MANILA – Ferdinand Marcos Jr has defied both his allies and critics in his first 100 days in office, shifting the Philippines in new political and diplomatic directions in a major policy reboot.
After six years of disruptive populism under predecessor president Rodrigo Duterte, who lashed out at Western allies and railed against local big business “oligarchs”, the new Filipino president has staked out an early path of policy moderation and traditional statesmanship.
In particular, Marcos Jr has toned down his predecessor’s scorched-earth drug war and anti-communism campaign, revived frayed ties with the United States and taken a more critical stance towards China and Russia.
Amid rising inflation and declining growth prospects, the new Filipino president has also zeroed in on attracting foreign investment and stimulating economic recovery at home through aggressive infrastructure development.
In contrast to his tough-talking predecessor, Marcos Jr has so far presented himself as an above-the-fray political leader, who won’t personally “indulge in any of that political back-and-forth” with liberal and other critics. He views himself as a pragmatic leader who is primarily interested in “[w]hat are we going to do to get [the Philippines] into a better place” rather than embracing polarizing, partisan politics.
The most dramatic aspect of Marcos Jr’s policy reboot so far has been in the realm of foreign relations. Ahead of the 2022 presidential elections, he publicly backed Duterte’s Beijing-friendly strategic orientation and presented himself as the natural heir to the populist incumbent.
After securing a landslide election victory, largely thanks to his fateful alliance with the Duterte clan, wherein Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte shared the ticket as his running mate, Marcos Jr began quickly to adopt a radically different foreign policy tone.
His key cabinet appointments were also telling. Instead of relying on loyalists and political allies, Marcos Jr appointed a career diplomat to head the department of foreign affairs.
Then, to the surprise of both his critics and allies, he reversed his earlier promise to appoint Sara Duterte as his defense secretary. That position instead went to a former military chief, who, similar to Marcos Jr’s top diplomat, holds broadly traditional views on the Philippines’ external relations and alliance with the US.
In his first weeks in power, Marcos Jr personally met top envoys from Western allies and partners. Throughout the meetings, he repeatedly underscored his commitment to uphold the Philippines’ 2016 arbitral tribunal award victory at The Hague over China regarding contested territories in the South China Sea.
He has vowed to “not compromise it in any way” the Southeast Asian country’s “sacred” rights in the disputed waters. During his visit to New York last month, Marcos Jr categorically dismissed China’s claims in areas “that belongs to the Philippines.”
Although Marcos has welcomed robust economic relations with Beijing, the new Filipino president underscored his preference for a more results-oriented cooperation. To this end, his new administration nixed multiple big-ticket infrastructure projects pending with China, thus triggering a new round of negotiations on better financing terms.
In contrast to his more critical stance towards Beijing, Marcos Jr has actively courted warm relations with traditional partners, including mutual defense treaty ally the US. Following a series of cordial meetings with top US officials, including President Joe Biden, Marcos Jr praised the US’ constructive role in Asia as “something that is much appreciated by all the countries in the region, and the Philippines especially.”
The two allies have agreed to fortify their military cooperation in light of shared concerns over China, thus increasing their joint military exercises from 300 this year to as many as 500 in 2023. The two sides have also agreed to double the number of troops participating in the major Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) wargames next year.
Amid the rapid revival of bilateral ties, Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Romualdez confidently claimed: “[O]ur relationship with the United States is at its best right now.”
While Marcos Jr has proven successful in repivoting his country’s foreign policy, the same can’t be said about his economic performance. Or, at least, that’s what the latest surveys show.
All authoritative polls show that rising inflation, which reached a four-year-high of 6.9%, is now the most urgent concern for a majority of Filipinos. This is especially the case among the urban poor as well as those living in the relatively impoverished southern island of Mindanao, from where the powerful Dutertes hail.
According to the latest survey by Pulse Asia, a leading poll agency, the Marcos Jr administration achieved a high approval rating on a range of policy concerns, but “when it comes to controlling inflation, the only majority urgent national concern, the plurality opinion among Filipino adults (42%) is one of disapproval for the national administration’s performance.”
