Asia Sentinel: Marcos Dodges First 100 Days, Then Switches Course

Marcos Dodges First 100 Days, Then Switches Course

‘A president with only a nodding acquaintance with coherence’

By: Manuel L. Quezon III

A funny thing happened on the way to the First 100 Days anniversary of Ferdinand Marcos Jr on October 8. Everyone was primed to observe it, since the 100th day is a ritual observed by every president since Corazon Aquino under the present Fifth Republic. But Ferdinand Marcos Jr decided not to celebrate it.

It wasn’t for lack of preparation: The official propaganda arm of the government had its collaterals ready. The problem was his administration was only beginning to sort itself out after some crucial personnel changes: the last weeks of September and the first days of October were marked first, by the fall, after two months of sustained attacks from the administration’s own allies, of Victor Rodriguez, the President’s executive secretary.

This was followed, in turn, by the dismissal (though ostensibly resignations on health grounds) of the press secretary and the chief auditor of the government: the former obviously lacked access to the president and so had to wing it when it came to criticism of the president’s actions, and the latter had incongruously been appointed to head the very commission that had declared him in breach of the law and ethics when he was solicitor-general in the Duterte government.

If this internal turmoil wasn’t debilitating enough, one of his chief coalition partners, former president and current Deputy Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, released a statement framing the first 100 days before the President himself could do so. The milestone, she said on October 5, served two purposes. First, to “give the nation and the world a message to inspire confidence relative to the area of greatest concern,” and then to “give the Filipino people an idea of the leadership style” of the incumbent. Concerning the first, she declared that the “adverse economic impact” of the pandemic plus tensions in Ukraine and Taiwan “is topmost on most minds.” Here, Marcos Junior “reassured everyone by assembling an impressive economic team that has been universally praised.” As for the second, “the president has projected himself well as a calm, thoughtful leader who is true to his promise to promote unity.”

In the end, Marcos after zigging, zagged. He ended up marking his hundredth day in office after all with a video posted on Facebook on October 8th. In it, he directly contradicted Macapagal-Arroyo’s framing of his administration. He is, after all, a hands-on executive.

“They say that the first 100 days is a honeymoon period when you’re still feeling your way. But that’s not how I feel — maybe because I’m already familiar with the work. That’s why I was able to start immediately,” he said. The list of accomplishments he chose to highlight, starting with lifting the outdoor mask requirement as a result, he claimed, of the scope in vaccination against Covid-19, as well as disbursing special allowances to medical frontliners, also highlights his still lacking a Secretary of Health. Ordering the resumption of face-to-face classes, too, he suggested, represented a “significant economic activity and stimulus,” part of the recovery of the economy, which he also said was going to be boosted by the investments drummed up during his travels.

As for his own portfolio of agriculture, he chose to gloss over high prices and tout an increase in funding for coffee production. He did do something bold and new: ordering a one-year moratorium on amortization and interest payments of agrarian reform beneficiaries. And he did change his approach to Muslim rebellion in Mindanao, declaring the extension of the terms of the Bangsamoro Transition Council and the continuation of the decommissioning process for former Moro rebels.

Nonetheless, it is bad enough to damn with faint praise, the sum total according to this being that the president mercifully knows well enough to hire experts to do the work while not pursuing vendettas. Fair enough. Critics and mere observers primed for a kind of Ancien Regime counterrevolution found the new president unwilling to butt heads with them. In his two national addresses he stated he had no interest in debating history or changing how it’s taught; the national holiday marking the death anniversary of his father’s nemesis, Benigno S. Aquino Jr., proceeded as before and his government announced that next year’s EDSA Revolution anniversary would proceed as enshrined in law.

But what Macapagal-Arroyo word-painted wasn’t a picture of an engaged, active, chief executive. Worse, no one likes a know-it-all. It might be too much to say this preemptive framing rattled Marcos Junior, but his attempt, that evening, to start framing the 100th day milestone still three days away revealed one of his surprising shortcomings. Marcos Junior was always a competent understudy of the orotund speechifying of Marcos Senior, and so can sound convincing when delivering usually well-written speeches. But when he tries to wing it, he stumbles over himself in a manner that resembles George W. Bush’s self-tangling relationship with off-the-cuff remarks. His remarks to the Manila Overseas Press Club, as soft and forgiving an audience as can be found, were true to form. What he’d achieved, he said, was a “functional” government with “a very, very good idea of what we are targeting in terms of strict economic targets,” and staffed with “the best and the brightest,” while his overseas trips to New York, Singapore, and Indonesia produced investments and showed the country “is standing on its feet.”

