Philippines faces crossroads in May presidential elections

MANILA–In coming days, the Philippines will elect a new president. Arguably, the forthcoming elections scheduled for Monday, May 9, are the country’s most consequential in recent memory. Both the Philippines’ domestic and foreign policy trajectory could take a dramatic turn depending on the composition of the next administration.

Relishing years of above-average growth, the Philippines is currently considered as among the new global economic stars. Some experts have gone so far as to brand the Philippines as Asia’s next tiger economy, while others have identified it as a breakout nation on the verge of a long-term economic takeoff. The country is currently the toast of the town among global investors.

Hyperbole aside, the Philippines is, at the very least, no longer seen as the “sick man of Asia.” Finally, it is tapping into its vast human capital, natural resources, and demographic dividend. Under the stewardship of the Benigno Aquino administration, the past few years have also seen noticeable improvements in economic openness, economic competitiveness as well as the nascent fight against corruption.

In terms of foreign policy, the Aquino administration, especially after the Scarborough Shoal crisis in 2012, began to re-orient its foreign policy. Within less than a decade, the Southeast Asian country switched from equilateral balancing vis-à-vis America and China in favor of a counter-balancing strategy — along with America and Japan — against China.

Today, the Philippines stands as the only country that has dared to take China to international court over maritime disputes. Filipino leaders, particularly President Aquino as well as former Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario, have been among the most vocal critics of China’s revanchist policies in the South China Sea. No wonder then, the two countries have had among the most toxic bilateral relationships in Asia.

Yet, as the Philippines elects new leaders, all of these could change in coming months. Latest surveys suggest, Rodrigo Duterte, Davao’s firebrand mayor, and Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr., the only son of the former Filipino dictator, are few steps away from claiming the two highest positions in the Philippine state.

Duterte, at the moment, leads the polls as the country’s favored presidential candidate, while Marcos Jr. is neck and neck for the vice presidential spot. The other presidential candidates are Jejomar Binay (UNA), Miriam Defensor Santiago (PRP), Mar Roxas (Liberal), Grace Poe (Independent), and Apolonia Comia-Soguilon. The other vice presidential contenders include Gringo Honasan (UNA) and Alan Peter Cayetano (Independent).

The latest survey puts Roxas at second with 22%, just ahead of Poe’s 21%. First place on the VP side is tied with Leni Robredo (Liberal) at 30% and Marcos with 28%.

The candidates

The candidates

Rise of strongmen

Duterte, a political outsider par excellence, is in an extremely dominant position in the presidential race. He has promised to install a decisive, single-minded type of leadership into office, though has barely elaborated on the specifics of his policy agenda. Whether in front of market vendors or facing the business elite, Duterte has presented relatively identical sets of speeches, emphasizing his decades-long battle against crime, drugs and corruption in Davao, the economic powerhouse of southern Philippines.

With a penchant for expletives and provocative statements, he has consistently placed himself at the center of media discourse, often inviting comparisons with the real estate mogul Donald Trump, who has, quite similarly, upended the American political landscape. Recently, Duterte was on international headlines due to a highly controversial rape joke, which beckoned global condemnations, including by the Australian and American embassies.

In response, Duterte went so far as to threaten to sever relations with both countries, if elected, while telling the ambassadors of both countries to “shut their mouths” and not interfere in the election campaign. Rarely has any Filipino politician even dared to so brazenly challenge representatives of stalwart allies such as America, a beloved former colonizer, which is deeply popular among Filipinos. Surely, Duterte displayed, in the eyes of some, ‘independence’ vis-à-vis Western powers. Similar to Narendra Modi in India and Prabowo Subianto in Indonesia, Duterte has, with considerable success, tapped into an emerging “democratic fatigue” among ordinary citizens, who yearn for effective governance and lament the seeming paralysis of democratically-elected governments in recent decades.

Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr.

Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr.

After all, despite emerging as one of Asia’s fastest growing economies in recent years, the Philippines still suffers from high levels of poverty and underemployment, with rule of law still an elusive aspiration. In the eyes of many, the Aquino administration has been a major failure in terms of, among others, infrastructure development and creation of an efficient public transpiration system.

Though more polished in his manners, Marcos Jr., who has attended both Oxford University and Wharton, has similarly promised a new brand of leadership, anchored by discipline and decisiveness. Seemingly unapologetic about his father’s destructive legacy, Marcos even dared to claim, quite astonishingly, that the late dictator would have turned the Philippines into a “Singapore” if not for the 1986 “People Power” revolution that ushered in democracy.

If victorious, the Duterte-Marcos tandem is expected to bring about changes to the country’s domestic political landscape. Leading Philippine experts have warned about the potential emergence of neo-authoritarianism in the country, with potentially unfavorable consequences for basic civil liberties.

A new ‘New Order’

To be fair, Marcos Jr. has never espoused martial law or return to dictatorship. The more flamboyant Duterte, however, has threatened to abolish the Philippine congress, while fondly suggesting the prospect of “dictatorship.” Yet, it is far from clear whether he is serious or just playfully jesting. But clearly, some people have been deeply alarmed by the tough-talking mayor.

Rodrigo Duterte

Duterte

The Economist, a leading financial newspaper, has lashed out at the prospect of a Duterte presidency, warning about the impending evisceration of recent macro-economic gains. The Philippine peso has been hit hard in recent weeks, portending potential capital flight in coming months. Filipino experts such as Randy David are warning about the potential rise of Philippine-style fascism. Investors are jittery; the media is on the edge, while intellectuals are scrambling to understand the unexpected turn of events in Philippine elections.

Many others, however, are adamant that Duterte’s brash statements are mostly just an election gimmick meant to rally disgruntled voters. They see him as the truly authentic candidate fighting against the Philippine oligarchy, which has co-opted its democratic institutions. Both Duterte and Marcos, who haven’t shown much interest in Manila’s arbitration case against Beijing, have also signaled their willingness to revisit the Philippines’ current policy towards China.

They’re both open to direct dialogue and even joint development agreements with China. Recently, Duterte went so far stating that if China will “build me a train around Mindanao, build me train from Manila to Bicol . . . build me a train [going to] Batangas, for the six years that I’ll be president, I’ll shut up [on the sovereignty disputes].” All of these statements, are of course, music to the ear of Beijing, which is expecting a more friendly Manila in coming months.

The elections, of course, could take an unexpected turn in coming days, with Duterte, who overcame the “rape joke” fallout unscathed, currently facing accusations of not being honest about his wealth. Aquino’s favored candidate, Interior Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas, a technocrat who is now tied at second in the race, is beginning to mobilize broader support by presenting himself as a protector of Philippine democracy. Roxas’ running-mate, Leni Robredo, a progressive Congressman with an impeccable track record in public service, is presenting a stiffer challenge to Marcos.

It is highly likely that the elections could end up as a showdown between the strongman “iron fist” Duterte-Marcos tandem vs. the “straight path” reformist Roxas-Robredo tandem. In a ridiculously problematic single-round, first-past-the-post system, the candidates only need to garner the most number of votes in the race, raising the potential of “minority leaders” in coming months. The fate of the Philippines hangs in the balance.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a political science professor at De La Salle University, Philippines, and the author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific” (Zed, London).

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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