Only a third of Filipino adults approved of Marcos Jr’s handling of inflation, which has hit the poorer segments of society particularly hard.
A recent survey by Social Weather Stations (SWS), covering the second quarter of this year, showed that close to half of Filipino families (48%), amounting to as high as 50 million individuals, considered themselves as “poor.” With inflation still rising, those poll numbers are bound to go higher.
The Marcos Jr administration has tried to explain away galloping inflation by pointing out rising import costs due to the steep depreciation in the Philippine currency amid US Federal Reserve rate hikes as well as disruptions to global food markets following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The new president, however, is scrambling to manage the message amid the recent resignations of Press Secretary Trixie Angeles-Cruz as well as his top aid, former executive secretary Victor Rodriguez.
“Obviously, we need somebody who’s very experienced. Probably a journalist or is a media practitioner. That’s what’s needed, someone experienced in messaging so that the information we want to release will be conveyed,” said Marcos Jr after being asked about his press secretary replacement pick.
“That’s what’s important that we get the information, the messaging across,” he added, acknowledging the need for effective communications on key issues, especially inflation, where his administration has been poorly rated by the general public.
Marcos Jr’s biggest challenge, however, is a potential backlash from his until now top ally. In his first three months in office, the new Filipino president has revamped his predecessor’s key policies to the disappointment of former government officials as well as the Dutertes.
On one hand, Marcos Jr has extended an olive branch to big businesses, some of whom came under relentless populist attacks by the former president. The new Filipino leader has expressed openness to the restoration of the broadcast franchise of the Lopez family-owned ABS-CBN network, which was shut down by Duterte’s congressional allies in 2020.
“The question of the ABS-CBN franchise is really about the [alleged] violations [based on] investigation[s] in the House of Representatives [in 2020]… So long those are attended to and those are resolved, there’s no reason actually for the Committee of Franchises in the House to deny them of a franchise,” he said during an interview last month.
Meanwhile, the Marcos Jr administration has also scaled back his predecessor’s aggressive anti-communist campaign as well as its extrajudicial killing-plagued drug war. The new Filipino president has openly the conduct of Duterte’s drug war and spoken in favor of a more rules-based and rehabilitation-centered approach.
“The war on drugs will continue but we have to do it in a different way… We are looking more for the upstream, upstream of the problem, the prevention,” Marcos said in an interview last month, emphasizing a more preventative and humane approach .
“In fact, right now, we are trying to formulate how, what is the latest and what’s the best way for the rehabilitation,” the Philippine president added.
Early on, new Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Benhur Abalos promised greater accountability amid accusations of widespread extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s drug war.
“I will make sure [rogue police officers] will be stripped of their posts. I will make sure of that through the due process of the law,” Abalos said.
“Let’s just make sure that they really are the bad ones. Do not use the agency just to destroy people,” he added, emphasizing a more comprehensive approach that “cut[s] the root of the tree: unemployment, education, family.”
Marcos Jr’s policy reboot hasn’t sat well with the former president, who has effectively come out of his short-lived political retirement and is positioning his own PDP-Laban party for an eventual return to power.
“Look, I’m now 77 years old. The right time to retire. I have lots of weapons, but I will still help PDP-Laban. I can still campaign. Let’s prepare for the next election. I commit to campaign for our candidates,” Duterte said during a speech before the former ruling party earlier this year.
Now actively leading a major party, with an eye on the succeeding elections, including his daughter’s likely run for the top office, Duterte has also positioned himself as a potential opposition to the incumbent amid growing policy rifts.
“For me, even if creating any friction [with the incumbent] is not the interest of the public now…the President [Marcos Jr.] can be very sure that in the coming days we will ‘fiscalize.’ If we see anything wrong, we will raise our voice, because that is the essence of our presence here, ”Duterte gently warned, underscoring his commitment to ‘scrutinize and even oppose his successor if deemed necessary.
Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @Richeydarian