Despite mixed results in his first year in office, the promising developments in the presidency of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr should not be overlooked. His notable achievements include the signing of the New Agrarian Emancipation Act, which condoned US$1 billion of debts belonging to 610,054 beneficiaries. He also signed the Regional Specialty Centers Act, which institutionalises the creation of new specialty health centres.
His administration also granted amnesty to members of various rebel groups, agreed to resume peace talks with insurgents and ordered the recalibration of the infamous National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict.
The Philippine economy has also done well under Marcos. Inflation subsided from a 14-year high of 8.7 per cent in January 2023 to 3.9 per cent in December 2023. The Philippines also saw third quarter growth of 5.9 per cent, the strongest in Southeast Asia.
Marcos has walked back many of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s more controversial policies. Not only did he admit the drug war abuses during Duterte’s violent populist regime, but his administration also implemented a cleansing of the Philippine National Police. He has broken with Duterte’s China appeasement strategy by being assertive in defending the country’s sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea.
But other policy areas need to be given due attention. In September 2023, Marcos ordered a price ceiling on rice amid an ‘alarming increase’ in its retail price attributed to ‘unscrupulous traders and importers’. The price cap was removed after a month, but not before causing confusion and dissent among government officials on how to manage rice shortages.
In 2023 alone, public transport operators launched four transport strikes to protest the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program, which seeks to replace traditional jeepneys with modern vehicles. Marcos supposedly promised legislation to help drivers purchase modern public utility vehicles. But Congress, despite being dominated by Marcos’ allies, has yet to enact such a bill.
In contrast, Marcos signed into law the formation of the Maharlika Investment Fund, flaunted as the country’s first sovereign wealth fund, despite the serious risks it poses.
Marcos must also address reported military unrest before it spirals out of control. Former defence secretary Carlito Galvez Jr denied reports of unrest in January 2023, although he admitted that there were ‘some valid issues’ over delayed promotions.
But perhaps the biggest controversies of 2023 surrounded confidential funds and rumoured disunity within the government. In September 2023, the office of Vice President Sara Duterte-Carpio, daughter of the former president, received confidential funds worth US$2.3-million with the approval of Marcos and spent it in just 11 days. Public opinion surveys after the incident showed double-digit declines in both Marcos’s and Duterte-Carpio’s approval ratings.
The administration is also hounded by cracks in the UniTeam Alliance, the political coalition that paved the way for Marcos’s and Duterte-Carpio’s historic majority victories in the 2022 elections. In May 2023, former president Gloria Arroyo was relegated from being the senior house deputy speaker to being one of nine deputy house speakers after her purported plot to unseat House Speaker Martin Romualdez. Duterte-Carpio resigned from the party after the demotion of Arroyo, who she regards as her political mentor, and mentioned that she would not allow ‘political toxicity’ to impact her duties.
Later events added fuel to the supposed enmity between the camps of Marcos and Duterte-Carpio. In November 2023, former senator Leila de Lima was released on bail after a local court ruled that the prosecution failed to provide sufficient evidence against her. The release of de Lima, a known critic of Duterte’s drug war, was seen as a manoeuvre by the Marcos camp to gain an edge in the rumoured rift in the UniTeam Alliance.
Marcos also stated that the government was considering a return to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which had been investigating the drug war killings. Although Marcos has claimed that the ICC has no right to probe the drug war, this may be yet another ploy to one-up the pro-Duterte camp.
Duterte himself floated the idea of returning to politics after reports surfaced that his daughter may be impeached. He may also be motivated by the possibility of an ICC investigation into his drug war. Strange as it may seem, Marcos may become an unlikely ally of the ICC and local human right groups in holding the Duterte regime accountable.
2023 was an eventful year for Marcos. By governing as a moderate and restoring a sense of bureaucratic normalcy, he is proving to his sceptics that he harbors no autocratic ambitions. But allegations of military dissent and disunity in the UniTeam Alliance have eclipsed the promising progress in the early Marcos presidency.
But rather than engaging in political games and historical distortions, Marcos should focus on fulfilling his vision of transformational reform for the Philippines. Doing so would allow him to carve out a far greater legacy than his predecessors.
Kevin Nielsen M Agojo is a PhD student in the Department of Public and International Affairs and Research Assistant in the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2023 in review and the year ahead.