History just doesn’t seem to be Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s thing.
The most obvious example is how his administration, just 88 days in, is trying to whitewash his father’s disastrous 20-year reign that ended in 1986 amid a massive “people power” revolt. Now, though, Marcos is angling to rewrite far more recent history concerning his troubled economy.
In a September 23 interview with the Associated Press, Marcos said he wants to “reintroduce the Philippines” to the world and raise Manila’s profile on the international stage. The reaction from many global investors: Huh?!
Whether it be delusion or not, Marcos is glossing over how former President Benigno Aquino III already achieved that. During his 2010 to 2016 tenure, Aquino didn’t just say over and over that the one-time “sick man of Asia” is “open for business.” He proved it in ways that scored Manila’s first-ever investment grade credit ratings.
One by one on his watch, Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings all rewarded Aquino’s efforts to strengthen the national balance sheet, increase public accountability and tackle corruption. Over six years, Aquino’s “good governance” campaign increased transparency across government ministries and went after tax cheats.
Simple moves like putting basic government services online suddenly left scores of rent-seeking middlemen out of the process. Aquino pivoted to a public-private partnership model to internationalize bidding processes, introduce sustainability studies and give overseas investors attractive entry points into one of Asia’s biggest infrastructure booms.
It was a startling detour from the 12 years prior to Aquino’s arrival in the presidential palace. His two immediate predecessors were embroiled in graft controversies. Joseph Estrada’s 1998-2001 stint was interrupted by corruption charges and impeachment. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s 2001 to 2010 presidency ended with plunder charges.
That left it to Aquino in 2010 to play a stabilizing-the-country role. It was an Aquino family tradition, of sorts. In 1986, his mother, Corazon Aquino, led the protest movement that ousted the Marcos family from power. In 1992, she passed the baton to Fidel Ramos, a technocratic leader who accelerated efforts to fix an economy in serious disrepair.
Then came the backslide. As Estrada and Arroyo looked out for cronies, economic upgrades largely fell by the wayside. The late Aquino got things back on track. On his watch, Manila’s ranking in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index improved to 95th from 134th in 2010.
By 2016, the Philippines was vying with China for the title of Asia’s fastest-growing economy, global investors were making a beeline for Manila and Aquino became a featured speaker at Davos. Efforts to “reintroduce” the nation were proceeding nicely.
Then came Rodrigo Duterte, who voters elected to supersize the “welcome” mat Aquino had hung around the economy. The hope was that Duterte would take his fabled 22 years of cleaning house in the southern city of Davao—which enjoyed faster growth and less corruption than other regions—and repeat that perceived success on the national level.
Instead, Duterte prioritized a violent war against the drug trade. Rather than headlines about multinational companies rediscovering the Philippines, Duterte drew scorn: loud rebukes from the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Also, Manila’s Transparency International grade was 117th at the end of Duterte’s tenure, a 22-rung deterioration. Press freedom rankings fell even more precipitously.
Duterte also paved the way for the Marcos family to return to power. First, by giving the dictator who wrecked the Philippine economy a posthumous “hero’s burial.” Then, by legitimizing Marcos Jr.—who’s known as Bongbong—as a worthy successor (with daughter Sara Duterte as vice president).
Marcos has had a couple of years now to detail plans for the economy. He’s had two months and 28 days in power to spell out specifically how he aims to raise the nation’s economic game and reduce the fallout from the Duterte era. Instead, Marcos has relied on vague and tired talking points.
The actual moves Marcos has made aren’t promising as these things go. For example, he put himself in charge of the agriculture ministry. It’s a bizarre move at a moment when the inflationary fallout from Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion risks pushing millions of Filipinos into poverty. How growing up the scion of the Philippines’ most notorious dynastic family leaves Marcos skilled in the sciences of crop yields is anyone’s guess.
Speaking of Russia, Marcos told Bloomberg last week that his team is in talks with Putin to score cheap fuel and other key commodities. As Marcos put it, “the national interest comes first.” Really? All doing business with Putin’s gangster regime will do is “reintroduce” global investors to worries that the Philippines might relapse toward economies-to-avoid status.
Marcos likes to say “the future looks bright” because the economy might grow 6.5% this year. But as we learned from his father’s calamitous reign, rapid gross domestic product only matters if it reaches the 99%. During their presidencies, both Estrada and Arroyo also produced big GDP increases that failed to enrich the masses.
Aquino tried, but six years aren’t enough to revitalize a long-neglected economic system. Especially when the next leader—Duterte—is more concerned with pet issues, not retooling the economy.
Will Bongbong do better? Let’s hope so. But the early indications are that he’s already botching the Philippines’ economic future.