Strategic Comments

JIIA Strategic Comments (2022-01)
The Philippine Presidential Election and Its International Implications

Kazuhide Ishikawa (Adjunct Fellow, The Japan Institute of International Affairs; Former Ambassador of Japan to the Philippines)
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JIIA Strategic Comments (2022-01)

Papers in the "JIIA Strategic Commentary Series" are prepared mainly by JIIA research fellows to provide commentary and policy-oriented analyses on significant international affairs issues in a readily comprehensible and timely manner.

The Philippine presidential election will be held on May 9, 2022 and the new president will take office on June 30. With the official campaign period of three months having begun on February 8, I will attempt to analyze the current state of the campaign and its international implications.

Positioning of the Philippines

With an area of 300,000 square kilometers (about 80% the size of Japan) and a population of over 100 million, the Philippines is a much larger country than is generally thought. The principal ethnic group is Malay, with the remainder of the population comprising Chinese, Spanish, persons of mixed heritage and ethnic minorities. It is the only Christian country in ASEAN (Christians make up more than 90% of the population, and Muslims about 5%). It is noteworthy that the average age of its citizens is as young as 24 to 25 years old, so the "demographic dividend" is expected to continue until around 2050.

Historically, Spain colonized the Philippines from the 16th century. After the Spanish-American War in 1898 resulted in the transfer of power to the United States, the country gained independence from the US as the Republic of the Philippines in 1946 following a period of military rule by Japan during the Pacific War. After its independence, it adopted a constitutional republican form of government and became one of the first democracies in Asia. During the Marcos presidency, however, martial law was imposed and democracy receded. Following the February Revolution in 1986, during which President Marcos fled to Hawaii and Cory Aquino took power, democratic political systems have been maintained to this day.

The Philippines is one of the original five members of ASEAN, and at the same time it has been an ally of the United States since independence (among ASEAN members, Thailand is also an ally of the United States). In the early 1990s, the US forces stationed in the country withdrew, but the former Aquino administration signed an agreement to strengthen bilateral defense cooperation. The current Duterte administration advocates an "independent foreign policy" and has expressed its intentions to reduce its dependence on the United States and strengthen its relations with China and Russia. Its relations with Japan, on the other hand, are very close and friendly.

The country was once called the "sick man of Asia" due to its economic plight, but in recent years it has achieved an economic growth rate of around 6 - 7% and a per capita GDP of over $3,000. One of the characteristics of the Philippine economy is domestic consumption supported by remittances from the estimated 10 million overseas workers, which is unique among the many export-driven ASEAN countries. In addition, active infrastructure development has been promoted, and macroeconomic fundamentals are generally firm. However, it is necessary to pay attention to the adverse effects of the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

Japan has long been a major trading partner and investor, and more than half of the bilateral official development assistance to the Philippines comes from Japan.

Philippine election system

The presidency of the Philippines is limited to one term of six years by the constitution and cannot be re-elected. Therefore, the current president Rodrigo Duterte will be replaced at the end of June with a new president. Since the president is chosen via a direct nationwide election in a single vote, name recognition greatly influences the result (it led, for instance, to the presidency of former movie actor Joseph Estrada).

On the same day as the presidential election, elections are also held for vice president, half of the Senate (24 seats), members of the House of Representatives (316 seats this time), and local governors and assembly members. Since the Philippines was a colony of the United States, its political system is strongly influenced by that of the United States. For example, it has a presidential system and a strict separation of powers, and the Senate has more power than the House despite a very small number of senators (half of whom are elected every three years). Unlike in the United States, however, the presidential election is a direct vote, and senators do not serve as representatives of their respective provinces as in the United States but are elected from the nation-wide constituency (name recognition has a great influence here as well). Members of the House of Representatives are elected through single-seat constituencies and proportional representation.

Another major difference is that the vice president is directly elected like the president. As a result, the party affiliation of the president and vice president may differ, and they may even be on opposite sides of the ruling/opposition party divide. In fact, the current vice president Leni Robredo is from an opposition party based on the former Aquino administration. As a result, she has been largely absent from policy making in the current administration (she has not even attended cabinet meetings).

The situation of political parties is also different. The United States has a two-party system, and Japan and much of Europe usually have multiple parties, each with solid personnel, organizations and budgets. The Philippines, on the other hand, has an extremely large number of political parties, each of which is quite small. For example, the PDP-Laban, over which President Duterte presides, has five members in the Senate and about 60 members in the House of Representatives (as of the end of 2020), making it one of the largest of all parties; some parties have only a few members or even just one. The announcement made by the Commission on Elections at the end of 2021 illustrated just how many political parties there are: 165 political parties were approved for the House Party List system (for 63 proportional representation seats) and 107 other parties were rejected for not meeting the requirements.

