MANILA: Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr on Thursday praised his dictator father's rule after being sworn in as the country's new leader, completing a decades-long effort to restore the clan to the country's highest office. Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr, 64, won last month's elections by a landslide, securing the biggest victory since his father and namesake was ousted by a popular revolt in 1986.
He succeeds the hugely popular Rodrigo Duterte, who gained international infamy for his deadly drug war and has threatened to kill suspected dealers after he leaves office. In the last act of reviving the family brand, Marcos Jr took the oath in a public ceremony at the National Museum in Manila in front of hundreds of diplomats, dignitaries and supporters.
With his 92-year-old mother Imelda sitting meters away, Marcos Jr praised the late patriarch's regime, which critics describe as a dark period of human rights abuses and corruption that left the country impoverished. "I once knew a man who saw what little had been achieved since independence... but he got it done," Marcos Jr said after being sworn into office, claiming his father built more roads and produced more rice than his predecessors. "So will it be with his son. You will get no excuses from me."
Ahead of the swearing-in, Duterte received Marcos Jr at the riverside Malacanang presidential palace - which the Marcos family fled from into exile 36 years ago. Duterte, 77, wore a mask and a traditional formal shirt, characteristically unbuttoned at the top and with sleeves rolled up, for the meeting with Marcos Jr, who he once described as "weak". The ceremony comes days after the Supreme Court dismissed final attempts to have Marcos Jr disqualified from the election and prevent him taking office.
As rising prices squeeze an economy already ravaged by COVID-19, Marcos Jr has made tackling inflation, boosting growth and ramping up food production his priorities. He has taken the rare step of appointing himself agriculture secretary to lead the overhaul of the problem-plagued sector. Marcos Jr has also pledged to defend the Philippines' rights to the disputed South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost entirely. He promised Thursday that "we will go very far under my watch" - but has offered scant detail on how he will achieve his goals and few hints about his leadership style after largely shunning media interviews.
Marcos Jr, who appears to be more polite and businesslike than Duterte, was swept to power with the help of a massive social media misinformation campaign. Pro-Marcos groups bombarded Filipinos with fake or misleading posts portraying the family in a positive light while ignoring the brutality and theft of billions of dollars from state coffers during the patriarch's 20-year rule. Crucial to Marcos Jr's success was an alliance with Duterte's daughter Sara, who secured the vice-presidential post with more votes than him, and the backing of rival dynasties.
Many expect Marcos Jr will be less violent and more predictable than the elder Duterte, but activists and clergy fear he could use his victory to entrench himself in power. "Marcos Jr's refusal to recognize the abuses and wrongdoings of the past, in fact lauding the dictatorship as 'golden years', makes him very likely to continue its dark legacy during his term," leftist alliance Bayan warned. Marcos Jr, who previously distanced himself from his father's rule but not criticized it, urged the gathering on Thursday to not look "back in anger or nostalgia".
He has filled most cabinet positions, with a mass swearing-in at the palace Thursday. But the most influential adviser during his six-year term will likely be his wife, Louise, who is widely believed to have run his campaign. Sergio Ortiz-Luis, president of the Employers Confederation of the Philippines, said the country had a "big chance that we can be moving forward and ahead of the pack" under Marcos Jr. "We are very optimistic on the quality of the leadership that we have now," Ortiz-Luis told AFP.
Unlike Duterte, who pivoted away from the United States towards China, Marcos Jr has indicated he will pursue a more balanced relationship with the two superpowers. Marcos Jr said last month he would adopt a "friends to all, enemy to none" foreign policy. But unlike Duterte, he insisted he would uphold an international ruling dismissing Beijing's claims over the resource-rich South China Sea.
While he has backed Duterte's drug war, which has killed thousands of mostly poor men, he is not likely to enforce it as aggressively. "I think the Philippine political elite are ready to move on from a violence-led drug war," said Greg Wyatt of PSA Philippines Consultancy. "The drug war attracted enough negative attention." - AFP