January 2024 / Released 08 February 2024

ICC probe, charter change & peace talks deepen the feud

Marcos-Duterte alliance crumbles as battle lines are drawn

Forged in the May 2022 presidential race, Marcos Jr.’s alliance with former President Rodrigo R. Duterte has been shaken as battle swords are unsheathed for a month now. To recall, for the May 2022 presidential race, Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. and Inday Sara Duterte-Carpio, children of two controversial Philippine presidents, formalized their 2022 alliance, backed by parties that counted former presidents and fellow presidential children as their stalwarts. Lakas-CMD, Partido Federal ng Pilipinas (PFP), Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP), and Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP) signed a four-party alliance agreement in November 2021. The deal called for the four parties to back PFP standard-bearer Marcos, Jr. Two former presidents, Gloria M. Arroyo and Joseph Estrada, headed the Lakas-CMD and PMP, respectively, while HNP represented Sara Duterte-Carpio, daughter of the outgoing president Duterte. The four political parties bound together in forming the UniTeam broad coalition.

Barely two years of Marcos’s 6-year term, the alliance is bursting on the seams with serious fissures.

The Duterte patriarch who continues to be politically active lashed out at Marcos at a rally in Davao City on 28 January 2024 over the incumbent president’s mixed signals in welcoming International Criminal Court (ICC) investigators over the former president’s alleged crimes against humanity. The charges focus on extra-judicial killings (EJKs) of at least 6,000 suspected drug addicts as officially admitted by the Philippine National Police (PNP) and as many as 30,000 victims as reported by independent human rights monitoring groups when the former president was Davao City mayor for 20 years and as President from 2016 to 2022. Moreover, his daughter, Vice President Inday Sarah Duterte-Carpio, former Davao City police chief, now senator, Ronald dela Rosa, and Sebastian Duterte, the current Davao City mayor were also implicated in the drugs war.

Denying Marcos’s allegations, Duterte accused the president of being a drug addict himself. But the former president’s accusations were thumbed down by both the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) saying there is no record about the president’s drug addiction. (As a student in London, Marcos, Jr. had a publicly-known record of being a cocaine user. In November 2021, then Senator Marcos admitted to being an “addict”. “It took me three years to rehabilitate in London,” he said. “But then,” the senator added, “his [Duterte’s] own three children from his first wife, have gone through the same stage. They were also addicted to shabu (Methamphetamine) at one point of their lives.”

Duterte, on the other hand, has been using fentanyl, a far more dangerous drug which he had admitted using to ease pain. (Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroine and 100 times stronger than morphine. It is also a major contributor to non-fatal and fatal drug overdoses in the U.S.) Duterte claims he has stopped taking the drug.

Duterte’s sons, House representative Paolo Duterte and Davaoi City mayor Sebastian “Baste” Duterte joined hands on their father’s tirades against Marcos, adding the incumbent president should immediately resign from the presidency.

Duterte also accused the Marcos family of supporting charter change (Cha-Cha) in a shadowy move to perpetuate themselves in power. (Duterte had opposed moves to tinker with the 1987 constitution.) Veiledly, he warned of initiating a military putsch against the president in order “to defend” the charter. He also threatened to run again for the same post if warranted. (A second run for the presidency, however, is forbidden by the constitution.)

The simmering acrimonious differences between the two political families are expected to escalate leading to political realignments as the country approaches the 2025 mid-term elections and the 2028 presidential polls. Political realignments characterized by jumping over to the side of would-be victors have been in the vortex of the country’s political system in the post-Marcos period or nearly 40 years. This is consistent with the age-old adage, “There are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent self-interests.”

Peace talks

The President who last year considered engaging the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), umbrella organization of the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed component New Peoples’ Army (NPA), in peace talks with the NDFP negotiating panel based in The Netherlands. (The armed Left have been waging an armed revolution for 55 years, considered the longest-running revolution in Asia if not in the world.) Following the cue, the National Task Force – To End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), a discredited agency formed by Duterte to red-tag and assassinate underground and visible alleged communist leaders, National Security Council assistant director general Jonathan Malaya who also heads the NTF-ELCAC, assured visiting UN Special Rapporteur Irene Khan that there is no red-tagging policy under the Marcos government.

Marcos’s positive stance on peace negotiations with the Left also differs with that of the former president who, in 2017, scuttled the peace talks – when both sides were at the crossroads of signing an economic and social reform agreement - and launched a campaign of demonization, assassination of Leftist leaders, and aerial bombings of suspected mass bases especially the Lumad of Mindanao. (The Lumad are a group of Austronesian indigenous peoples in the southern Philippines. A Cebuano term it means "native" or "indigenous".) The political killings included the brutal slaying of a known peasant leader.

