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Opinion

Palace intrigue as the House of Marcos eyes the House of Duterte

From ancient grudge to new liaisons in fair Manila

| Philippines
Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte delivers a speech in May 2019: the best way to protect her father from potential prosecution may be if she herself is president.   © Reuters

Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, columnist and author of "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" and the "The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery."

Despite decades of democratic experience, the Southeast Asian country is no stranger to political chaos and inept leadership. But it is the legacies of its authoritarian leaders that have been most devastating. Former strongman Ferdinand Marcos oversaw decades of cronyism and destructive wars against myriad insurgencies, which reduced the once-shining pearl of the Orient into the sick man of Asia toward the end of his reign in the 1980s.

Marcos' peers in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, in contrast, oversaw the transformation of once-impoverished nations into the most dynamic economies on Earth. Now the Philippines has President Rodrigo Duterte, the quintessential authoritarian populist, whose record has been far from impressive.

Over the past year, the Philippines has suffered one of the world's deepest economic recessions as it struggled to contain COVID-19. Thanks to a snail's-pace vaccination rate, The Economist Intelligence Unit expects the Philippines to be among the last nations to achieve a semblance of herd immunity.

Given such a shambolic record, one would naturally expect a new generation of progressive leaders to be lining up ahead of next year's presidential election. Instead, surveys suggest that the two leading candidates for the country's highest office are the scions of the House of Duterte and House of Marcos, setting the stage for a potentially epic showdown.

So how did Asia's oldest democracy, dating back more than a century, end up a bastion of authoritarian nostalgia?

Not long ago, the Philippines was being hailed as one of the surprise success stories of the 21st century. Under the reformist administration of Benigno Aquino -- his senator father was assassinated during the Marcos dictatorship, while his mother succeeded Marcos as president -- the Philippines simultaneously experienced good-governance reforms as well as an economic boom.

Yet the macro-indicators of success under Aquino were misleading. To begin, the administration struggled to kick-start desperately needed infrastructure projects, just as major cities such as Manila and Cebu descended into a "Carmageddon" of suffocating traffic.

But there were far deeper structural problems. The richest 40 families in the country gobbled up most of the newly created growth as the vast majority of Filipinos struggled to move up into the middle class. Meanwhile, the country's elected offices remained a preserve of political dynasties, 178 of which dominated 73 out of the country's 81 provinces.

The situation was even more scandalous in the Philippine legislature, where 70% of members hailed from political dynasties. Even by the standards of other former Spanish colonies, including troubled democracies such as Argentina and Mexico, the Philippine Congress seemed more a democratic facade.

The upshot is growing public nostalgia for authoritarian rule. Throughout the past decade, as many as 60% of voters expressed their willingness to embrace a leader "who does not have to bother with elections." A more recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that as many as 8 out of 10 Filipinos have expressed openness to a decisive and single-minded autocrat, with only 15% categorically committed to liberal democracy.

This largely explains why an authoritarian populist like Duterte managed to secure a landslide victory in the 2016 election, while the sole son and namesake of former strongman Ferdinand Marcos Jr., known as "Bongbong," lost the vice presidency by a razor-thin margin.

While Duterte's approval ratings remain sky-high, the latest Pulse Asia survey shows his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, leading those vying for the presidency next year, with Bongbong Marcos in second position at 13%. Vice President Leni Robredo, the de facto leader of the liberal opposition, did not even make it to the top five.

While neither Sara Duterte nor Marcos Jr. has formally declared their intention to run, the two potential rivals had a tete-a-tete in Davao, raising speculation over a potential joint ticket to head off direct competition.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr. addresses the crowd during his mother's 90th birthday celebration in July 2019: Bongbong Marcos' candidacy seems almost certain.    © NurPhoto/Getty Images

But aging former first lady Imelda Marcos, desperate for the vindication that only a triumphant return to Malacanang -- Manila's presidential palace -- could bring, Bongbong Marcos' candidacy seems almost certain.

As for Sara Duterte, while she may genuinely prefer to remain mayor of Davao, the best way to protect her father from potential prosecution over numerous scandals and a scorched-earth drug war may be if she herself is president. Mind you, Duterte's three immediate predecessors faced various forms of political persecution upon leaving office.

Keeping his options open, President Duterte himself has expressed openness to, if necessary, support Marcos Jr., a key ally, as a potential successor. With allies already launching the "Duterte Parin Movement" -- still Duterte movement, the populist in Manila might even run as his daughter's vice-presidential running mate.

The Duterte and Marcos families have formidable resources at their disposal, as well as legions of die-hard supporters. The Wharton-trained Marcos Jr. and the youthful lawyer Duterte are also both relatively articulate and able to project competence.

Electorally, Sara can rely on her solid south base in Mindanao, which has upended the traditional Philippine establishment and become the country's center of political gravity.

As for Bong Bong, he has a dependable base in the northern Luzon regions, his father's territory, as well as his mother's home base in the central Visayan regions.

If there is one thing that history teaches us, it is that anything is possible in Philippine politics. But so far, it is all still a family affair, with the House of Duterte and House of Marcos preparing the ground for a potentially titanic battle.

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