It could be that concerned advisers afterwards advised him that if he kept at it, all he’d accomplish would be to hug the tar baby that was Arroyo’s statement even tighter, giving ammunition to the talking points of his critics: that the president is feckless, shallow, unindustrious and unengaged. And that furthermore, his mantra of unity is belied by the behavior of his own coalition, which seems composed of factions that seem increasingly unable to stand each other (the fall in the fortunes of his former executive and press secretaries had been heralded by speculation within the Marcos-Duterte online echo chambers).

Better to disengage. This best explains why the president –or to be precise, his new executive secretary (and therein lies another tale, of which more, later)—the next day declared that he wasn’t interested in observing the hundredth-day milestone after all before reversing course. His closest allies including his first cousin, the Speaker of the House, were left holding the bag, sounding even more toadying than usual.

Still, it could be written off as Marcosian jiujitsu, the dodging of an expected problem or event by deftly stepping aside and doing something else, leaving one’s opponents holding the bag, engaging thin air instead of the chief executive. Marcos Senior was well known for this, which is why the term dates back to him. Marcos Junior himself had sidestepped the 50th anniversary of his father instituting his dictatorship on September 23, by leaving his critics behind at home, to engage with his Chief Presidential Legal Counsel, the 98-year-old Juan Ponce Enrile, while he himself surprised observers and hogged the limelight by quite publicly signaling a rapprochement with Washington.

To be sure, this was a duet: despite President Biden once having been part of the observer group that declared Ferdinand Senior’s 1986 snap election fraudulent, Washington ensured that the status-conscious Marcoses would be gratified by a delegation imbued with higher status to attend his inaugural compared to that of his immediate predecessors. And so the husband of the vice-president was dispatched, which, together with other high-status guests such as the governor-general of Australia (the only other nation besides the United States which has a Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippines), showed the West was prepared to court Marcos as assiduously as the Chinese, who’d sent their own Vice-President.

It’s here, in his foreign policy activity, that one can glean the Junior Marcos’s approach to his job and possibly, his own metrics for success. He was raised in an era when his father (and mother, who took to carting him around on official visits) aspired to more than mere bit parts on the world stage; the revival of this ambition was evident in both the Inaugural and State of the Nation addresses of Marcos, delivered roughly a month apart. Both proposed a more prominent role in international affairs for the Philippines. His new pivot back to America, however, belies Marcos’s rhetoric towards China. A “more balanced” approach to the two countries may reassure Washington but leave Beijing cold. It also represents a potential bone of contention within his own coalition: in contrast to the headlines surrounding his trip to America, his vice-president, Sara Duterte (who obtained an even higher percentage of votes, and who is a living reminder that without the Duterte charisma, his own election wouldn’t have been the sure thing it became: indeed even before he assumed office, they had a run-in when she demanded the defense portfolio, though she ended up easily fobbed off with an appointment to head the department of education) engaged in her own foreign policy flexing by recording a congratulatory message to the Chinese government in Mandarin.

All of this at least suggests Marcos believes he can balance dealing with the two nations with greater dexterity than his predecessor. He also spent October 6 dribbling out foreign policy tidbits: he has continued proposing Russia as a source of cheaper oil (even as Russia has joined OPEC in signaling curbing production); and a yet-to-be-detailed “new approach” to Myanmar within ASEAN.

These lofty pronouncements are in contrast to the domestic situation, which is generally very political healthy but not without some concerns that could fester over time. The public, for its part, may not be as wildly enthusiastic over him as it proved to be about his predecessor (Duterte obtained an unprecedented 88 percent Social Weather Stations approval rating at the end of his term), but his own public support is actually still phenomenal. Not only does it exceed the already historic 58 percent he achieved on election (itself the third-highest majority in Philippine electoral history and the first majority under the present post-EDSA republic): a September Pulse Asia poll reported two-thirds to three-quarters of the population can be said to be satisfied with his performance.