The shift from Duterte’s ruthless red-tagging policy and assassination of Leftist leaders to Marcos’s initial openness to peace talks is yet another source of irritant between the two presidents. Duterte, who had aggressively implemented the policy resulting in the killing of several Leftist leaders, believes the shift is a setback to his “fruitful” record in the anti-insurgency war. It remains to be seen, however, if President Marcos shall pursue the renewed peace process considering its rejection by Duterte and his allies and more importantly because of the traditionally strong opposition by the military hierarchy to the resumption of peace talks.

Charter change

Another point of irreconcilable differences is Marcos Jr.’s openness to possible amendments to the political provisions of the 1987 Constitution, particularly on term limits. Marcos’s lieutenants in the lower House, led by cousin Speaker Martin Romualdez, under a joint resolution also pushed for charter change through a people’s initiative (PI). But the House move was rejected by the upper chamber, Senate, All 24 members of the Senate unanimously approved a manifesto opposing the people’s initiative, saying the process would “undermine the country’s democracy”. The Senate fears that a revision of the Charter through an amendment via the Peoples’ Initiative that allows both Houses to meet and vote as one instead of two separate voting bodies risks not only marginalizing the upper House but even its outright abolition through a major revision of the current constitution.

But the game is far from over. House leaders have called on senators to show their cards to the public as soon as possible whether they favor amending the economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution. The call was made following Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri’s statement that the Senate won’t fast track its deliberations on Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) 6 which lifts restrictions on foreign ownership of vital industries including public utilities. For more than three decades, this proposal has polarized the country no end with progressive and patriotic organizations mounting country-wide street protests as a sign of resistance. This alone should pressure Congress to rethink its plan unless it is prepared to meet an avalanche of protests.

The crack has deepened anyway. In early January former National Security Adviser Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, also an ally of former President Gloria M. Arroyo, led other retired ranking officers of the armed forces in issuing a public statement. The statement pointed to “dangerous” trends in the Marcos government. (Esperon was accused of mounting red tagging and deadly anti-insurgency operations against Leftist leaders.) Responding to the challenge, a group of 22 retired generals met with Speaker Romualdez to express their loyalty to the Marcos government. The retired generals denied reports that elite Philippine Military Academy (PMA) alumni and other groups of military retirees are supporting destabilization moves against the Marcos administration.

The armed forces and Philippine National Police (PNP) also earlier denied the destabilization plot, even as Marcos's sister, Senator Imee Marcos, had said that the alleged plot was "coming from the inside."

The feud between Marcos and Duterte has far-ranging implications dragging retired and active military officers into the public discord. The involvement of military officers in what is potentially a power struggle, reminiscent of the dying years of the Marcos dictatorship in the early 1980s, opens scenarios of a violent confrontation among the major players. In the 1980s-early 1990s – a period of political instability and constitutional crisis - a series of attempted coups and mutinies were staged by young military officers in a bid to put up a civilian-military junta.  The unsettling years led to the politicization of the military striking a grey area between civilian authority and military power. To calm military disturbances, the astute president Fidel V. Ramos (1992-1998), a former defense secretary, enticed rebellious military and police officers to take the parliamentary path. Congress has since been filled with retired military and police generals and other senior officers.

Marcos’ mixed signals on the ICC investigations 

Most infuriating to Duterte is the current president’s mixed signals in allowing the International Criminal Court (ICC) to pursue investigations about the alleged extra-judicial killings during the former president’s administration. To escape court justice, Duterte withdrew the Philippines’ membership in March 2019 from the country’s membership in the Rome Statute which established the ICC, and questioned the international court’s authority to investigate the campaign against illegal drugs which left thousands of people dead.

In a related move, the Romualdez-Marcos-led lower House began hearings urging the government to cooperate with the ICC prosecutor in its probe, after opposition lawmakers cited Duterte's admission in a TV program that he used intelligence funds to fund extrajudicial killings when he was mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippines. Government’s cooperation with the ICC has triggered mixed reactions, with former human rights lawyer and former Duterte spokesman-turned politician Harry Roque saying the ICC probe is "patently unconstitutional" since "temporal jurisdiction was lost in 2019". University professor and analyst Jean Encinas-Franco, said Marcos' comments indicate not only that he is "veering away" from the previous government's policies but is breaking away from both presidents’ alliance.

In a latest report, a warrant of arrest is expected to be issued soon against former President Rodrigo Duterte and other respondents in connection with the ICC’s investigation into the “war on drugs,” according to former Senator Antonio Trillanes IV. Trillanes said ICC probers arrived in the country last December to conduct interviews with concerned individuals including families of victims and rights groups. The former senator said investigators of the international body have finished gathering information on Duterte and the others involved (i.e., Vice President Sara Duterte and former Davao City police chief now senator, Ronald de la Rosa, among others.)

