The Return of the Marcoses and the U.S.-Philippines Alliance

Ferdinand Marcos was first elected president of the Philippines in 1965. He declared martial law in 1972 and was finally toppled by the People Power Revolution of 1986. In between, the Marcos dictatorship imprisoned, tortured, and killed thousands, sent the economy into a tailspin, and oversaw a kleptocracy famously epitomized by First Lady Imelda’s collection of 3,000 pairs of shoes. When the family fled to exile in Hawaii, millions of Filipinos rejoiced. Thirty-six years later, they have elected the dictator’s son president. Many Americans, including inside the U.S. government, will greet the news of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s victory with private chagrin. But the U.S.-Philippines alliance is vital to both nations’ security and prosperity, especially in the new era of competition with China. The election doesn’t change that any more than those of Rodrigo Duterte or Donald Trump did.

Bongbong’s rise to the presidency has been decades in the making. It started with the family’s 1991 return to the Philippines to face charges of corruption (the elder Marcos died in 1989). Less than a year later, Imelda unsuccessfully ran for president, but Bongbong secured a seat in the House of Representatives. Imelda won her own seat in 1995, as did her daughter Imee in 1998. Both children would later win nationwide races for Senate. The congressional seats and governorships of the Marcos’s native Ilocos Norte continue to rotate among the family.

The post-1986 political order in the Philippines was self-consciously framed as one of national revitalization after the dark years of martial law. And yet, within a system built in symbolic opposition to them, the Marcoses have thrived. Their power and wealth have allowed them to rewrite the family’s story as one of persecution and recast the dictatorship as a time of relative peace and prosperity. The passage of time, the failure of the post-Marcos political establishment to deliver for many Filipinos, and of course, the echo chambers of social media, created a ready audience for that historical fiction.

Bongbong Marcos’s margin of victory is too wide for argument. Like his father at the start, he will soon be the duly elected president. But 2022 is not 1972. This is not the end of Philippine democracy, though it may accelerate its decay. The country’s democratic institutions have already been battered by six years of the Duterte presidency and the rise of online disinformation, alongside the decades-long corrosives of oligarchy, graft, and poor governance. But barely a year out from the Capitol insurrection and with a twice-impeached former president angling for a return to power in 2024, the United States would be better served by engagement rather than criticism of the democratic headwinds buffeting the Philippines.

The U.S. government would doubtless have found it easier to work with Marcos’s leading opponent, Vice President Leni Robredo. But the United States doesn’t get a vote in its allies’ elections. Unlike Leni, with her coherent platform for good governance and development at home and standing up to China abroad, Marcos is a policy cipher. He has avoided presidential debates, shunned interviews, and has been silent on most issues. He has, however, been clear that he would like to take another crack at improving ties with Beijing, as current leader Duterte has tried with mixed success. And, like Duterte, he is skeptical of the value of U.S. defense commitments in the South China Sea.

But when it comes to foreign policy, Marcos will not have the same space for maneuver that Duterte did. The Philippines tried an outstretched hand and China bit it. That is why the Duterte government has re-embraced the U.S. alliance and gotten tougher on Beijing over the last two years. The Philippine public and bureaucracy are even more distrustful of China than they were six years ago in the wake of their landmark arbitration victory in the South China Sea. Marcos might well try to revive Duterte’s early outreach to Beijing, but he is unlikely to toss the U.S. alliance overboard as part of the effort. There will be rough patches for the alliance to manage. But they must be managed. In the face of a revisionist China, the United States’ oldest Asian alliance is more vital than ever before, regardless of who Filipinos (or Americans) choose as their president.

Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow and director for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative