Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. marks his first 100 days as president of the Philippines on October 8. Marcos promised to continue the priorities of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, while pushing for a revival of the policies of his late father, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
In his most prominent public speeches, Marcos has touted a post-COVID recovery plan for the economy, pledging targets like the Philippines reaching a middle-income status for most citizens by the end of his term. He also promised to achieve single-digit poverty rates by 2028.
The president presented an assessment of his time in office so far, saying he managed to oversee a “government which is functional and which has a very, very good idea of what we are targeting in terms of strict economic targets.”
However promising it sounds, Luis Teodoro, a veteran journalist, Martial Law survivor, and trustee at the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) says it’s still too early to tell.
There are too many pieces of the puzzle we’ve yet to see. The presidential cabinet has yet to be completed, with a health secretary among the most glaring vacancies. Teodoro also said Marcos has made unexpected public statements, for example at the United Nations where he called on countries to respect human rights, something that has been a major policy contention in the country in the last decade.
On whether Marcos has shown greater respect for human rights compared to his predecessor, Teodoro told The Diplomat, “There are some indicators of possible, I must emphasize the word ‘possible,’ changes, but there are still no concrete steps being taken to enable us to see if indeed those indicators are beyond words.”
Similarly, Teodoro acknowledged that Marcos had assembled a well-qualified economic team of technocrats but noted no significant policy changes to speak of.
Perhaps more worryingly for the public is that beyond the lofty targets and flashy economic team, the Marcos family has been busy celebrating since it won the elections in May. Even while the country is facing a painful economic downturn, the Marcoses have had eight notable and extravagant parties for various birthdays and occasions.
On October 2, the president and his family were at a soiree in Singapore with allied politicians watching the F1 Grand Prix. It was an especially ill-timed outing as just days before, Super Typhoon Noru had slammed into the Philippines, devastating several areas.
Teodoro said this kind of behavior inevitably “distracts from addressing the issues that require urgent response. Could it be that he is looking for people to appoint so that he can just leave the decision making to them?”
More than an inclination for flamboyant social gatherings, Marcos’ partying highlights familiar behavior: The ruling family likes to flaunt their power and wealth, even as average Filipinos struggle.
Martial Law Legacy
The Marcos family has often been accused by critics of peddling disinformation in the country to rehabilitate the image of the dictatorial Martial Law period. Professor Francis Gealogo, a Philippine history expert at the Ateneo De Manila University, says there is an army of online influencers and content creators enabled by the president’s camp to distort history and make the ruling family appear benevolent.
Gealogo explained: “They are downplaying extravagance. This is part of a greater Marcosian advertising campaign. They already have a reputation as corrupt, greedy, and abusive, yet all of these were sort of recalibrated into something fun and contemporary.”
Teodoro also took issue with the administration pushing for the accreditation of vloggers as part of the Press Corp for the Presidential Palace. Many are known to peddle erroneous information with impunity, and granting them official status indicates the president is interested in “controlling the media narrative.”
Meanwhile, media practitioners who produce critical reports of the regime have been punished or threatened. Two journalists have been killed by mysterious gunmen since the regime took power. The latest killing happened this week: Percival Mabasa, a radio commentator who slammed the regime’s crackdown on activists and efforts at historical distortion, was shot in his car during an ambush near his home on October 3.
Fifty years since the declaration at Martial Law and at a time when historical facts are themselves wildly polarizing, the Marcos administration moved to significantly slash spending for historical preservation and culture. The National Archives of the Philippines was hit with a 25.27 percent decrease in funding, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines with a 27.26 percent decrease, and the National Library of the Philippines with a 22.64 percent decrease. The National Commission for Culture and Arts got a whopping 83.90 percent decrease.
A Bleak Economic Reality
The Marcos economic team began their stint by praising the country’s 7.6 percent growth in the second quarter of the year. They made it seem as though the Philippines was nearing an exit from the crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno remains upbeat about the country’s prospects. Last month, when Marcos was in the United States, Diokno said the country’s “strong economic performance” will greatly attract investors and proclaimed that “this is the best time to do business in the Philippines.” The administration on the whole has on the whole kept to that tone.
However, current numbers do not bode well.
The Philippines recorded a 6.9 percent inflation rate in September, up by 0.7 points from the previous month and a four-year high for the country. The unemployment rate also worsened to 5.3 percent in August, a rise of 0.1 point. Most worryingly the peso continues to fall to its lowest-ever depths, with some estimates saying it could dip to 68 pesos against the U.S. dollar come Christmas. These trends have driven food and fuel prices even higher.
Sonny Africa, director of the economic research think tank Ibon Foundation, questioned the government’s optimism. He told The Diplomat, “Undue fiscal conservatism is the reason growth already started slowing in the second quarter on a year-on-year basis and actually even contracted on a seasonally adjusted quarter-to-quarter basis. The same passive economic stance aggravates adverse external trends and is stalling real recovery.”
Africa questioned the administration’s confidence in investments and even migrant remittances, which have traditionally helped the domestic economy. He feels the global recessionary conditions are too strong, but the Marcos administration has yet to grasp that.
He lamented how, despite the flashy introductions, the new economic team is peddling the old formulas that stagnated domestic growth in the past and have yet to sufficiently address the concrete matters of uplifting livelihoods and income levels.
“The country’s economic prospects are most of all hurt by the insistence on the old economic thinking which eroded the national economy even before the pandemic and which is preventing real recovery,” Africa said. “Marcos Jr’s indulgent party boy image is problematic mainly for reinforcing that his presidency does not have a strong grasp of people’s conditions and will not take the urgent measures needed to provide relief.”
Marcos the Agricultural Expert?
Early on, Marcos made it clear he wanted to take charge of the Department of Agriculture (DA) personally. His famous campaign promise of normalizing the price of rice at 20 pesos per kilo has yet to come true, although he did backtrack by saying it will take time and that only publicly sourced rice by the state might implement his stated price point.
In July, during his State of the Nation address, Marcos also cited the importance of raising agricultural exports. But for the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Peasant Movement of the Philippines) or KMP, Marcos’ plans to carry on the previous administration’s thrust for greater foreign investment in the sector while keeping the markets liberalized is misguided.
According to a study done by the Anakpawis Party-list, since the implementation of the Rice Liberalization Law three years ago, which further opened up the domestic market, local rice farmers have lost 206 billion pesos.
Because of Super Typhoon Noru, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s global forecast predicts an increase in rice importation from 3.3 million metric tons to 3.4 million mt for 2022-2023. Typhoons are a persistent bane to farmers. Anakpawis estimated that $10 billion has been lost due to climate-related hazards in the last decade.
KMP Chairperson Danilo Ramos decried how the Marcos government has turned a blind eye to the failing agricultural sector, despite his assertions otherwise. Ramos says besides the damage from natural disasters, farmers are facing “rising costs of production and depressed farm gate prices, which were recipes of bankruptcy and indebtedness.”
Ramos added that the administration looks more concerned with the aspiration of agricultural development instead of the actual issues in the agriculture industry that need attention.