Savoring their return to power after decades of being pariahs, the Marcos family turned up in full force at the hall of Congress on Wednesday as Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr was proclaimed the new president of the Philippines. Their matriarch, 92-year-old Imelda—infamous for her 3,000 pairs of shoes—made a rare public appearance, vindicated as her once-exiled family are again headed for the presidential palace.
But behind the scenes, the family appeared less pompous. Photos from the waiting lounge showed the Marcoses fawning over the new vice president, Sara Duterte, the daughter of outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte, elected separately as is the country’s practice.
The 64-year-old Marcos Jr was seen embracing Duterte, and then clinging to her arm. His sister Irene was photographed bowing and holding Duterte’s hand to her forehead—a traditional gesture of deference to one’s senior, whether by age or status.
But Irene Marcos is older than the 43-year-old Sara Duterte, and a member of the first family. Yet she bowed to the younger Duterte, who ran alongside Marcos Jr as his vice president, securing a victory for their tandem with an unprecedented majority vote.
Their deference speaks to what could be a power dynamic playing out behind the scenes that recognizes Duterte’s crucial role in the success of Marcos Jr, who has dominated international headlines with his election victory as he is the son of the deceased dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr, infamous for his two-decade rule marred by violence, rights abuses, and corruption.
“The Marcoses are really thankful to her for bringing in the votes, because if she ran for president, Bongbong would have lost, I think,” Maria Ela Atienza, a political scientist from the University of the Philippines, told VICE World News. She noted that early opinion surveys showed Sara Duterte was the frontrunner for the top post, before she declared her bid for VP.
“If Sara had run for president, she would have won.”
While Duterte officially sits beneath Marcos Jr in the political pecking order, the power dynamics, according to experts, could be quite different behind closed doors. In this election that culminated in the vote on May 9, Sara Duterte emerged as the formidable power broker, with her alliance allowing a family once banished for their atrocities to make the ultimate comeback. It could mean Duterte wielding more power than a vice president—a mere spare tire in terms of political function—normally would.
“I think the Marcos family knows that they would not have won without Sara Duterte. Remember that her survey numbers were better than Bongbong’s,” University of the Philippines political scientist Aries Arugay told VICE World News.
And although analysts say the chance is slim, she may yet pull one over Marcos Jr if he loses pending court cases filed by democracy advocates seeking to disqualify him from the presidency over his 1995 conviction for tax evasion. In case Marcos Jr is removed, either Duterte or the second placer in the presidential race, Leni Robredo, could take over as president, depending on which way the Supreme Court rules.
“She’s a threat. If you’re Bongbong, you ought to take care of your alliance with Sara because you know there’s a lot that can be used against you,”said Atienza.
With 31 million votes—59 percent of the electorate—Marcos Jr is the first president in the country’s recent history with a majority mandate. Duterte got 32 million votes—62 percent—for the vice presidency, and many observers agree it was she who really raked in the support for their tandem.
In fact it baffles some observers that Duterte ran for vice president, when surveys predicted she was more likely to win the presidency than Marcos Jr. But by running for vice president instead, Duterte brought in votes for Marcos Jr from her bailiwicks in the country’s restive southern regions that still bear resentments from the brutal regime of Marcos Sr. When Marcos Jr ran for vice president in 2016, he dominated the north of the country as expected, but did not get the south’s vote, and he ultimately lost.
“Looking at the  election results on face value—of course some still question if it was really clean and fair—but looking at the result, they got north and south,” Atienza said. “That’s thanks to the Duterte name, which is still popular.”
In a position to seriously challenge for the presidency, Duterte’s decision in November to go for the lesser post surprised many, but Atienza speculates it may just be a matter of biding her time.
“Maybe she feels she’s not ready yet. One of the reasons that she keeps saying is that her children are still very young,” Atienza said of the former Davao City mayor, who has three young children. “Her limitation was, she had no exposure to national politics yet, except through her father.”
Newly elected Philippines President Bongbong Marcos and Vice President Sara Duterte share a light moment backstage at their proclamation ceremony at the Philippine Congress on Wednesday. Photo: Sara Duterte's official Facebook page
Fresh from her proclamation as the country’s number two official, Sara Duterte gave a brief speech to reporters on Wednesday. “I'm calling on all Filipinos to help the new administration and to help me, in my work as vice president and secretary of education,” she said, declining reporters’ questions as she walked away. The man of the hour was Marcos Jr, it seemed.
Sara Duterte first came to national—and international—attention in July 2011 when she, as mayor, was filmed repeatedly punching a court sheriff who was overseeing the demolition of a squatting slum community in Davao City, the Duterte family’s hometown and bailiwick. Duterte had asked the sheriff to delay the demolition by a few hours as she tried to dissuade the evicted residents from rioting, but he wouldn’t desist. Enraged, Duterte lunged and punched the official, to thunderous cheers and applause from her constituents at the scene.
Duterte has since cleaned up her image, especially after her father became president in 2016. She was the mayor of an increasingly cosmopolitan city. In 2020 she became a military reservist with the rank of colonel.
She gives circumspect speeches and media interviews, unlike her father who’s earned a reputation for blustery rhetoric. She openly disagreed with some of his outlandish directives, such as a proposal to sanction people unvaccinated against COVID-19. The older Duterte even said he was afraid of his daughter, which she denied.
But she’s always had her father’s back. In midterm elections in 2019, she campaigned for his slate of Senate candidates, most of whom won and, more importantly, left no seat for the opposition. Hailing his daughter’s astuteness, Rodrigo once said Sara “calls the shots” in his politics, such as when she allegedly orchestrated a coup among lawmakers to replace the speaker of the House of Representatives in 2018.