However, inflation remains the primary preoccupation of Filipinos and whatever structural or merely policy improvements he hopes to accomplish will all take time. In the meantime, one of the President’s early –and still puzzling—gambles, reserving the agriculture portfolio for himself despite lacking experience in the field. A sugar shortage and the bungled government response means that in grocery stores, customers today are limited to one bag of sugar each. And shortages in other commodities are equally corrosive to the public mood.

Recent cabinet restaffing points to staffing itself remaining a problem. He may not have been the only president to fail to fully fill his cabinet, but he is unique in leaving major portfolios unassigned not only immediately after he took office (he met official delegations without a new foreign secretary by his side). Even now, a major position unfilled to this day. He still has no secretary of health. Which brings us back to the saga of his executive secretaries. Replacing the ill-fated Victor Rodriguez was an unprecedented appointment: of a former Chief Justice, Lucas Bersamin, as executive secretary, a demotion by any measure but one made appropriate by the retired Justice’s decisions that have been helpful to the Marcoses and their allies over the years. It was Bersamin who announced the president had decided to refrain from commemorating this anniversary –only for the President to end up doing so. The late Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who ended her public career by serving a as convenient running mate for Marcos in 2016, used to laugh and quote Emerson’s declaration that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. In that sense, perhaps Marcos decided he wasn’t about to be a little statesman, philosopher, or divine.

The cabinet intramurals egged on by commentary in his own echo chamber is like a low grade infection, priming friends and foe alike to factional infighting that in and of itself, is not unusual except that it reminds the same friends and foes that this is a four-faction administration: there are the Marcoses (themselves not as united as they once were: the ancient Imelda having been kept at arms’ length during the campaign, and his sister, Senator Imee Marcos, a one-person family faction); there is former President Arroyo, swiftly deprived of the Speakership she had every reason to expect would be hers; there is former President Rodrigo Duterte who has already declared that his party, the PDP-Laban (which noticeably didn’t deflate as much as would be expected in the post-election stampede of officials to whatever party the new president happens to belong to) will “fiscalize”the administration, which is Filipino English for serving as the (hardly) loyal opposition; and there is the Vice-President herself, who, besides butting heads with her own father, has shown she won’t shrink from butting heads with the president.

If the President is said by his friends and political peers to be generally a pleasant, not particularly vindictive, and rather hedonistic man, his own political life suggests a propensity to fretting about security. Early on, the antediluvian Enrile, who serves as a kind of consiglieri to Marcos, has darkly warned of malicious plots afoot (something he wouldn’t bother with unless he knew it would strike a chord). Enrile, whose putschist plotting provoked the fall of Marcos Senior, surely knows how to press Marcosian buttons.

It doesn’t help that In the crucial area of state security, Marcos enjoys less latitude than his predecessors. President Duterte, shortly before leaving office, signed a law granting a fixed term to the armed forces chief of staff, a position presidents have been tempted to turn into a revolving door of brief appointments to satisfy the ambitions of as many generals as possible. Marcos won’t have this latitude, which affects his ability to dispense military patronage. In one of his earliest administrative decisions, Marcos created a new military and police advisory post within his own office, which suggests this is an area he believes he could with some backstopping.

Marcos for his part seems intent on a less brutalist approach to his predecessor’s pet project, exterminating drug addicts and dealers. Which is not to say an outright disavowal is possible. Liquidations continue. Marcos has made it clear he will shield his predecessor from scrutiny, much less accountability, for his human rights record. Duterte had given the military and police and his security apparatus carte blanche to go after both the Communist underground and above-ground activists (or anyone they disliked, really) to atone for his having initially brought in communists to be part of his government. Marcos has shown no inclination to rein in either the active duty military or their retired counterparts in his government. Painting all critics with red targets on their backs panders to the same atavistic bloodlust of both the Duterte and Marcos bases.

What then, is the scorecard for Marcos Junior on the first 100-day milestone from which he ended up excusing himself? For every instance where he has been maladroit –he seems doomed to being a president with only a nodding acquaintance with coherence when making unstructured remarks—he has proven adroit at sidestepping confrontation on his critics’ or even allies’ terms. Instead, he has left it up to his combative Vice-President to deal with educators who are alarmed over historical denialism peddled by his informal online propaganda infrastructure. In modern-day version of Dad’s Army, he has old retainers of his father fighting the battle of history over his father’s dictatorship while pitching for a new constitution.

