Why business as usual will prevail in the Philippines

The explanations for Marcos and Duterte’s impending victory lie mostly in the country’s economic, social and political divisions.
The explanations for Marcos and Duterte’s impending victory lie mostly in the country’s economic, social and political divisions.

On 9 May, if present trends continue, the people of the Philippines will elect as their president and vice president the son of a discredited dictator and the daughter of a man being investigated for crimes against humanity. Opinion polls suggest the presidency will be won by Ferdinand Marcos Jr, better known as ‘Bongbong’, and the vice-presidency by Sara Duterte.

Bongbong’s father was Ferdinand Marcos Sr, who was elected president in 1965 and imposed martial law in 1972 before being deposed by a ‘people power’ revolution in 1986. During those two decades his family amassed billions of dollars in private wealth, oversaw the killing and disappearance of thousands of political opponents and created a debt-fuelled economic boom which ended in a major recession.

Sara Duterte’s father, President Rodrigo Duterte, has ruled the Philippines for the past six years during which he oversaw a ‘war on drugs’ that resulted in the killing of between six thousand and thirty thousand people and polarized the country’s politics.

Despite these warning signs, the two appear to be heading for electoral victory. The explanations lie partly in the Philippines’ electoral system but, more importantly, in the country’s economic, social and political divisions.

What’s likely to happen on election day

The Philippines has a unique electoral system. There are separate votes for the president and vice president and there is just one round of voting.

With several candidates standing for each post, the winner only needs a plurality of votes and (unlike France, for example) there is no second round in which divided forces can unite against a particular candidate. One check on the president’s power is that the separate votes mean presidents have frequently been saddled with a vice president from an opposing party.

However, both these ‘rules’ are likely to be broken in 2022. Polling suggests both Bongbong Marcos and Sara Duterte will win over half the votes in their respective elections. The result is likely to be a double victory for their UniTeam Alliance slate.

A mobilization of ‘anti-elite’ feeling

More fundamentally, however, the expected Marcos-Duterte victory will be a result of the inequalities in Philippine society. The successful mobilization of ‘anti-elite’ feeling by the Marcos and Duterte campaigns has powered them to commanding positions in the polls, despite both candidates being members of that elite.

Bongbong, the ex-president’s son, was even educated at a British private school before failing his degree at the University of Oxford. Sara Duterte’s rise followed her father’s control of the city of Davao and then his presidency.

Influential families and connected businesspeople control the commanding heights of the Philippines’ economy and politics, a system that has been termed cacique democracy. In 2019, the Rappler news outlet counted 163 families that had political representatives at both national and regional levels. 18 families have at least two members in Congress. These families have ‘carved up’ the country, controlling provinces, cities or local districts with political machines able to crush opposition by fair means or foul.

Economic and regional inequality

Although official statistics show significant falls in poverty over the past 15 years, this has barely dented the proportion of the population who feel poor in comparison with the rest of society.

43 per cent of Filipinos consider themselves to be poor and a further 39 per cent call themselves ‘borderline poor’. Neither of these numbers have changed significantly during the past six years in which President Duterte has been in office.

There is also great inequality between regions. Just 25 per cent of inhabitants of the capital Manila feel poor while 59 per cent of those in the Visaya islands do. The Philippines’ political system both reflects these divisions and further entrenches them. Corruption and cronyism keep most of the benefits of economic growth in the hands of the already-wealthy.

Corruption and cronyism continue

The failure of the political system to improve the economic position of most of the population has caused general disillusion with the state of Philippines politics. The belief that ‘everyone is corrupt’ has resulted in general cynicism. In a story familiar from other parts of the world, the success of the Marcos-Duterte campaign has come from its mobilization of populist feeling against ‘metropolitan elites’.

The candidate who has suffered most from this anti-elite feeling has been Leni Robredo, the current vice president. She has been unable to connect with poorer voters or persuade them that she offers a convincing programme to improve their lives, despite her talk of ‘inclusive government’. Her polling remains below 30 per cent despite enthusiastic support from better-off and better-educated sections of the electorate.

Little is likely to change so long as corruption and cronyism remain the modus operandi of Philippine politics. The majority of those who support Marcos and Duterte are the poorer and less educated who would benefit most from an end to the old ways of doing business. Sadly, by voting them into office, they will be helping to ensure the continuation of ‘business as usual’.

Bill Hayton, Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme.

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