In fact, before the inauguration of the Marcos administration, the Liberal Party and the National Party alternately produced presidents as the two major political parties. After Marcos, the system became multiparty, and political parties split up and changed their party affiliation at every election; this practice continues today. In reality, it is common for political parties to split into a ruling party faction and an opposition party faction to compete in elections, but they frequently change their positions after elections. Since President Duterte was elected in 2016, for example, the size of the Liberal Party (Vice President Robredo's party comprising former President Aquino's supporters), which had been the ruling party, has been drastically reduced due to a series of switches from opposition parties to ruling parties and changes in the party membership of lawmakers.

Presidential candidates

Before turning to the analysis of individual presidential candidates, I would like to briefly describe the process leading up to the determination of the current candidates.

The overwhelming approval rating of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte (hereinafter, "PRRD" to avoid confusion with his daughter, Mayor Sara Duterte [MSD] of Davao City) has been hovering around 80% in various polls, leading to speculation in 2021 that he might amend the constitution to allow two terms in office; or that PRRD would return six years later. However, PRRD himself denied such moves from an early date due to the doubt about their constitutionality. Meanwhile, his daughter, the incumbent mayor of Davao City, was expected to be a presidential candidate from early on and was running at the top of various polls before her candidacy, raising expectations among her supporters that she would run with PRRD as her vice-presidential running mate.

In early November, however, MSD suddenly decided not to run for the presidency and declared that she would support former Senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., the eldest son of former President Marcos, for president and would be his vice-presidential running mate. Previously, PRRD had not taken a clear position on MSD's candidacy. But after she declared her candidacy for vice president, PRRD reportedly said he did not understand why MSD was not running for president when she was at the top of the polls. On another occasion, PRRD reportedly criticized Marcos, Jr., as a weak leader and spoiled child, however proficient at English and well educated, and made it clear he would not collaborate with Marcos's political party.

At one point, there was speculation that PRRD might nominate his long-time confidant, Senator Bong Go, as a presidential candidate and himself become a candidate for senator or vice president. However, in mid-December, Senator Bong Go withdrew from the presidential race and PRRD announced his retirement from all public service, settling the issue. It remains unclear whom PRRD will support.

Thus, at the end of 2021, one of the points of interest was whether PRRD's daughter's candidacy would enable a continuation of the "Duterte dynasty", as the media has termed it. Once it became clear that she would not run, the attention of the population has been moving elsewhere.

According to an announcement made by the Commission on Elections at the end of 2021, there are currently 19 presidential candidates and nine vice-presidential candidates, but the following five are said to be most likely ones:

Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., age 64

Vice President Leni Robredo, 57 (lawyer and current vice president associated with former President Aquino)

Manila Mayor Francis Domagozo, 46 (former actor commonly known as Isko Moreno)

Senator Panfilo Lacson, 73 (former director general of the National Police Agency; second run)

Manny Pacquiao, 42 (prizefighter revered as a national hero)

According to the results of a January 2022 survey conducted by Pulse Asia (a political consultancy in the Philippines), public opinion favored former Senator Marcos (60%), followed by Vice President Robredo (16%), Mayor Domagozo (8%), Senator Pacquiao (8%), and Senator Lacson (4%). At that time, the presidential race seemed to be one-on-one competition between Marcos and Robredo, with Marcos having a significant lead. Of course, with the election campaign still in its infancy, it is impossible to predict the outcome at this point, and election predictions are not the purpose of this article. In fact, during the last election (2016), there were many predictions that PRRD would find it difficult to win because his approval rating around February was not very high, but PRRD expanded his support base in the remaining two to three months and eventually emerged victorious. Therefore, it is too early to judge solely by the current approval ratings. Analysis in the previous election also showed that PRRD's plurality may have resulted from a split in ruling party votes between two candidates (Senator Grace Poe and Secretary of the Interior and Local Government Manuel Rojas). Therefore, it is necessary to keep a close eye on coordination between the candidates. Nevertheless, Marcos and Robredo are likely to remain at the center of the race for the foreseeable future.

Former Senator Marcos returned to the Philippines some time after his father's exile. After serving as governor, representative, and senator for his home province of Ilocos Norte, he ran unsuccessfully for vice president in 2016. His mother, former First Lady Imelda Marcos, had long been a member of the House of Representatives, his sister, Imee, is an incumbent senator, his cousin Martin Romualdez is a former member of the House of Representatives, so the Marcos family is a family of politicians both in name and reality. About five years ago, PRRD allowed former President Marcos to be buried in a cemetery for heroes, which is said to have brought the Marcos family closer to the current administration. However, the Commission on Elections has received many requests from ordinary citizens to cancel his candidacy based on suspicions that the Marcos family had embezzled public funds or evaded taxes in the past. The result of their review might fundamentally alter the situation, but it is not clear when the Commission will make its decision.

