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A Year Of Marcos Jr: How A Dictator’s Son Has Changed The Philippines

One year ago on Friday, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, son and namesake of the former dictator, became the president of the Philippines, returning one of the country’s most polarising families to office.

He had campaigned on a broad pledge of bringing unity, as well as creating jobs, building infrastructure and cutting the cost of food. He won a landslide victory, boosted by a flood of online disinformation that created nostalgia for his father’s rule, portraying it as an era of great economic prosperity and stability.

After his election win, he told the public: “Judge me not by my ancestors, but by my actions.”

One year on, Marcos Jr has overseen a marked shift in foreign policy, pursuing much warmer relations with the US and taking a tougher stance in defending the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea.

But at home, analysts say Marcos Jr’s performance has been less impressive. Under his watch, food prices have soared, and longstanding problems, such as the severely overstretched education system, remain unresolved. Nor has the human rights crisis left by predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, who presided over a brutal so-called “war on drugs”, been properly addressed.

Yet polling indicates that Marcos Jr, whose presidency is limited to one six-year term, remains very popular. This may, in part, reflect a honeymoon period, says Aries Arugay, professor and chair of the department of political science at the University of the Philippines.

But he adds that Marcos Jr’s approach to government is not sustainable if he wants to push through reforms that will tackle the country’s challenges: “He has basically run the country under cruise control. Unfortunately, that cannot be maintained in the coming years.”

In particular, greater action is needed on human rights, says Carlos Conde, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in the Philippines. “Our human rights problems are so gargantuan that he cannot be doing the barest of the minimums. We cannot afford that.”

Tough on ChinaMarcos Jr’s biggest achievement during his first year in office has been navigating the rising tensions in the South China Sea, says Arugay.

The resource-rich and strategically important stretch of water is claimed in part by the Philippines, but the country finds itself caught between China, which, without legal basis, claims almost all of the South China Sea, and its rival the US, which considers the area important to its national interests.

Marcos Jr has deviated from the path of his predecessor former president Rodrigo Duterte, under whose leadership relations with the US had deteriorated. Instead, the Philippines expanded US access to its military bases, giving Washington a greater presence in the region, while also strengthening military ties with Japan and Australia, two US allies.

Protesters mark the Philippines’ 125th Independence Day in June. News of the enhanced military ties with the US did not go down well in all sectors.

Photograph: Rolex dela Peña/EPAWhile Duterte was reluctant to confront China over the South China Sea, Marcos Jr has adopted tougher rhetoric. Earlier this year Marcos summoned the Chinese ambassador to express serious concern after a Chinese coastguard ship was accused of directing a “military-grade laser” at one a Filipino vessel, temporarily blinding a crew member and disrupting a mission in the South China Sea.

Marcos has shown “a better appreciation of how the Philippines should position itself given the very uncertain strategic environment it is facing,” says Arugay.

He is also able to forge closer relations with the US because his family already has longstanding ties with Beijing, Arugay adds, which affords him a degree of capital.

Philippine navy ship BRP Antonio Luna launches chaff during a demonstration in May off Zambales, facing the South China Sea. Ties with China have cooled slightly under Marcos Jr. Photograph: Ali Vicoy/AFP/Getty ImagesAn onion and sugar crisisOn the campaign trail, Marcos pledged to bring down the cost of food, even promising to reduce the cost of rice to 20 peso per kilogram, a pledge dismissed by analysts as unrealistic and which still has not been achieved.

Instead, inflation has been “one of the defining characteristics of his first year in office”, says Jan Carlo Punongbayan, assistant professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics. Inflation, driven in large part by increases in food prices, reached a 14-year high of 8.7% in January.

The crisis led to the cost of onions rising to more than 700 peso per kilogram – leading to onion smuggling rackets being uncovered and restaurants dropping the vegetable from their dishes. Sugar prices also soared.

The price of onions has soared to ruinous levels in the Philippines. Photograph: Rolex dela Peña/EPAInflation has been driven largely by rising food prices, and the rises were exacerbated by a failure to import enough goods at the right time, says Punongbayan. Marcos has taken steps to cushion the impact of inflation – an interagency committee has been established and cash aid introduced – but these steps have come late, Punongbayan says.

He has also pushed to open more government stores that sell food at a discounted price. But the stores are , at best, a Band-Aid measure, says Punongbayan. They were first introduced under his father’s rule, however, and are “part and parcel of that effort to rebrand or revise the name of the Marcoses” by reviving his policies.

Marcos has said the economy is moving in the right direction, pointing to a record 7.6% gross domestic product growth rate in 2022, following the lifting of pandemic restrictions. He has also proposed a sovereign wealth fund that supporters say is necessary for investment and bringing jobs.

However, economists have warned its goals are unclear, that it risks adding to public debt and that greater safeguards are needed to avoid the potential for misuse of funds. Opponents point to Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal as an example of what can go wrong with sovereign wealth funds.

A shift in the ‘war on drugs’When Marcos took office, he inherited a major human rights crisis. Duterte had pursued a “war on drugs” in which as many as 30,000 people are estimated to have been killed and, under his leadership, journalists and activists were killed or pursued through the courts.

Marcos has avoided overtly condemning the human rights record of the previous administration, though he has said the so-called war on drugs should be more focused on prevention, and that told police to go after bigger players – not “the kid who makes 100 pesos ($2) a week selling weed”.

However, the killings, say researchers, are continuing under his government: more than 300 drug-related killings have been recorded since he took office.

Marcos is not cooperating with an international criminal court (ICC) investigation into Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, and there has been little progress in domestic probes.

Forensic pathologist Raquel Fortun pieces together the skull of drug war victim in Manila. Photograph: Eloisa Lopez/ReutersMarcos does not use the kind of violent rhetoric that Duterte became known for, and he appears to say the right things to diplomats, says Conde, of Human Rights Watch in the Philippines. “Whether this translates to action on the ground is another story,” he adds.

Activists also say there is a lack of progress in other areas. The practice of “red-tagging”, where a person is accused of being a communist, which can lead to their arrest or even death, has continued. The former senator and Duterte critic Leila de Lima remains in jail, despite calls by rights groups for her to be freed.

Marcos Jr’s rhetoric towards the media is less overtly hostile than Duterte, who once stated that corrupt journalists were “not exempted from assassination”. The former president hounded reporters who scrutinised his administration, including Maria Ressa, the Nobel prize winner and co-founder of news website Rappler, who has faced a series of legal charges. The country’s biggest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, was ordered off air.

Since Marcos has taken power, the Philippines’ position in the World Press Freedom Index, has improved, and it is now ranked 132 out of 180 countries – compared with 147th last year.

“There seem to have been fewer and less violent attacks,” the index report said, adding: “but they are still worrisome”.

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