Clan politics at play

The dynastic feud between the Marcos and Duterte families is typical of clan politics in the Philippines with friendship or contradiction centering on family power interests. Once the alliance breaks, the anticipation is that both their political allies and parties will switch sides (balimbingan, to use a popular Filipino term). Such alliance breakups – not to mention presidential terms limited to six years with no reelection - explains the absence of continuity and strategy in governance and political system so unlike in some socialist countries like China and Vietnam where political coherence and centralized / decentralized leadership has resulted in exponential growth with their governments rating high public trust.

The feud is also indicative of feudal, oligarchic politics where old and ascendant family dynasties cut each other’s throat in a bid for political rule. Political dynasties – about 170 nationwide excluding thousands of local dynasties – have dominated Philippine politics since the end of the colonial era. Worse, feudal politics sidelines structural or institutional reforms that would have led to enhancing the quality of life of majority of Filipinos. The penchant for family clash has led to social and economic retrogression underscored by income gaps between the rich and poor, with high unemployment and limited development opportunities. Social unrest continues to ferment.

Which brings us to the current state of the Philippine economy.

Latest state of the Philippine economy

As concurrent agriculture secretary in the initial phase of his presidency, Marcos pledged to make the economy self-sufficient in rice and lower its price per kilo at PhP20. That promise is turning out to be an empty lie as proven by the fact that rice has soared to PhP60 a kilo and the country is projected to be the world’s top rice importer, according to the U.S. agriculture department. Local prices of the commodity rose to a 14-year high last December. In real terms, the country is currently estimated to import 3.8 million metric tons (MT) of rice in 2024.

There was a time, though short-lived, when the country used to export surplus rice in the early 1970s – during the presidency of Ferdinand E. Marcos, Sr. In 1973 or a year after martial rule was declared, the then president launched Masagana 99 program (literally, bountiful) to increase rice production by offering highly-subsidized loans to farmers to buy imported fertilizers and invest in farm equipment. Indeed, farmers produced a surplus of some 89,000 metric tons during that period. The program, however, ended up a colossal failure after the build-up of unpaid loans pushed hundreds of rural banks into bankruptcy and burdened poor farmers with too much debt. Indeed, rice farmers produced a surplus of some 89,000 MT in 1977-1978. In the end, Masagana 99 proved to be unsustainable.

Recently, Marcos appointed Francisco Tiu Laurel, a billionaire and fishing tycoon, as agriculture secretary. The president’s so-called marching orders to Laurel is to look into how to better tackle the prices of all agricultural commodities. Marcos also mentioned the management of avian flu and African swine fever, diseases that had led to the slaughter of thousands of chickens and hogs nationwide. Laurel is to look into best agricultural practices from neighboring countries that can be applied in the Philippines.

Laurel’s responsibilities are daunting as there has never been a time in the history of Philippine agriculture where the country is able to address the people’s basic staple commodities under the conditions where many people barely eat three square meals a day and hunger is widespread especially among children. His performance as agriculture secretary remains to be seen in the coming months. 


In a related field, the country’s Central Bank (CB) expects the inflation rate to fall below four percent this year due to base effects, and is eyeing a lower January 2024 consumer price index (CPI) versus December’s actual 3.9 percent. CB Governor Eli M. Remolona Jr. said the base effects will push inflation rates lower for the months of January and February, and for the first quarter on average. They also expect the consumer price index (CPI) to climb back up after the first three months.

From his perspective, new Finance Secretary Ralph G. Recto has dismissed worries about the country's ballooning debt stock, affirming the government's capability to meet all maturing financial obligations. A former legislator, Recto said that the current total government debt, which amounted to P14.51 trillion as of November last year, should not be a cause for concern, as it represents only 60 percent of the country's economy, or gross domestic product (GDP). “Today, at 60 percent, I'm not that much concerned about the national debt,” Recto said in January. “It's your ability to pay that is important. It's not the size of the debt, but your ability to pay.”

Foreign relations

An accepted fact since the early months of his presidency is that Marcos has strongly aligned his government with the U.S. In the process, he has committed himself to more Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreements facilities with the U.S. military, including new ones with proximity to Taiwan – which the U.S. continues to support with military aid and U.S. congressional visits in violation of the “One-China Principle” – an agreement reached between China and the U.S. under the 1972 Shanghai Communique. Eyebrows were raised anew about Marcos’s adherence to the One-China Principle when he congratulated by tweet Taiwan’s newly elected president. The tweet reportedly angered Beijing but Marcos assured China that he was not “endorsing” Taiwan's independence. Marcos’s tweet should surprise no one since it is aligned with the U.S. policy of full military and political support for Taiwan. In violation of the long-established One-China policy, this also risks continuously escalating tensions and conflict between China and its island province Taiwan and the whole region. Clearly, however, Marcos’s hostility to China is deepening.

