Manila, Philippines – Vehicle traffic around Metro Manila, the Philippine capital region, was uncharacteristically light on Monday but it was not because President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr was delivering his State of the Nation Address (SONA) to mark his first full year in office.
Operators and drivers of jeepneys – minibuses that are the country’s most common mode of public transportation – had threatened a strike to protest gaps in the government’s plan to phase out their vehicles, so Marcos cancelled school and work at public offices for the day.
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But neither the fate of jeepneys nor the country’s worsening transportation crisis figured in Marcos’s 75-minute speech in which he also tiptoed around other pressing controversies such as territorial disputes with countries around the South China Sea and investigations into the thousands of killings during his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war.
Instead, Marcos described a country in rebirth and robust recovery from a socioeconomic slump that he blamed on the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic, but that critics say was also a consequence of the tumultuous administration of Duterte, whom Marcos’s family had helped bring to power and who, in turn, paved the way for his presidency.
“I know that the state of the nation is sound and is improving. The ‘New Philippines’ has arrived,” Marcos capped off his speech, touting his administration’s new slogan, which he launched a week earlier.
It was a high final note to a speech that began with him acknowledging that inflation was thus far his administration’s “biggest problem”. Citing the downtrend in inflation that went from a 14-year high of 8.7 percent in January to 5.4 percent in June, Marcos said that “in spite of all the difficulties, we are transforming the economy. We are stabilising the prices of all critical commodities”.
There’s a rhetorical deftness to Marcos, observers told Al Jazeera, and it has buoyed his administration’s mediocre performance in the public’s perception, not least because of the contrast with Duterte’s disorderly rule and crude, dissonant messaging.
“We now have a president who’s more statesman-like, who knows how to deliver a speech in a presidential manner,” Joyce Ilas, co-convenor of the advocacy group Democracy Watch Philippines, told Al Jazeera.
It is a trait that has afforded Marcos “narrative control,” another analyst said, and which has enabled him to maintain high public trust and approval ratings of 82 percent in opinion polls, despite some severe economic problems Filipinos faced in the past year.
Popular despite crises
Inflation, as Marcos said, has been the biggest blight of his first year in office and opinion polls show it is also the top concern for most Filipinos, followed by low wages, unemployment and poverty. And yet, his popularity shows Marcos has successfully shielded himself from blame.
“In the first place, inflation should not have reached 8.7 percent because that’s really quite high,” JC Punongbayan, an economist from the University of the Philippines and author of False Nostalgia: The Marcos “Golden Age” Myths and How to Debunk Them, told Al Jazeera.
“Slowing inflation means there is still inflation – food prices are still rising,” he said. At more than 40 pesos ($0.73) per kilogramme (2 pounds), rice, the country’s staple, is double the price Marcos promised during his campaign. Sugar sells for as much as 136 pesos ($2.50) per kg.
In December, a kg of onions – a key ingredient in many Filipino dishes – sold for as much as 800 pesos ($15). Marcos, who had appointed himself agriculture secretary, then ordered ill-timed imports that ended up competing with the local produce.
“There didn’t seem to be a sense of urgency [on Marcos’s part] in addressing inflation,” said Punongbayan, who described Marcos’s governance as “lazy”.
In his SONA, Marcos blamed inflation on “smugglers” and “hoarders” who he said were “manipulating the prices” of agricultural products. “We will hunt and prosecute them… Their days are numbered,” he said without going into detail.
Last week, Marcos signed a law to create a sovereign wealth fund called the Maharlika Investment Fund, which would pool “underutilised” funds from the Philippine Central Bank and two other state-owned banks meant to support industrial development and agriculture, to boost financial and economic investment in the country.
It resembles Malaysia’s state-owned 1MDB investment fund, the source of a $4.5bn fraud and corruption scandal which prompted international investigations and led to the downfall of former Prime Minister Najib Razak.
“The (Maharlika) fund shall be used to make high-impact and profitable investments,” Marcos said in his speech. “The gains from the fund shall be reinvested into the country’s economic wellbeing.”
Marcos said Maharlika would help fund urgently needed infrastructure projects, such as airports and railways, expected to cost 8.3 trillion pesos ($152bn) in total.
Economists at the University of the Philippines, including Punongbayan, have criticised the Maharlika measure since Marcos proposed it in November. They said the state-owned banks do not have “underutilised” funds to spare; taking those funds would impair the banks’ functions; the sovereign wealth fund would be managed by Marcos’s appointees – a recipe for corruption.
Despite initial opposition from many legislators, the Maharlika measure hurdled Congress in record time, arousing suspicions that Marcos, whose family was driven out of power in 1986 partly due to their ostentatious ill-gotten wealth, and his associates had ulterior motives for expediting its passage.
“They seem to be pinning all their hopes on Maharlika,” Punongbayan said. “They seem to be painting it as a panacea, an economic cure-all, when in fact it is not and the risks are really quite abundant.”
