Catharin Dalpino on the Latest Historic Philippine’s Election

Catharin Dalpino is Professor Emeritus at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where she taught courses in Asian Studies and in US foreign policy. She has also taught at the State University of New York-Albany. Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; George Washington University; Simmons College; and Seton Hall University. For five years she was Director of Georgetown University’s Thai Studies Program. From 1993 to 1997 Professor Dalpino was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. She has also been a Fellow at the Brookings Institution; a Resident Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Associate at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy; a Visiting Scholar in Southeast Asian Studies at SAIS; and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. From 1983 to 1993 Professor Dalpino was a career officer with The Asia Foundation, and was the Foundation’s Representative for Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. In that capacity, she re-opened the Foundation’s programs in Laos and Cambodia after a hiatus of fifteen years. She was the founding director of the Aspen Institute Program on Agent Orange in Vietnam (2007-2009), which urged the US Government to provide assistance for Vietnamese affected by exposure to dioxin during the Vietnam War. Professor Dalpino is the author of two books about US foreign policy and numerous articles and journal chapters. She has testified before Congress, on both the House and Senate sides, more than a dozen times
India Soranson Way CMC '23 interviewed Dr. Catharin Dalpino on on June 3, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Catharin Dalpino.

What makes the election of "BongBong" Marcos so historic and noteworthy?

I think there are two, possibly three things of historic note. One is this completes the political rehabilitation of the Marcos family, at least with the Philippine people. This has been a concerted effort ever since the Marcos have been in exile in the late 1980s in Hawaii. Second, is that it does represent, and I want to choose the word carefully, the merger for the time being of two political dynasties, which is the Marcos Dynasty and the Duterte dynasty. I think that probably that can be oversold and overestimated, because certainly Duterte himself was not that enthusiastic about Bongbong. In fact, his candidate had to drop out because there was little support for him in the polls, but certainly the fact that first, you have a Duterte caucus still very much alive, probably stronger than the Marcos caucus, I would say. Number two, you just got Duterte himself, who's going to still be there, although in an informal capacity. But you also have this feature of the Philippines system, which is that the President and the Vice President were elected separately.

Sara Duterte has her own political strength. If BongBong sinks, Sara is President without having to have gone through a presidential election which is exactly how Gloria Arroyo became president. So, I think that this is a marriage of convenience. I do want to make the point very early on that not only should we look at the presidential elections, but we should also look at congressional elections. What we saw out of that was a very strong super majority for the Marcos/Duterte team. As I understand it, the balance of power in that supermajority is on the Duterte side, not the Marcos.

This might be the third thing that makes it historic is this: this was a campaign in which the candidates always had a landslide in the polls, the polls never budged for either of them, either for BongBong, or for Sarah, that they were going to win by probably double the number of their closest rivaled. And they did.  It was very unusual, but perhaps because of that, and for any number of other reasons, BongBong didn't want to talk about the issues in the campaign. He wanted to reinvent a golden era of the Marcos reign in the 1970s and 80s, which was very, very far from being a Golden Era. He has been able to sell this to the younger generation, not to the older generation because they were there. It's very fascinating that this younger generation would cleave to this and it's a version of "make the Philippines great again."  So, Marcos Jr.  has constructed this myth of the golden era. That's quite dangerous for him because he's going to have to follow through on that. He's going to have to face now, all the things that candidates must face when they become leaders, which is economy, recovery from COVID, what's happening with China in the South China Sea? How are you going to manage relations with the United States and China? He has very little policy experience in these kinds of issues, so I think that you have a bumpy road for him once this all comes down.

That is a good segue into my next question. Throughout the campaign, you mentioned how Marcos was trying to reinvent a golden era and appeal to the younger generation. I am questioning, if anything, what were his policy goals throughout the campaign? Do you think that he won his policy goals?

I must mention that during the campaign, he had to be careful to seem to be supporting Duterte in his policy, some of which are rather controversial. What he vaguely said, besides all the things that all the leaders promised that "economic progress and this and that," he said he would continue Duterte's China policy with some twists. Now, let me just back up a little bit. Because of our history with the Philippines. We don't in our history books say that we were colonizers, but we certainly were colonizers. The relationship to United States in the Philippines is very complicated, far more complicated on the Filipino side than the American side.

A successful leader must on the one hand, show that he can deliver Washington. On the other hand, he must show that he is not in Washington's pocket. I think it's fair to say there is a love hate relationship with the United States on the part of the Philippines. 

So, that just showed you how complex the US Philippine relationship can be.  Bongbong has said that he seeks more of a midpoint between Washington and China.  But he also must deal with the reality of the fact that Duterte's love affair with China did not pay off terribly well or sit well with the Philippine people. China became more aggressive in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zones. 

Duterte thought that he would discard the United States, he would discard the arbitration ruling in 2016 in favor of the Philippines against China, and in return, there will be an economic payoff from China. The problem was there was no economic payoff. So how is it that Bongbong is going to be able to stay on good terms with Washington and China and then see this economic payoff from China? I predict that China's going to do something to test him. They're going to do something in the South China Sea and push a little bit more just to see how he reacts.

