High-Stakes Elections in the Philippines: What You Need to Know

On May 9, voters in the Philippines choose their next president, who will serve a six-year term. There are many candidates, but only two have a chance of winning: Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the former dictator of the Philippines, and current Vice President Leni Robredo.

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Although the Philippines has deep-rooted issues — its economy has been hit hard by COVID-19, corruption and rising levels of poverty — the presidential race has not focused much on these issues. Instead, it focused on personalities and the future of the country’s freedom. Incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte has often acted autocratically during his six years in office. The election of Marcos Jr., who has anti-democratic leanings, could spell the end of Philippine democracy.

The candidates

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Ferdinand Marcos Jr. With a background as a senator, regional governor, and member of the House of Representatives, Marcos Jr. is a well-established figure in Philippine politics. Polling at 56 percent, Marcos Jr. won broad public support for several reasons. On the one hand, he is positioning himself as a savior for a country battered economically by COVID-19. It also draws on a degree of nostalgia for the era of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. from 1965 to 1986, which some Filipinos consider better than the country’s current dire situation. Marcos Jr.’s kleptocratic father placed the Philippines under martial law and tortured thousands of opponents, but his family has spent decades whitewashing these crimes using sophisticated disinformation methods and highlighting the alleged stability at the time. (Many voters are also too young to remember this period.) Marcos Jr. never truly apologized for his father’s repression and corruption; The former Marcoses are estimated to have stolen some $10 billion from the country, while overseeing a disastrous national economic performance.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr. delivers a speech during the election campaign in February 2022.
Lisa Marie David/Reuters

Marcos Jr. is also charismatic, especially on social networks. His campaign has been criticized by reporters and an election watchdog for overseeing social media networks that have spread vast amounts of misinformation about Marcos Jr., his opponents and his family’s legacy. These efforts are extremely effective in shifting public opinion in one of the most connected populations in the world. In fact, they might be the most important factor in Marcos Jr.’s likely victory. Marcos Jr. also benefits from Duterte’s legacy, which helped spread misinformation and made it easier for another strongman to win.

Additionally, Marcos Jr. entered into an alliance with three other powerful political families: the Arroyos, the Estradas and the Dutertes. Duterte’s daughter is effectively running for vice president with Marcos Jr. With a presidency of Marcos Jr. and this alliance, these families could dominate both the executive and legislative branches, mocking democracy.

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Leni Robredo. A former vice president, Robredo has made protecting democracy and fighting corruption the centerpieces of her campaign. She is trying to turn the public against the Marcoses and gain support from other small parties. His rallies have been packed and his polls have risen slightly in recent months, but only to 24%, a far cry from Marcos Jr. Other relatively minor candidates, such as boxing champion Manny Pacquiao and Manila Mayor Francisco Moreno Domagoso, remained in the race, who could draw votes from Robredo. In 2016, the reluctance of Duterte’s main opponents to form a unified front and candidate was one of the reasons he triumphed.

Platforms and Foreign Policy Issues

Although both Marcos Jr. and Robredo have made vague promises to improve health care and fight poverty, the overriding issue is the long-term survival of Philippine democracy. Robredo has made this point in speeches and online appearances, and Marcos Jr. has tended to offer platitudes about the past and promises of “unity.” Still, Marcos Jr. indicated that he would protect Duterte from prosecution by the International Criminal Court for Duterte’s extrajudicial drug wars and signaled that he may continue these killings.

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A map of the Philippines listing important data points such as population (115 million)

In terms of foreign policy, China remains the biggest problem. Duterte, who has strong anti-American sentiments throughout his life, tried to pursue a closer relationship with Beijing early in his term, in an effort to reduce Manila’s dependence on Washington. But many promised Chinese infrastructure projects never materialized, and the public grew increasingly angry at Beijing’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy and forays into the South China Sea. Duterte eventually turned back to the United States.

Marcos Jr. has always had a warm relationship with Beijing and may want to woo China again, as well as try to launch more Beijing-backed infrastructure projects. But Beijing’s huge unpopularity in the Philippines could limit Marcos Jr.’s ability to work closely with China. In contrast, Robredo has promised a tough approach to Beijing, vowing not to even discuss the South China Sea with Beijing until he acknowledges that a 2016 tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of the Manila claims, which Beijing will certainly never concede. Both candidates will likely continue the recent trend of forging closer ties with the United States.

The implications

While the implications of this election for Philippine foreign policy are not huge, if Marcos Jr. tried to move Manila to Beijing, it would be a serious problem for regional security and US forces. The Philippines is a US treaty ally and central to the US position in the South China Sea and towards Taiwan.

The implications for the future of Philippine democracy, and by extension democracy in Southeast Asia, are even more enormous. Democracy has already regressed dramatically in Southeast Asia over the past decade, and a deathblow in the Philippines, one of the world’s most populous democracies, would reinforce this trend. Prominent Filipino analyst Richard Heydarian called the May 9 vote “the most important election in modern Philippine history.” That’s not an understatement.

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