“She appears to be the better Duterte, tamed and all, if you want somebody to present to the rest of the world,” Atienza said. “Since becoming the presidential daughter, she has presented herself as less controversial.”
She is, then, the more presentable face of the same brand of autocratic politics of her father and the Marcos family, analysts say. Marcos Jr and Duterte campaigned on a platform of “unity” that threw shade on liberal politicians whom they portrayed as fragmented and, therefore, inept. But that catch-all “unity” slogan, Atienza said, was latently “authoritarian, even totalitarian” as it shunned political and ideological divergence.
“There will be continuity [from Rodrigo Duterte] in the repressive policies. This is not going to be easy, as far as civil liberties and political rights are concerned, under this coming administration. This is the trend toward illiberalism.”
At the yard of the Commission on Human Rights on Wednesday, a 10-minute drive down the road from the Congress hall where Marcos Jr and Duterte were being proclaimed as the country’s new leaders, some 200 rallyists protesting the election results were water-cannoned by firefighters backing up a phalanx of anti-riot police. The use of a water cannon on an otherwise peaceful and lawful assembly was unprecedented in the Philippines’ post-dictatorship era.
“It was overkill,” said Arugay, the political scientist, adding it was a display of loyalty towards the new regime from officials in charge of the police and fire bureau. “We are seeing government officials trying to be in the good graces of the incoming administration.”
The Commission on Human Rights said it was “very alarmed by the method of dispersal employed by the police during the protest,” noting that the law prohibits cops from using water cannons and bearing arms at non-violent protests.
The incident, analysts say, indicates the shifting social climate as power passes—and remains—between the Dutertes and the Marcoses.
“There will be continuity [from Rodrigo Duterte] in the repressive policies. This is not going to be easy, as far as civil liberties and political rights are concerned, under this coming administration,” said Arugay. “This is the trend toward illiberalism.”
Marcos Jr’s triumph was propelled by a sophisticated and pervasive disinformation campaign that glorified his father’s brutal strongman rule, making his supporters yearn for what they now believe to be “the good old days.” Sociologist Jayeel Cornelio of the Ateneo de Manila University called this “authoritarian nostalgia” that glosses over Marcos Sr overseeing the torture and killings of thousands of dissidents, and taking off with some $10 billion in public funds.
Sara Duterte, whose father’s war on drugs is under investigation by the International Criminal Court for killing thousands of untried suspects, also appears just as capable of tough-handed rule—she is a reserve military colonel, after all, and her bout with the court sheriff a decade ago speaks to her aggressive streak.
But while continuity with the Philippines’ authoritarian slide in recent years is almost certain, escalation could also be on the cards as the Marcos-Duterte tandem wields more power than the outgoing Duterte ever did.
“The big difference now is that [the Marcos-Duterte tandem] has a full majoritarian mandate, something [Rodrigo] Duterte only dreamed of,” said Arugay. “Therefore this might indicate that they’ve been given a blank check to do as they please.”
“Their political honeymoon might not end.”
An activist raises her hands as police disperse their group during a rally at the Commission on Human Rights in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines on Wednesday. Photo: AP / Basilio Sepe
But if the Marcos and the Duterte merger wasn’t powerful enough, there are several other of the Philippines’ most powerful political clans throwing their weight behind the pair. This includes those of former presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo, who were both prosecuted for corruption after their terms but eventually escaped punishment.
Politics is a family affair for Marcos Jr. His sister Imee is a senator. His son Sandro just won a Congress seat. His cousin, the congressman Martin Romualdez, is poised to become the speaker of the House of Representatives.
“It is the pinnacle of dynastic politics,” Atienza said of this latest election. “Watching the proclamation, seeing Imelda [Marcos Jr’s mother and former First Lady] and all the same old faces, you wonder, is this really what the 31 million [who voted for Marcos Jr] wanted? Elite, dynastic politics?”
Although its constitution frowns upon political dynasties, the Philippines lacks a specific law to prohibit members of the same family from running for office. In midterm elections in 2019, members of 163 families won seats in Congress or as governors while they had relatives already holding other government posts. More than half of Congress members came from political dynasties, and 18 families had at least two members occupying Congress seats.
This unshakable practice has kept the Philippines poor, analysts say, and with its top posts held by families with records of corruption, any chance of improvement is slim. “Of course they will protect their interests. They will not work for us,” Atienza said.
And because it is families—not political parties bound by principle or platforms—that essentially run the country, much of their energy goes into jostling for power. It could eventually show up in the partnership between Marcos Jr and Duterte, analysts say, especially in light of the disqualification cases against Marcos Jr. Both Atienza and Arugay said Marcos Jr will likely win the cases, but the court proceedings could take months or even years.
Such lingering questions about Marcos Jr’s legitimacy would give Sara Duterte the political upper hand, Atienza said. Already, she added, Marcos is “sidelining” Duterte by appointing her as his education secretary instead of defense secretary, which Duterte earlier said she preferred.
“You can look at it as maybe the Marcos camp not wanting to give her too much power—the defense secretary position is very high-profile and powerful as you’re in contact with the military,” Atienza said. “That’s too much power for the vice president, especially with the cases leveled against the president.”
After all, the Marcos-Duterte “Uniteam,” as they called themselves, was ad hoc—a vehicle to win the election. They never belonged to the same political party, and although the Marcos family crucially supported Rodrigo Duterte’s 2016 campaign, he did not endorse Marcos Jr for president. Some observers say this was because he wanted his daughter to run for president.
Such differences will become more evident deeper into their six-year term, the analysts said.
“It’s a marriage of dynasties. But we don’t know—now that they’ve won, how will this play out? They’re not bound by common party programs or platforms of government,” said Atienza.
“Sara Duterte might become very quiet these first few months, but we will see if she will start asserting herself as somebody independent from the president.”
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