Philippine presidential candidate speaks at a campaign rally on April 4, 2022. Photo: Facebook

MANILA – Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr is poised to become the next president of the Philippines, marking the democratic vindication of a political clan that was unceremoniously toppled in a historic “People’s Power” revolt in 1986.

With more than 95% of the ballots tallied, Marcos Jr had received about 30 million votes, more than double the 14 million received by outgoing Vice President Leonor “Leni” Robredo, according to a partial and unofficial tally compiled by the Commission on Elections.

While a Marcos win was widely predicted, how the veteran politician will govern is a wildcard. The son of a former dictator skipped presidential debates, eschewed media interviews and rarely spoke in policy terms while on the campaign trail.

Asia Times’ correspondent Richard Javad Heydarian, who has provided expert commentary on the election to several international and local media outlets, has closely tracked Marcos’ movements and rise and sees certain signs of how he may lead. He provided this Q&A to Asia Times’ Southeast Asia editor Shawn W. Crispin.

Asia Times: Why in your estimation did Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr win in such a massive landslide? Why did Filipinos look past the various ills and abuses of his deceased father’s rule to catapult his son to power? 

Heydarian: The single biggest factor that explains Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr’s victory has a name: Sara Duterte, the former Davao City Mayor who is also set to become the next vice-president with an even more commanding lead in the race for the second-highest office of the land.

Had the presidential daughter, who was leading in all pre-election surveys by comfortable margins, decided to stick to her original plan, I believe Marcos Jr would have opted out of the race altogether, if not sunk into political retirement.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter Sara Duterte in a file photo. Image: Twitter

Easily 60% of Marcos Jr’s support base, largely from the Visayas-speaking communities across the country as well as the southern island of Mindanao, is anchored in his vital strategic alliance with Duterte.

In retrospect, Sara Duterte was a shoo-in for the presidency, which is precisely why the outgoing president, Rodrigo Duterte, was initially incensed with Marcos Jr, who he publicly lambasted as a “weak leader” and a “spoiled brat.” In short, the Dutertes have served as the curtain raisers for the return of the notorious political dynasty to the Malacañang presidential palace.

Asia Times: How do you expect Marcos to mirror and how will he differentiate from Duterte’s strongman rule? What policies or areas do you expect him to emphasize in the early phases of his presidency?  

Heydarian: Marcos Jr technically ran as the administration bet, making him the first pro-incumbent candidate to win a presidential election in decades. The last time this happened was in 1992, when president Corazon Aquino’s defense secretary, Fidel Ramos, managed to eke out a narrow victory in a tight race, which featured no less than former First Lady Imelda Marcos and former Marcos crony Danding Cojuangco.

Since the ex-dictator’s son owes much of his presidency – and, frankly, career reboot following his devastating defeat at the vice-presidential race in 2016 – to the Dutertes, he will have to pay his dues and toe the line on a number of issues.

On paper, Marcos Jr is expected to continue his predecessors’ drug war, “Build, Build, Build,” infrastructure development program and China-friendly foreign policy. He’s also expected to reinforce Duterte-style patronage politics, defang anti-corruption and human rights bodies – including those targeting his own family – and shield the outgoing president from international investigations on human rights issues, especially the widespread extrajudicial killings under his violent drug war.

Marcos’ policies towards China will be closely watched. Image: Twitter / Rappler

In practice, however, I expect Marcos Jr to tweak key policies of his predecessor by, inter alia, introducing a more surgical and rehabilitation-driven drug war, a more fiscally sustainable infrastructure program in light of the Covid-19 pandemic crunch and even pursue more balanced relations with rival superpowers rather than openly flirting with China and Russia.

His first order of business, however, is to facilitate economic recovery in the country while making sure he doesn’t trigger mass revolt by the disenchanted supporters of opposition leader Vice President Leonor “Leni” Robredo, who garnered close to 14 million votes in the presidential race.

Asia Times: How do you anticipate Marcos will position the Philippines between the US and China? Do you think he’ll significantly recalibrate Duterte’s China-friendly policies? 

Heydarian: Unlike Duterte, who has had an intimate relationship with China in contrast to his contentious ties with the West throughout his decades of power in conflict-ridden Mindanao, the Marcoses have a deep history with the West. Marcos Jr and his son have been educated in the United Kingdom. He is a known aficionado of British music and fashion.

And while he resents multiple ongoing US court cases against his family’s ill-gotten wealth, Marcos Jr would likely welcome direct engagement with the White House in order to strengthen his strategic room for maneuver, please the Pentagon-trained Philippine defense establishment and appease the largely US-friendly Philippine public.

To be sure, a Marcos administration will pursue a transactionalist and economically fruitful relationship with Beijing. But this could clearly pose some risk to the Philippines’ national security, especially if Chinese companies are cleared to expand investment in critical infrastructure. Nevertheless, we are likely to see a recalibration of Duterte’s hard pivot towards China in favor of more balanced and predictable relations with all major powers.

Duterte didn’t even bother to visit a single Western capital while in power. The status-conscious and affirmation-seeking Marcoses, in contrast, would love to have their moment of vindication by being once again received as dignitaries in all major capitals in the West.

By adopting a proper engagement strategy, the West can nudge the incoming Philippine administration towards good governance and prevent it from fully falling into China’s orbit of influence.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @richeydarian