MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The apparent landslide victory of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the Philippine presidential election is raising immediate concerns about the further erosion of democracy in Asia and could complicate US efforts to mitigate China’s growing influence and power in the Pacific.
Marcos, the eponymous son of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, captured more than double the votes of his closest rival in Monday’s election, according to unofficial results.
If the results hold, he will take office at the end of June for a six-year term with Sara Duterte.the daughter of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, as his vice president.
Duterte, who leaves office with a 67% approval rating, has cultivated closer ties with China and Russia, while at times criticizing the United States.
However, he backed away from many of his threats against Washington, including a move to abrogate a defense pact, and the shine on China’s infrastructure investment promise has faded, with many failing to materialize.
The continuation of the recent trend in relations with the US has a lot to do with how President Joe Biden’s administration responds to Marcos’ return to power in the Philippines, said Manila-based political scientist Andrea Chloe Wong. , former researcher at the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.
“On the one hand, you have Biden regarding geostrategic interests in the Philippines, and on the other hand, he has to balance promoting American democratic ideals and human rights,” he said.
“If he chooses to do that, he may have to isolate the Marcos administration, so it’s definitely going to be a delicate balancing act for the Philippines, and Marcos’ approach to the US will very much depend on how Biden reacts.” engage with him.”
His election comes at a time when the US has increasingly focused on the region and has embarked on a strategy that was unveiled in February. Substantially expand US engagement by strengthening a network of alliances and security partnerships, with an emphasis on addressing China’s growing influence and ambitions.
Thousands of U.S. and Philippine forces recently concluded one of their largest combat exercises in years, which showcased American firepower in the northern Philippines, near its maritime border with Taiwan.
Marcos has been brief on details on foreign policy, but in interviews he said he wanted to pursue closer ties with China, including the possibility of setting aside a 2016 ruling by a court in The Hague that invalidated almost all of China’s historical claims to China. the South China Sea. .
A previous Philippine administration took the case to court, but China has refused to recognize the ruling and Marcos said he will not help resolve disputes with Beijing, “so that option is not available to us.”
Allowing the United States to play a role in trying to resolve territorial disputes with China will be a “recipe for disaster,” Marcos said in an interview with DZRH radio in January. He said Duterte’s policy of diplomatic engagement with China is “really our only option.”
Marcos has also said he would maintain his nation’s alliance with the US, but the relationship is complicated by US backing of the administrations that took power after his father was ousted, and a US District Court ruling USA in 2011 in Hawaii that found him and his mother in contempt. of an order to provide asset information in connection with a 1995 human rights class action lawsuit against Marcos Sr.
The court fined them $353.6 million, which has never been paid and could complicate any possible trip to the US.
The United States has a long history with the Philippines, which was an American colony for most of the 20th century before gaining independence in 1946.
Its location between the South China Sea and the Western Pacific is strategically important. And while the US closed its last military bases in the Philippines in 1992, a 1951 collective defense treaty guarantees US support if the Philippines is attacked.
The United States noted their shared history in its comments on the election. “We look forward to renewing our special partnership and working with the next administration on key human rights and regional priorities,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington.
Although the Biden administration has preferred to work with Marcos’ main opponent, Leni Robredo, “the alliance between the United States and the Philippines is vital for the security and prosperity of both nations, especially in the new era of competition with China,” he said. Gregory B. Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Unlike Leni, with his consistent platform for good governance and development at home and dealing with China abroad, Marcos is a policy code,” Poling said in a research note. “He avoided presidential debates, shunned interviews and was silent on most issues.”
However, Marcos has made it clear that he would like to try again to improve ties with Beijing, Poling said.
“But when it comes to foreign policy, Marcos will not have the same room for maneuver that Duterte had,” he said. “The Philippines tried an outstretched hand and China bit it. This is why the Duterte government has re-embraced the alliance with the United States and has become tougher on Beijing in the last two years.”
Marcos Sr. was overthrown in 1986 after millions of people took to the streets, forcing an end to his corrupt dictatorship and a return to democracy. But Duterte’s election as president in 2016 brought the return of a strongman-like leader, which voters have now doubled down on with Marcos Jr.
Domestically, Marcos, who goes by his boyish nickname “Bongbong,” is expected to pick up where Duterte left off, stifling a free press and cracking down on dissent with less of the outgoing leader’s crude and brazen style, while ending attempts to to recover. some of the billions of dollars his father stole from the state coffers.
But he is not likely to return to the hard-line government of his father, who declared martial law for much of his rule, said Julio Teehankee, a political science professor at De La Salle University in Manila.
“He doesn’t have the courage or the brilliance or even the ruthlessness to become a dictator, so I think what we’re going to see is a form of light authoritarianism or Marcos-lite,” Teehankee said.
The new Marcos government will not spell the end of Philippine democracy, Poling said, “although it may hasten its decline.”
“The country’s democratic institutions have already been battered by the six years of Duterte’s presidency and the rise of online disinformation, along with the corrosives of decades of oligarchy, corruption and misgovernment,” he said.
“The United States would be better served by engagement rather than criticism of the democratic headwinds plaguing the Philippines.”
Marcos’ approach at home could have a spillover effect in other countries in the region, where democratic freedoms are increasingly being eroded in many places and the Philippines has been seen as a positive influence, Wong said.
“This will have an impact on the foreign policy of the Philippines when it comes to promoting its democratic values, freedoms and human rights, particularly in Southeast Asia,” he said. “The Philippines is considered a bastion of democracy in the region, with a strong civil society and noisy media, and with Bongbong Marcos as president, we will have less credibility.”
Increase reported from Bangkok.