Then there is how is he going to manage the anti-drug campaign which has drawn great international criticism, particularly from human rights groups. Depending on who you believe, either 7000 or up to 30,000 people were killed in extrajudicial killings during this campaign. So once again, BongBong finds himself caught up in the Duterte web, and says, basically, that he's going to keep the campaign. But he's going to look at the supply side of drug addiction, not the drug dealer side, which is not what Duterte was about. 

On this drug campaign, Manila asked that international investigation of human rights abuses be suspended so they could conduct their own investigation. And they were given a temporary suspension. Now, any "investigation" that comes out of Manila is going to be very different than what an international investigation of this would be. What is Marcos going to do about this? I don't think he's going to let the International Criminal Court investigation go on for domestic political reasons. Those are the two main policies that he was willing to speak about. I think probably he's going to be slow to unveil his policies. He isn't inaugurated until June 30. But even so I think he hasn't probably sat down and really thought about that.

I'm wondering in terms of this election, what role did Duterte in guiding not only Marcos to Presidency but also Sara, his daughter, to the vice presidency? 

Before we get to that, let me say something about the Philippine electorate. I think they get some of this from us. The Philippines have a wonderful bumper sticker about their colonial history because they were under two colonial masters. They were under Spain for a very long time, 300 years, and we still actually see the marks of that as well. That is the origin of all of the political families. The Marcos’s, the Aquino's, the Ramos’s, they were the families that the Spanish favored to run their plantations. So, they have the reserve feudal origins as well. Then they got the United States for 50 years. Their bumper sticker is we spent 300 years in a convent and 50 years in “Hollywood “which is probably accurate. My point is that you have seen in Philippine politics what you have seen in American politics: they like celebrities. Estrada was a B grade movie actor, not unlike Ronald Reagan. They like macho, sort of swaggering kinds of men, like Donald Trump.

What did Duterte do in the campaign? He always supported his daughter, but she disappointed him by running for vice president instead of President. He and his daughter have a very interesting relationship. There is absolutely no question she is part of the family dynasty. She was mayor of Davao City in Mindanao. But she also famously, sometimes disagreed with her father publicly, particularly on women's rights and his views of punishment of rapists. So she has little bit of distance from her father, she has a little bit of her own image as well. He always supported his daughter, he never officially supported Marcos, although his party did.

To pivot to a different angle on the election, how did disinformation play in favor of Marcos and Sara? What kind of campaign tactics did they employ to enforce this disinformation?

Online disinformation has been a real problem in the Philippines, as it has all over Southeast Asia. And there were several things that have fed it. One, of course, is the election. The other was COVID. And unfortunately, a lot of the COVID conspiracies that were online in the Philippines came from United States. But certainly, what has been done thus far was most of his golden era construct was on the internet. Most of the disinformation in the campaign targeted at Marcos’ rival Leni Robredo, the current vice president. 

We must remember that not only does national politics play a role in this, but the regional policies also play a role in this as well. And because political dynasties are so important, there is a lot of what I would call warlordism in the Philippines, and the warlords are now online as well. 

One of the interesting things is that for this election, the Philippine government, through its election commission, was the very first country officially to raise cautions about online vote buying. And they're going to be looking at this very carefully. They're not only afraid of online vote buying within the Philippine candidates they're afraid of online vote buying from foreign countries and specifically China. They were specifically worried that China was going to buy votes to help Marcos, their candidate of choice. 

How will illiberalism shape the trajectory of Marcos and Duterte presidency?

Marcos's slogan was “judge me by my actions, not my ancestors.” He doesn't have a lot of actions to offer. He's going to have to come up with some pretty good actions for that to be true. You can't have it both ways. You can't say everybody vote for me, because my father was head of a golden era and then say, "Don't judge me by my father." There also is overhanging business which is that there are still court judgments against the Marcos family, including a conviction against them for not paying court ordered payments to human rights victims. So, one of the issues is if Marcos were to come to the United States, would he be arrested? 

Well, of course not. He's not going to come to the United States unless the State Department gives him immunity from arrest, but technically speaking, there is a warrant out for him, which is obviously going to make relations a little bit more difficult. I think there's some good news for the Philippines, which is that there are checks and balances within the Philippine people. They might have, however, advisedly, or ill advisedly, bought into the golden era narrative, but if it doesn't pan out, Marcos is going to be in trouble. His father was deposed in a people power revolution. Estrada was deposed also in a people power revolution. 

The people in the Philippines know how to use mass movements to push people out.  I don't think that Marcos is going to be safe one day if the people do turn against him. Also, we need to mention the role of the Catholic Church. In 1986 Cardinal Sin, the Philippine cardinal, publicly came out against Marcos; in addition, the Catholic Education Association of the Philippines (CEAP) acted as a conduit for funds for the opposition. “And what you saw in this campaign is a group of individual priests who came out saying "don't vote for Marcos". Although this didn't have much of an impact, what was interesting is that the church said, “they're acting in their individual capacity,” but the church didn't do anything to stop them. So, what is out there is that not only could he have a people power revolution, but also the church could turn against him. The Philippines is 90% Catholic and a lot of them take what the Church says very seriously, even in terms of politics The interesting thing is, if Marcos goes down what is Duterte going to do? Probably not help him. As soon as there is a downturn, I don't think he's going to get much support from his vice president or her family.

India Soranson Way CMC '23Student Journalist
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