Vice President Robredo joined the late President Aquino's camp in the 2016 election and got elected. She is originally a lawyer. Her husband Jesse Robredo, secretary of the interior and local government in the Aquino administration, had been killed in a plane crash in 2012, and she had thereafter carried on her husband's legacy to become a vice-presidential candidate in the 2016 election. As mentioned above, she has been largely unable to engage in policy within the Duterte administration, but she has been traveling around the countryside focusing on activities such as poverty eradication, the environment, gender, and assistance to disaster-affected areas.

Election results and their international implications

Now I would like to analyze the international implications of the presidential election and its results. This section mainly addresses relations with major countries (the US, China and Japan) and key matters of concern (South China Sea, drug eradication and extrajudicial killings, and economic policies).

First, in terms of general foreign policy,, there will be no major changes in the fundamental position taken thus far no matter which candidate wins. The Philippines will continue to emphasize cooperation with ASEAN countries, and will focus on its relations with Japan, the United States, and China based on its alliance with the United States.

First of all, the United States is the Philippines' only ally and the most important country in terms of its national security. In addition, the impact of the US political system, economy, and culture during nearly 50 years of colonial rule has been profound. About four million people of Filipino descent live in the United States, and it is said there is no Filipino without relatives living in the United States. Filipinos have also become the largest minority group in Hawaii. English is one of the Philippines' official languages so, unlike many other ASEAN countries, communication in English is not difficult. The most popular professional sport is basketball, which is also a phenomenon not seen in other ASEAN countries. The United States consistently ranks first in public opinion polls on which country Filipinos trust most (for example, in a 2019 survey conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 69% of Filipinos cited Japan as a key partner, 75% the United States, and 38% China (with multiple responses allowed).

Of course, the deep relationship with the United States has caused various problems. One example is the violent anti-American base movement that broke out in the 1990s and led to the eventual withdrawal of US forces. In recent years, troubles frequently occurred between visiting US troops and local residents. When President Duterte took office, he advocated an "independent foreign policy" and at times criticized the United States fiercely, calling for a review of relations with the United States. However, he seems to have changed course towards rebuilding the bilateral relations once he established personal rapport with President Trump. For example, he notified the US government that he would be terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) but eventually announced in July 2021 that he would rescind the cancellation. It is thought that, despite some anti-American sentiment, the weight of the long-standing Philippines-US alliance and the Filipino people's confidence in the United States underlie these developments.

Therefore, whichever candidate wins, the fundamental relationship with the United States will not be affected. One former US official told me that, after Duterte, relations between the two countries will improve no matter who the president is.

Relations with China are delicate. As is apparent from the opinion polls mentioned above, public confidence in China is extremely low. China's behavior in the South China Sea has, of course, come under heavy criticism. Chinese-run drug smuggling operations and online casinos are also under attack. On the other hand, China has been the Philippines' top trading partner in recent years, and many of the Philippines' major industrial conglomerates have Chinese roots due to the large number of immigrants originally from Fujian Province and elsewhere., Support for infrastructure projects has been vigorous of late, too. It was also true that when relations between the two countries deteriorated following the former Aquino administration's decision to pursue arbitration proceedings against China over the South China Sea, China responded with such malicious measures as banning banana imports from the Philippines, expelling Filipino fishermen from the South China Sea, prohibiting Chinese tourists from visiting the Philippines, and not inviting the Philippine government to an international conference hosted by China. It is true that as a result, the Philippine economy suffered a severe blow.

The Duterte administration put the South China Sea issue on hold and prioritized an overall improvement in relations, saying there is no chance of winning a war with China. It is not yet clear what the views of the presidential candidates on China are, but they are likely to become clear in the course of the election campaign. For the time being, President Robredo has appealed to China to respect the arbitration ruling, while Marcos has made it clear that he will continue to engage with China to avoid a military conflict.

There is no particular cause for concern in relations with Japan. Relations between Japan and the Philippines have a very unfortunate history, including harsh rule by a Japanese military regime during the Pacific War and the loss of more than one million Filipinos. As a result of the efforts of the two peoples over the years, however, relations between the two countries have greatly improved, to the point that President Duterte describes the countries as "closer than brothers". On the economic front, about 1500 Japanese companies have set up operations and employ several hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, while Japanese residents number about 17,000. As mentioned above, Japan's ODA is overwhelming. In addition to helping improve infrastructure, eradicate poverty and develop human resources, Japan also supports peace in Mindanao and is assisting the Philippines in building up its maritime surveillance capacity (by providing patrol boats to the Philippine Coast Guard). Interactions at the popular level have been steadily increasing, and professional golfer Yuka Saso and sumo wrestlers Mitakeumi and Takayasu, all of whom have roots in both countries, have been demonstrating excellent performance. . The overall good relations are widely recognized by the general public and they seem for the most part unrelated to election issues and differences among candidates. If I am to add something, I would like to emphasize as a Japanese national the importance of remembering history accurately and passing it on to future generations.

