Marcos vows new era of unity for the Philippines


JASON CASTANEDA


Almost four decades after the popular overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship, the Philippines inaugurated a scion of the notorious dynasty as its latest elected leader.

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr is now officially the 17th president of the Republic of the Philippines, having won an unprecedented 31 million (out of a total of 55 million) votes in May’s presidential elections. It marked the culmination of a decades-long effort by the Marcos family to regain political control of the Southeast Asian country.

The namesake son of the former Philippine dictator, he is the third offspring of a former president, along with former presidents Benigno Aquino III (2010-2016) and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2010), to occupy the Malacañang presidential palace.

He also became the first contemporary president to hold his inauguration ceremony with pomp and circumstance at the National Museum, a postwar reconstruction of the former Legislative Building, where his father previously served as a legislator.

Up to 18,000 public safety and security forces were deployed during Marcos Jr’s inauguration, which kicked off with a massive military parade unusual for the event.

Among the dignitaries in attendance were Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, the right hand of Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping; US Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff; Australian Governor-General David Hurley; and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi.

Former Philippine presidents Fidel Ramos (1992-1998) and Joseph Estrada (1998-2001) were also among the attendees who included various media moguls and tycoons.

In his inauguration speech, Marcos Jr projected himself as a unifying president who can transcend the country’s badly polarized politics. At once, he called on the world to not judge him by his father’s legacy, while repeatedly praising the former dictator as a visionary leader.

The new Filipino president promised decisive leadership and a new era of prosperity while speaking of plans for massive infrastructure development as well as energy and food security created and sustained by steady state intervention.

Throughout his half-an-hour speech, Marcos Jr didn’t mention democracy, injustice or human rights. And not much was said about the problem of endemic corruption and inequality. It was likely a deliberate effort to avoid hot button issues altogether in his first major address as president.

During the reign of the Marcos dictatorship, thousands of activists and journalists faced torture and extrajudicial killings while the notorious family was accused of embezzling close to US$10 billion while in office. A court in Hawaii awarded $2 billion in damages to more than 9,000 Filipinos who filed lawsuits against the Marcoses over human rights violation charges.

Also conspicuously absent at the inauguration ceremony, however, was Rodrigo Duterte, who chose to head back to his hometown of Davao City immediately after officially handing power to his newly-minted successor. Throughout the presidential elections, he refused to back Marcos Jr, who he publicly criticized as a “weak leader” and a “spoiled brat” who he said can’t be trusted with the highest office.

Duterte was largely aloof and seemingly unhappy during the inauguration of his daughter, Sara, as the new vice-president earlier this month, believing that she should have succeeded him instead. His controversial legacy, however, has enabled Marcos Jr’s presidency and will likely haunt the Philippines for the foreseeable future.

Just months after winning the presidency, Duterte exhumed the remains of former Marcos in the Cemetery of National Heroes, thus completing the political rehabilitation of the dynasty.

Over the next six years, the Filipino populist unleashed a violent counter-narcotics campaign, which has claimed the lives of thousands of suspected drug suspects. Many activists, including lawyers and priests, were also victims of extrajudicial killings.

Duterte also imprisoned high-profile critics such as former Senator Leila De Lima on trumped-up drug charges, while shutting down major independent news outlets such as ABS-CBN.

During Duterte’s last day in office, the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) reaffirmed the shutdown of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa’s online platform Rappler, which has been at the forefront of exposing corruption and abuse of power in his populist government.

Meanwhile, an army of pro-Duterte influencers and troll farms engaged in systematic character assassination against liberal opposition leaders, activists and journalists. The upshot was the devastation of the Philippines’ democratic institutions, which paved the way for the return of the Marcoses.

Since winning the presidency, Marcos Jr has sought to project himself as a unifying and capable statesman. “I ask you all, pray for me, wish me well. I want to do well because when the president does well, the country does well,” the new Filipino president said following his election victory last month.

During his inauguration speech, Marcos Jr boasted of “the biggest electoral mandate in the history of Philippine democracy” due to an election campaign that he said “rejected the politics of division.”

“I offended none of my rivals in this campaign. I listened instead to what they were saying and I saw little incompatibility with my own ideas: about jobs, fair wages, personal safety; and national strength; and ending want in a land of plenty,” Marcos Jr said, repeatedly emphasizing the word “pagkakaisa” (unity).

His choice of venue spoke volumes since the last three leaders who held their inauguration in the National Museum were all wartime presidents who had to grapple with extraordinary circumstances, including surviving the onslaught of World War II, which reduced much of Manila to rubble.

Marcos Jr’s presidency has coincided with an economic storm. The Philippines’ economy, which suffered five successive quarters of gross domestic product (GDP) contraction from 2020 to 2021, is yet to fully recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Southeast Asian country is grappling with a ballooning debt stock, which increased from $220 billion last April to $260 billion this year.

The Philippines’ debt-to-GDP ratio is now at a 16-year-high, prompting former finance secretary Carlo Dominguez to warn of the need for massive fiscal consolidation, including raising $50 billion annually in additional revenues over the next decade to cover new debt.

During his inauguration speech, Marcos Jr promised “a comprehensive infrastructure plan,” that ensures “[n]o part of our country will be neglected” over the next six years of his tenure.

The latest data, however, show that out of 119 major infrastructure projects initiated by his predecessor, with a price tag of some $100 billion, only 12 have been completed. It’s not clear how the new Filipino president will finance a massive infrastructure build-up without massive fiscal consolidation.

A more immediate concern, however, is inflation, which has reached the highest level in three years amid the ongoing disruptions to global supply chains and commodity markets.

During his campaign, Marcos Jr promised to halve the price of a kilo of rice, a staple food, to 20 pesos (US$0.3704). To fulfill his populist promise, the new Filipino president will concurrently serve as the head of the Department of Agriculture.

“The role of agriculture cries for the urgent attention that its neglect and misdirection now demands. Food self-sufficiency has been the key promise of every administration. None but one delivered. There were inherent defects in the old ways and in recent ways, too,” Marcos Jr said during his inaugural address.

He also promised a proactive trade and industrial policy to enhance the country’s food self-sufficiency. “I am giving that policy the most serious thought if it doesn’t change or make more allowances for emergencies with long-term effects,” he said.

The new Filipino president also addressed rising energy costs, where the price of a liter of gasoline and diesel has almost doubled in recent months. He vowed to implement a comprehensive energy diversification policy, tapping into the country’s vast resources.

“There is a parallel problem in our energy supply; sufficient fossil fuel-free technology for whole economies has yet to be invented. And it is not seriously tried by rich countries,” Marcos Jr said, promising to press ahead with developing the country’s untapped “oil and gas reserves”, likely including in portions of the disputed South China Sea.

(Courtesy Asia Times, Canada)