One Year In, Marcos Jr. Struggles to Govern

By Cleve V. Arguelles and Jose Miguelito Enriquez, President and Associate Research Fellow at WR Numero Research

After a landslide election win, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has struggled to live up to the hype in his first year in power, write Cleve V. Arguelles and Jose Miguelito Enriquez.

With a landslide election win at his back, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s ascension to the presidency last year signalled a repudiation of the post-Marcos consensus that has dominated Philippine politics since the 1986 People Power Revolution. Bongbong is the first president to be elected by a majority of voters since the fall of the dictatorship imposed by his father Ferdinand Marcos. But the euphoria for the Marcos Restoration appears to have faded quickly as the president’s ambitious promises have run headlong into the bitter realities of governance. Testimonies of dispirited Marcos loyalists easily go viral nowadays— for all the Restoration ambitions that took more than three decades of brewing, Marcos Jr.’s first year in power is remarkably unremarkable.

Bongbong took office with his four-party alliance in full control of Congress. His cousin Martin Romualdez runs the House of Representatives as Speaker and his allies, including his own sister Imee Marcos, have a supermajority in the Senate. The possibilities for wide-ranging reform appeared boundless. A triumphant Marcos Jr. had promised Filipino families cost-of-living relief – that a kilo of rice would be as cheap as PHP 20 (AUD 0.55) – and an inclusive post-pandemic recovery.  The promised bounty was encapsulated by the President’s election pledge “Bayan Babangon Muli” (lit., “The nation will rise again”), which was a play on his widely known initials “BBM”.

The initial enthusiasm for the Restoration has given way to disillusionment as the historic popular mandate failed to translate into remarkable changes. For a President who had also appointed himself Secretary of Agriculture, the biggest setback in the first year was a sharp spike in food and agricultural product prices. Red onions scandalously rose to as much as PHP 800 per kilo, three to four times the price of pork, forcing Filipino families to forego a favourite ingredient. High food prices have fuelled national inflation, which accelerated to a historic high of more than 8 percent in December 2022. The bold but wildly popular campaign promise of cheap rice never materialised. Government monitoring shows that the rice price was still as high as PHP 35-45 per kilo in July 2023. Even in the limited government subsidised “Kadiwa” stores, about which Marcos Jr. often boasts, a kilo of rice is still more expensive than promised.

Influential agricultural cartels and smugglers also have contributed to the nationwide price spikes. Allegations of state-sponsored smuggling of sugar turned into a highly publicised political scandal and resulted in the resignation of Vic Rodriguez, Bongbong’s Executive Secretary, long-time chief-of-staff, and spokesperson of his presidential campaign. The affair revealed to the public the existence of bitter infighting between the camps of Rodriguez and First Lady Liza Araneta-Marcos. Rodriguez’s exit from the Marcos government sparked a witch hunt of political appointees identified with him including in the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Department of National Defense, and the National Security Council. The fallout included vicious personal exchanges online between supporters of Rodriguez and the First Lady that understandably confused many Marcos supporters. Another consequence was that it took Bongbong a year to complete Cabinet appointments, unusually long by any measure.

The upheaval in the administration so early in Bongbong’s single six-year term was a preview of the fierce infighting that has become a defining feature of the ruling coalition. Among the most aggressive factions are those led by Vice President Sara Duterte and former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the other dominant half of the Marcos-Duterte alliance. Following in her father’s footsteps, Sara frequently takes issues with the administration’s coalition partners to public. She recently resigned from the party headed by Speaker Romualdez, citing “political toxicity” and “execrable political powerplay”. Bongbong, who appears to employ a hands-off approach to political battles among power brokers in his government, was notably absent from these scenes of infighting. With none of his priority legislation passing the Congress by the end of his first year, it is unclear whether he rules the coalition or is ruled by it.

The struggle to govern his coalition extends to the bureaucracy. While Bongbong assures the international community that the years of drug war killings is over, he struggles to tame the bloodthirsty police force unleashed by former president Duterte. With almost one death a day, there have been more drug-related killings in Bongbong’s first year in power than Duterte’s last. In repeatedly reorganising the Philippine National Police without achieving a reduction in drug-related killings by state and non-state agents, the President confronts the limits of his power against Duterte’s enduring populist appeal. Bongbong also had to secure the return of political veteran Gibo Teodoro as Secretary of National Defense, in an apparent call for help, to convince the men and women in uniform of the need to restructure their pension systems to reduce a drain on national coffers.

Still, Bongbong has been able to manoeuvre the country’s foreign policy direction with relative ease, even as he grapples with the limits of power over domestic affairs. In his latest State of the Nation Address (SONA), he proudly declared the running total of investment pledges resulting from his foreign visits at PHP 3.9 trillion (AUD 106.2 billion). The test in the coming years will be how many of those pledges materialise. Reaping the benefits of these trips would be an important win for Bongbong, who has used promised investments to deflect criticism over the large number of foreign trips he has taken – an average of about one a month in his first year. Nonetheless, he seems confident; he has asked Congress for a 58 percent increase in his travel budget for 2024.

Absent from the President’s address, however, was mention of the biggest foreign policy move of his first year: the Philippines’ U-turn back to the United States after the Duterte administration’s China pivot. And yet the steps taken to improve US-Philippine relations have arguably been the most concrete foreign policy action of the administration, highlighted by the scale of this year’s Balikatan joint US-Philippinesmilitary exercise, the largest in history. Just three years before, Duterte had intended to abrogate the two countries’ Visiting Forces Agreement, which put Balikatan in limbo. Since the change of presidency, the foreign affairs department has filed more than 90 diplomatic protest notes against China over incursions into Philippine waters.

But Bongbong’s hesitance to recognise warming Philippine-American ties in the SONA could signal that the administration is aware that not everyone in the coalition approves of this strategy. In fact, signs of displeasure or caution are beginning to bubble to the surface. In April, as then-Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez lauded the expansion of the US-Philippine Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, several allied Senators, including his sister Imee, expressed alarm over “relying on foreigners” for national security needs.

Recently, former president Duterte paid a visit to President Xi Jinping in Beijing, a move seen as orchestrated to keep Philippine-China relations warm despite Bongbong’s U-turn. It was an unusual trip for an ex-president, reportedly catching the Philippine Ministry of Foreign Affairs off-guard. Indeed, the challenge of keeping both US-friendly and China-friendly blocs at bay is becoming increasingly apparent, as is the implementation of the administration’s “friend to all and enemy to none” doctrine, which is an exercise in wishful thinking rather than a foreign policy. Both abroad and at home, Bongbong’s hands are tied— he struggles to balance competing international and domestic interests.

Cleve V. Arguelles is President of polling firm WR Numero Research and Assistant Professorial Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Development Studies, De La Salle University, Manila.  

Jose Miguelito Enriquez is Associate Research Fellow at WR Numero Research. He has an M. Sc. in international relations from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.