Which goes to show he has shown an appreciation for the agenda-setting power of his office, which ties in naturally with what is obviously a keen appreciation of the perks and pleasures official travel provides. Not for nothing did Premier Lee Hsien Loong, who presides over a government which aims to make Singapore the Switzerland of Southeast Asia, roll out the high roller red carpet for Marcos, who seized the chance (sparking criticism as much caused by the bungling of his now ex-press secretary as anything he himself later said). This –strategic or instinctive—is helped along by two things. The first is the weak state of Philippine journalism, gutted by collapsing revenue and the shutting down or at least, public punishment, of critical media, and the second is a well-oiled and effective online propaganda machinery whose only weakness is that it must serve two patrons, the Marcoses and the Dutertes.

The president himself, unlike his predecessor, is part of the metropolitan elite that considers itself cosmopolitan; unlike his predecessor who was a provincial baron and thus bore many grudges that made him alert to every real or imagined slight, he is comfortable with the moguls who, aside from Mrs. Arroyo, constitute the real party leaders in the Philippines. He is business-friendly in his avowed policies and happy to give his economic team a free hand. From the perspective then of the political and commercial classes, the foremost achievement of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. –an incalculable one, I’d argue— has been to restore a sense of normality to governance. His tastes and excesses by this standard are predictable, respectable, and thus, even cozy. There is enough Hello! Magazine-style gloss to entrance the impressionable, enough confidential and thus, discretionary, funds for the merely mercenary (though a lavish allocation for his vice-president may come back to haunt him), and enough of a honeymoon hangover to maintain his critics where they are: isolated and still tarred and feathered by a historic defeat. He remains, if not golden, then still gilded, child of destiny.

In the same manner that time, instead of making him more vulnerable, served to inoculate him against outrage over the past, the ticking of the political clock is denying his critics (so far) any signs of his matching the guile and ruthlessness of his father. There is much a historic mandate apparently excuses with the help of relentless social media operations, including demonizing an already extinct opposition. For its part, the public that elected him has itself become more patient and less demanding, the contours of short- to medium term, apparent to a population less insular about the global economy than it used to be: inflation will be high, the peso will not be strong. A laissez-faire attitude to liquidations means terror for critics (reduced to speculating who, exactly, orders assassinations of journalists, for example) and a strange but satisfying comfort for a public when it comes to crime (at least bad guys continue to be comfortingly rubbed out). A basic continuity in economic management is enough to prevent the market becoming skittish.

Whatever shortcomings Marcos exhibits as a leader, he has never been shy to point out that his wife is a formidable manager and lawyer (heading one of the country’s top law firms in a legal culture that admires results, however obtained: the couple can justly point to the old truism that possession is indeed 9/10 of the law). Marcos himself has been indifferent to bloating his own nominal party, the Federal Party, allowing the party headed (in an uneasy co-habitation with former President Arroyo) by his first cousin, the Speaker of the House, Martin Romualdez, to bloat as expected. The old Aquino coalition has dissolved, a new moderate coalition has little appetite for partisan political engagement, preferring the pleasant purity (and frankly, political and social necessity) of reviving an equally-devastated civil society.

The only thing President Marcos has to fear is his own coalition. The vulnerabilities are there. His first cousin, the Speaker, spends far too much time keeping Marcos Junior and his own princeling heir, his eldest son, Sandro (a typically-overpromoted Marcos who is a first-term congressman but already Senior Deputy Speaker) company when he should be minding the House. Mrs. Arroyo, a reinvigorated septuagenarian, isn’t the type to forget –or let others forget—instances when she’s been thwarted: and she remains the political godmother of Vice-President Sara Duterte. Former president Rodrigo Duterte, who was against the coalition, is an easy mark for his lieutenants. As they are gradually purged from the administration (as they must), they will find it easy to stoke his resentments.

It used to be said that six years is too short for a good president and too long for a bad one. It has to be asked if it can be enough for a Marcos who might find it difficult to fully enjoy office in the knowledge that political time flows faster than legal time, which could leave him an ex-president still saddled with criminal and civil cases. But it is still soon to tell if Marcos Junior’s term will end up a (Marxist) Restoration Comedy: Junior’s farce in contrast to the tragedy the country endured under his father.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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