, gold bullion, antiques and foreign bank accounts, escaping a People’s Power insurrection. Imelda Marcos is currently on bail, appealing to Manila’s Supreme Court to delete her 11-year prison sentence in 2018 for concealing her assets.
Nevertheless, dynastic power heavily influences who wins Philippine elections.
The wealthy Marcos family is one of the most powerful dynasties and is admired by many Filipinos, including those too young to have experienced martial law’s brutality.
Current President Rodrigo Duterte displayed his alliance in 2016 by reburying Marcos Sr. 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, Marcos Jr’s 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 Marcos Jr’s campaign, consolidating Marcos’ family supporters in the northern Philippines and the Duterte clan’s strength in the south.
Dynastic politics dates back to 1898, when the US colonized the Philippines, spawning a scramble by wealthy Filipinos to buy plantations and concentrate power within their families.
Most politicians recently elected had at least one relative in office, according to researchers. Marcos Jr, 64, became a governor in 1998, 12 years after his father’s presidency collapsed, and a senator in 2010.
Marcos Jr, convicted of tax evasion in 1997, faces multi-million dollar tax cases in the Philippines and the US over his father’s vast estate.
China, meanwhile, denies it has any improper influence over Marcos Jr. The test will come 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 Duterte’s administration, the two countries experienced cozy but spat-splattered relations while Beijing constructed strategic facilities in the disputed waters and confronted the Philippines’ ships.
The Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam claim sections of the South China Sea’s surface, fisheries, and underground resources. But China claims about 90% of the area, including the contested Spratlys archipelago.
“Marcos [Jr] 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 US or Western powers,” Arugay said in an interview.
“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, said at a recent symposium: “China never interferes in the internal politics of other countries, and the election is an internal politics in the Philippines.”
China’s trade with the Philippines dates back to the 9th century. Today, the Philippines’ economy cannot run without China’s money.
“China remains the largest trading partner, the largest source of imports [into the Philippines], the third-largest export market, and the second-largest foreign investors in the Philippines,” the ambassador said.
“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, international studies assistant professor at Denver University in Colorado.
“In the 2022 Philippine elections, this so-called Manchurian candidate is supposed to be Bongbong Marcos. This concept of a Manchurian candidate is unsupported,” Camba said in a statement published by Rappler, a Philippines online media site.
Trailing massively in second place for the presidency was Duterte’s incumbent Vice President Leni Robredo.
In a 2016 election, Robredo, a human rights lawyer, narrowly beat Marcos Jr to become vice president. But Duterte became antagonistic toward her over the past six years.
“She is supported by the leftists, by the Reds [communists]…who are very adverse to the president,” Duterte’s political advisor, Jacinto Paras, said in March.
“Many are heckling us, saying we don’t have a chance to win,” Robredo told supporters on April 23.
“Frontrunner Ferdinand Marcos Jr advocates a Filipino military presence in the South China Sea to defend its economic rights, although he also wants a ‘bilateral consensus’ with Beijing,” wrote US Navy intelligence officer Nick Danby.
“More hawkishly, incumbent Vice President Leni Robredo promises a multilateral coalition to counter Chinese maritime coercion,” Danby, who is “forward-deployed” in Japan, said in a published opinion piece.
Some perceived Robredo, 57, as an elitist trying to mirror another dynastic female, Corazon “Cory” Aquino, who became president from 1986-92 after Marcos Sr. fled.
Aquino is the wealthy widow of president Benigno Aquino, who was assassinated in 1983. Robredo’s husband Jesse was Mrs. Aquino’s interior secretary when he perished in a 2012 plane crash.
During her election campaign, Robredo was smeared by unproven allegations that she was having affairs, and a fake sex video purportedly of her eldest daughter.
“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,” Encinas-Franco said in an interview.
She was unable to convince less-popular presidential candidates to support her, otherwise she might have beaten Marcos Jr, some analysts said.
Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso -– who also failed as a candidate – had criticized the Marcos and Robredo dynasties.
“They may have different surnames, but their interests align,” said Rom-Voltaire Quizon, a spokesman for Domagoso’s supporters.
“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,” Quizon said on April 30.
The Philippines was colonized by Spain in 1565, ceded to the US in 1898 after the Spanish-American War and occupied during World War II by Japan in 1942-45 before achieving independence in 1946.
Washington’s power over Manila, a US treaty ally, peaked when the Pentagon secretly stationed nuclear weapons in the Southeast Asian nation.
“Divulgence of the fact that nuclear weapons are stored in the Philippines, and have been there for many years without prior consultation with the Philippines government, would gravely jeopardize U.S.-Philippines relations,” then-US State Department official Robert McClintock wrote in a “top secret” memo to the department in 1969.
“President Marcos was secretly informed of the presence of these weapons in 1966,” McClintock 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 May 9, “local elections also matter…specifically in Mindanao where the interim government run by the former MILF [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,” Georgi Engelbrecht said in an interview.
Engelbrecht is senior analyst for the Philippines at the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization headquartered in Belgium.
“The next president will shape a number of policies – not just foreign policy and the obvious question about [US-China] allegiance or hedging — but also the peace process in the Bangsamoro [Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao], as well as the way how he or she would deal with the communist insurgency.”
The Communist Party of the Philippines includes Marxist, Leninist, and Maoist ideology enforced by its New People’s Army guerrillas.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, “Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. — Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York” and “Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks” are available here.