In what is widely seen as a veiled “united front” against China, Marcos’ state visit to Hanoi late January yielded agreements related to the South China Sea (SCS) security. Among other deals, Marcos and his Vietnamese counterpart Vo Van Thuong agreed to boost cooperation among their coastguards and to prevent untoward incidents in the South China Sea.

However, the two Southeast Asian countries have competing claims over some parts of the South China Sea, a conduit for $3 trillion of annual ship-borne trade that China historically claims almost in its entirety. The two memoranda of understanding on security covered “incident prevention in the South China Sea” and “maritime cooperation” among coastguards. Some analysts say the agreements could risk angering Beijing, especially if they paved the way for future compromises on disputed claims. 

Both Hanoi and Manila have had run-ins with China’s coastguard in the past, but altercations have been frequent in the last year between vessels of China and U.S.-ally the Philippines, adding strain to deteriorating relations.

Before meeting Vietnam’s president, Marcos said Vietnam was “the sole strategic partner of the Philippines” in Southeast Asia and stressed that maritime cooperation was the foundation of that relation.

But Marcos ignores the fact that, first, the Communist Parties of both China and Vietnam have strong solidarity ties; second, Vietnam benefits from China as its major trade partner and energy investor; and third, both countries continue to benefit from using their own bilateral mechanisms to resolve disputes particularly in the Gulf of Tonkin. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit in Hanoi last December, China and Vietnam signed several landmark agreements including: an agreement on strengthening China-Vietnam railway cooperation including interoperable connecting railways; joint naval patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin; cooperation in telecommunications, information technology, and digital transformation; cooperation and promoting global economic growth of China’s Global Development Initiative (GDI); and a pledge to develop an economic zone to boost trade and investment.

At the very least, Vietnam cannot be expected to implement easily whatever security deals it had signed with Marcos because of its stronger strategic interests in maintaining good relations with its socialist neighbor. More realistically, the Philippines and Vietnam may profit best mutually by maximizing the gains possible in their trade and agricultural relations. As of now, the Philippines is a top importer of grain, covering rice trade and agriculture cooperation from Vietnam.

Renai Reef / Ayungin Shoal

On a positive note, Chinese coast guard ships have allowed the Philippines to deliver supplies to a World War II vintage, shipwrecked Philippine ship BRP Sierra Madre at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal – also known as Renai Reef in China and Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines. (The inoperative ship is manned by Philippine troops whose sustenance depends on the delivery of food supplies.) The Chinese coastguard said it had made “temporary special arrangements” to allow the Philippines to deliver supplies to troops at the grounded World War II-vintage vessel at the disputed reef – a virtual military outpost of the Philippines.

On a negative note, Beijing and Manila have traded blame over ‘provocative’ moves with ship collisions near the disputed shoal. China has repeatedly called on the Philippines to tow away the ship based on a promise it says Manila made, a claim which Marcos disputes.

Amid the tensions, the two countries are talking. Enforced by former president Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2017 in Beijing, the eighth bilateral consultation mechanism (BCM) was held on January 17 in Shanghai. The BCM was designed to resolve maritime disputes between the two countries and to start a working “hot line” communication between the two governments.

It is instructive for the Marcos government, however, to engage China on its long-standing, 30-year old proposal for a joint development of oil and gas in the SCS with the Philippines, which according to China’s Embassy in Manila, remains unchanged. The statement was issued in response to a suggestion by former Energy Undersectary Eduardo Mañalac for an independent oil and gas exploration by the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea.

In retrospect, China has long summoned the Philippines not to allow the U.S. to meddle in China-Philippine affairs particularly by its provocative operations in the disputed SCS. The absence of any intervention by a non-Asian power will augur well for peace and stability in the region even more so when joint oil and gas explorations in the SCS are in effect. This is a principle adhered to by the ASEAN – to remain nuclear-free, non-aligned and to resolve multilateral and bilateral disputes peacefully under a consensus. And to emphasize, China maintains good neighborly relations with many ASEAN member countries. The Philippines, a founding member of ASEAN in 1967, takes a contrary position raising questions in the community whether it still honors the regional association’s founding principles.

Pragmatically speaking, the Philippines under Marcos is the only remaining hard-core junior ally of the U.S. which the latter weaponizes – along with other allies in Asia-Pacific – as a cannon-fodder against China. Being in the monkey wrench of the U.S. Marcos like his father will unlikely change course for the remaining years of his presidency. #


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