Drug war, dispute with China
What has even Marcos’s critics praising him is his decidedly defiant stance on China’s occupation of what the Philippines claims as its territory in the South China Sea, which Filipinos call the West Philippine Sea. A 2016 verdict by a tribunal of the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration debunked Beijing’s sweeping claim over the strategic and resource-rich waterway and affirmed Manila’s entitlement to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
Duterte had shelved the award, which Beijing rejected, and used appeasing rhetoric in return for Chinese economic pledges that remain largely unfulfilled. In his early speeches after assuming the presidency in July 2022, Marcos used strong, patriotic language, promising never to yield “even one square inch” of territory in the disputed sea.
It signalled a departure from Duterte’s “defeatist” approach to the dispute, analysts said, and prompted the navy and coast guard to more transparently report encounters between Chinese and Filipino vessels in Philippine-claimed waters. It also allowed journalists to join them on maritime patrols, putting the issue on top of the local news cycle.
“Marcos spoke about the rules-based international order and being friends with like-minded states,” said Ilas at Democracy Watch Philippines. “That has emboldened government agencies to finally stand up and defend our sovereign claims.”
But this shift in foreign policy, which included a deal granting the United States, a treaty ally, increased access to Philippine military installations as a deterrent to foreign invasion, went unmentioned in Marcos’s SONA.
Among the live audience was Huang Xilian, the ambassador from China, which Marcos thanked for a donation of fertilisers. China had earlier criticised Marcos’s rapprochement with the US and consistently bristled at US involvement in Asia-Pacific geopolitics.
Marcos also skipped addressing the International Criminal Court’s recent decision to proceed with investigating alleged crimes against humanity in Duterte’s drug war – which killed some 6,000 untried drug suspects according to police, or up to 30,000 people according to rights groups.
Although he earlier said he would reject any intervention by the ICC to “protect the country’s sovereignty”, Marcos distanced himself from the killings and omitted the word “war”.
“The campaign against illegal drugs continues but it has taken on a new face,” Marcos said in his SONA. “It is now geared towards community-based treatment, rehabilitation, education and reintegration to curb drug dependence amongst our affected citizenry.”
Marcos also tackled issues in education, healthcare, labour, climate change, connectivity and energy – he ordered a performance review of the privatised National Grid Corporation, which is 40 percent owned by China’s State Grid Corporation.
After the speech, several advocacy groups criticised Marcos for neglecting crucial issues. The Piston group of transport activists gave him a “failing mark” for ignoring the plight of jeepney drivers. The Kilusang Mayo Uno (May First Movement) labour group questioned his claim to “protect the labour sector” in light of a recent, token 40-peso ($0.73) increase in the daily minimum wage, which labour activists have for years complained to be too low. And the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan political alliance slammed the absence of a program for human rights in Marcos’s “New Philippines” campaign.
While Marcos could do more to address perennial problems, analysts say he has, more often than not, said the right thing in his public addresses and this has helped restore the public’s respect and trust in the government. Unlike Duterte, Marcos has shown up to his engagements on time, been able to conduct himself properly at international events, and delivered speeches with aplomb and without deviating from the script.
“Rhetoric is very important because it sets the tone – you’re saying where you want your government to go,” Ilas said, noting Marcos’s statements advocating the digitalisation of government transactions to ensure transparency and curb corruption.
“The president’s first year is a kind of adjustment period. Let’s give him that leeway. Now we’re done with that and we’ll want to see action,” Ilas said.
The penchant for good optics and well-curated messaging is a hallmark of the Marcos political family. Ferdinand Marcos Sr, the president’s father, maintained his two-decade authoritarian regime, from 1965 to 1986, through a martial rule that included stringent media censorship.
His mother, Imelda, was filmed saying: “Perception is real; the truth is not.” The couple were known for regaling crowds with elegant dress, impassioned speeches and, occasionally, melodious duets.
The younger Marcos was elected president in May 2022, following a deluge of online disinformation that created “false nostalgia” among Filipinos for the supposed “golden age” of his father’s rule, Punongbayan wrote in his book.
Now, Marcos uses terms associated with his father’s rule. “Maharlika”, meaning “royal,” was what his father proposed to rename the Philippines – “New Society” was the slogan – in ways that gloss over his family’s grim legacy: up to $10bn in ill-gotten wealth, 70,000 people imprisoned, 34,000 tortured and 3,300 people killed during the first Marcos rule.
As the administrator of his father’s estate, Marcos allegedly owes the government some 203 billion pesos ($3.72bn) in taxes, which remain unpaid.
But setting his background aside, Marcos has so far delivered a rather convincing performance as president – he goes through pretty much the same motions as his more respected predecessors. The problem with this, as some observers noted while watching the SONA, is that it could “normalise” the Marcos family’s return to power and make Filipinos forget that it is an anomaly.
“There’s a conscious effort on the part of Marcos to rehabilitate his family’s image for the public,” Punongbayan said.
“They have narrative control.”