As I have already mentioned several times, there are differences in nuance between the Aquino- and Duterte-related candidates on the South China Sea issues,. Of course, none of the candidates has any intention of conceding an inch on the territorial issue reflecting the public sentiment. However, there were differences between the Aquino and Duterte administrations as to whether they should confront the Chinese government with the cooperation of members of the international community sharing the same values by emphasizing the 2016 arbitration decision and the rule of law based on that, or instead show a certain conciliatory attitude in order to avoid the pressure from China, which is a major regional power both militarily and economically, and the disadvantages accruing therefrom. Since this issue will certainly become one of the points of interest to the people and the international community in the election campaign, the presidential candidates are likely to be preparing to deal with it from various angles.

Speaking from my own experience, President Duterte certainly made a lot of conciliatory remarks out of consideration for China when he took office. However, he told Japanese officials even at the time that he had no intention of ceding any ground on the territorial issue, but he wanted to put aside the arbitral judgment for the time being, improve deteriorated relations with China, and then highlight the importance of the arbitral judgment at an appropriate time, and that they should rest assured that the Philippines' position would not be so different from that of Japan. Since then, President Duterte has actively raised the South China Sea issue at ASEAN-related meetings and other gatherings and has become increasingly critical of China's response, so I have the impression that he is doing what he earlier said he would do. On the other hand, China is expected to aggressively approach the candidates in order to bury the arbitration decision.

No clear economic policy proposals have been made by any candidate so far, so we have no choice but to make judgments based on fragmented statements. There have been no noteworthy proposals so far, and it is highly likely that the current policies will be largely followed. Of course, this is because the Philippine economy is generally doing well except for the negative effects of the coronavirus pandemic and because there are bright prospects for future growth. In particular, the Duterte administration's "Build, Build, and Build" policy is actually changing the infrastructure environment in the Philippines dramatically, and the public highly appreciates this approach. Six years ago, when Duterte came to power, his image as mayor of Davao City was so strong that the Philippine business community and foreign companies were apprehensive about what kind of economic policies he would adopt. Once the new administration got underway, however, the business community was relieved to hear that the good economic policies of the Aquino administration would be continued and that excellent people would be appointed to economic portfolio, including Carlos Dominguez as secretary of finance, and economic matters left to experts. None of the presidential candidates seems to think that drastic changes in economic policies are necessary.

Finally, let me discuss extrajudicial killings related to drug eradication. Since this issue has become an issue of concern for the international community and has been raised frequently, candidates to become the next president will be considering how to address it. This matter has attracted attention because of PRRD's personality and past remarks. In any case, because extrajudicial killings are unacceptable and those responsible should be punished according to the law, it is not very difficult for candidates to reject extrajudicial killings. A slight difference in their responses may emerge in their positions on allowing the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate extrajudicial killings. Naturally, this has to do with how candidates will manage their ties with PRRD, who withdrew the Philippines from the ICC.

Some of PRRD's past remarks may not have been appropriate as presidential statements, but I feel that, rather than trying to trap him in his wording, greater understanding of his concern for the future of his country as a whole should be sought. At a time when the number of drug users, mainly young people, was said to be as high as four million, the president was strongly convinced that the Philippines would have no future if the situation were left unchecked. This was probably due to his confidence in his achievements as mayor of Davao City in eradicating drugs and to the strong support of the Filipino people. Indeed, one of the factors behind President Duterte's high approval rating is his strong stance on combating drug trafficking and his results in improving security. At the moment, drug trafficking does not appear to be an issue in the election. Moreover, PRRD himself was originally a prosecutor and, as an expert, he is well aware that extrajudicial killings are not permitted and what instructions would be deemed illegal to issue. While it is a given that investigations of individual extrajudicial killings should be conducted in strict accordance with the law, one should avoid stereotyping PRRD as a tough-looking law enforcer reminiscent of the Dirty Harry movies who would resort to extrajudicial killings out of personal conviction that drug offenders should face severe punishment.


The above has been an overview of the current status of the Philippine presidential election and its international implications. Of course, it is impossible to predict what will happen in an election. No matter who wins, at least there will be no major change in the basic direction of the nation, which will maintain a democratic political system, an alliance with the United States and friendly relations with neighboring countries including Japan, as well as pursue economic development. ASEAN countries generally desire a favorable international environment for their own nation-building efforts, are concerned about US-China confrontation, and dislike being forced into a binary choice between the United States and China. But there are nuances among these countries based on their respective positions. As mentioned above, the direction of the Filipino people is clear, and the next president will naturally handle affairs of state in ways that reflect this direction.

*This is an English translation of the original Japanese version published on February 16, 2022.