The Marcos–Duterte Power Struggle In The Philippines – Analysis


By Jenny Balboa

The conflict between the Marcos and Duterte families in the Philippines has taken on a dark twist. At a rally in Davao City on 28 January 2024, former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte called President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr a drug addict. Duterte’s son, Davao City Mayor Sebastian ‘Baste’ Duterte, while asking for Bongbong to resign called the president lazy and lacking in compassion. 

Bongbong Marcos’ sister, Senator Imee Marcos, who has been trying to forge an alliance with the Duterte family, attempted damage control. She claimed Baste had apologised to her, only to be strongly rebuked by Baste, who asserted he did not apologise for his statements and stands by them. 

Bongbong shrugged off accusations against him by the Duterte family and Duterte’s call for Mindanao’s secession. He claimed president Duterte must have been high on fentanyl when he made the speech. Duterte had toned down his call for Mindanao’s secession and his allegations against Bongbong.  Despite the friction with the Dutertes, Bongbong maintained that his alliance with Vice President Sara Duterte remains intact. This was despite Sara’s vocal rejection of Marcos’s policies, including the resumption of peace talks with communist rebels, the Marcos-backed constitutional reforms. Sara’s support for China also stands in stark contrast to Bongbong’s pivot to the United States on the South China Sea conflict. 

First Lady ‘Liza’ Araneta-Marcos displayed a more transparent disdain for the Duterte family. Following attacks from the Duterte family and their allies, a video surfaced showing the First Lady publicly snubbing Vice President Sara during the Marcos family’s departure ceremony for a foreign mission on 29 January 2024. 

The video encapsulates the Marcos family’s contrasting approach to conflict. The risk-averse Bongbong tries to preserve relations with an ally while Liza does not hesitate to engage in political or personal fights to protect her husband. 

Bongbong’s handling of the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation against Duterte is another example of his vacillation regarding the former president. While Bongbong has repeatedly expressed opposition to the investigation — even reiterating that the ICC has no jurisdiction over the country — he shifts his tone by saying he will allow the ICC team to enter the Philippines as ‘individuals’. Bongbong’s administration is now studying the possibility of the country renewing its ICC membership.

People are puzzled by Bongbong’s soft response to the feud with the Duterte family. Amid open attacks against him, Bongbong has not hit back. Some wonder if Bongbong’s apparent reluctance to retaliate stem from having a weak character — as his enemies claim — and discomfort with facing tough challenges head on. Others speculate whether he observes ‘utang na loob’ (the ‘debt of one’s inner self’) — a value in Filipino culture where one is eternally indebted to someone who bestowed an important favour.

It is widely known that Sara’s decision to give up her presidential bid in 2022 and to run as Bongbong’s Vice President on the UniTeam Alliance ticket catapulted Bongbong to power. Bongbong perhaps feels a deep sense of gratitude to Sara, sparing her from the Duterte family’s open war against his administration. 

Bongbong Marcos is still his father’s son. His father, former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Sr, was known to embrace utang na loob. While ruthless to his enemies, he notably spared the Laurel family, despite their active role in the anti-Marcos opposition movement. 

Former Supreme Court associate justice Jose Paciano Laurel penned the 1940 decision that reversed a lower court’s ruling that convicted Marcos Sr of murdering congressman-elect Julio Nalundasan. Without justice Laurel, Marcos Sr would have been left in jail. Though the Laurel family later joined the anti-Marcos movement, Marcos Sr never forgot what justice Laurel did — and insulated the Laurel family from his dictatorship’s wrath. Justice Laurel’s son, Salvador ‘Doy’ Laurel, would later emerge as a major opposition figure and became vice president following the 1986 snap election that eventually ousted Marcos Sr from power. 

During the Duterte family’s Davao City rally in January 2024, Baste issued a menacing remark to Bongbong Marcos about learning lessons from ousted leaders. Former president Duterte echoed the same ominous statement, that Bongbong might suffer the same fate as his father. 

Bongbong should not merely roll with the punches while the Duterte family is hitting hard. Allowing the Duterte’s and their allies to consolidate power has critical implications for his presidency. The assertions of his opposition — claiming he is a weak leader — could be corroborated by his inaction. His political capital could erode and he might lose support for some of his policies, especially those that are in active opposition to his Vice President’s stance. 

Bongbong should recognise that the Duterte’s are not run-of-the-mill traditional politicians. Their decades-long rule in Davao City and the presidential term of Rodrigo Duterte serve as testaments to their ability to undermine whoever challenges them. Should they return to power with a Sara Duterte presidency, it could be devastating to Bongbong and his family. As of a March 2024 survey, Bongbong’s trust rating dropped significantly than Sara’s approval rating. If he fails to act prudently, sharpen his political instincts and show strength, Bongbong could unknowingly pave the path to another Marcos political tragedy. 

  • About the author: Jenny Balboa is Lecturer at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and at the Department of Global and Interdisciplinary Studies, Hosei University.
  • Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

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