The Damocles Dilemma and Winner-takes-all

Manuel L. Quezon III
9 min readDec 5, 2023

As her father politically withers away, the Veep gets nervous; could Marcos Jr. be the new Political Center?

If you make an existential threat, expect one in return.

Popularity can make a president bulletproof. But the specific kind of popularity once -and posssibly, still- enjoyed by Rodrigo R. Duterte has its own built-in paradox. Built as it was, on the ashes of the People Power era, it cannot muster the spirit of that bygone age, which is what, for example, made the late Corazon Aquino formidable long after she left office. Having denounced the era of the Parliament of the Streets, he is a hostage of parliamentary politics.

Two weeks of The Long View:

I. Great expectations

By: Manuel L. Quezon III@inquirerdotnet

Philippine Daily Inquirer / 05:15 AM November 22, 2023

The presidency and the vice presidency, as we understand both positions, date back to 1935 when we had the chance to elect our chief executive (and the designated successor) for the first time. The holdover of decisions made back then for reasons that mattered at the time means that dynamics that emerged back then, have persisted over time. And so if there can be said to be persistent expectations as far as public opinion is concerned, two of the most basic are, first, that we expect presidents and vice presidents to work together and help each other, and second, that because we elect presidents and vice presidents separately so that each has an unquestioned mandate, presidents will always look uneasily at vice presidents, who more often than not, in an easier contest, end up gaining more votes than the president.

The first expectation also means that when vice presidents are seen to be uncooperative with, or worse, disloyal to, the sitting president, the one who pays a price as far as public opinion is concerned is the vice president and not the president. This applies even when presidents and vice presidents come from different parties. The second expectation also means that since factions are more durable than actual parties, and since every administration has been a coalition, whether formal or informal, of factions, unity in any ruling coalition is brittle but all sides are compelled to disguise their ambition as long as possible.In the past, some of this was solved by the fine old tradition that presidents assigned the foreign affairs department to their vice presidents, since presidents after all determine foreign policy while all the ceremonial and other tasks of being foreign secretary kept veeps busy and even better, out of the country for long stretches. It’s worked less well when presidents assigned other cabinet tasks to their veeps.

I’d add a third element, less an expectation and more a rule of thumb: while the Senate has been specifically designed as a training ground for the presidency, and the mayoralty and the Cabinet have also proven useful springboards for the presidency, being a congressman or worse, speaker of the House, is not helpful to becoming president at all-in fact, it’s a decided disadvantage. Many reasons can be given for this: the fact that there is a permanent majority that forms around a new president means the job of a speaker is more that of a swineherd-at least that is the public perception. It is not leadership, in other words. The second is that speakers often play bad cop to a president’s good cop.We have two pairs with a good cop and a bad cop, each. There is the President and his first cousin, the Speaker of the House; and there is the former president and his daughter, the current Vice President. Depending on how much attention you pay to the news, you’re at least minimally aware of how a radical representative has summoned the courage to directly criticize the former president, who reacted true to form by alternating between feeling sorry for himself and insulting, in as colorful a way as only he can, the radical representative and the entire club she belongs to, the House of Representative. In response, the House has discovered that it is collectively courageous when it comes to ex-presidents, and denounced the former president for taking the House and its members’ names in vain.

In the meantime, the President has shaken his head and pityingly said the Vice President shouldn’t be impeached (a scheme enthusiastically being proposed by the radical representative with a certain amount of quiet cheering on the part of other members of her club), while the Vice President herself says she is neither disloyal to the President nor interested in taking over his job in 2028. This comes at the end of the previous season of drama involving the Vice President wanting to duplicate, nationally, what she and her father had done in Davao City, which was to ensure a very large, inscrutable, intelligence budget for herself. To her dismay, she discovered that one of the biggest electoral mandates in vice presidential history is meaningless when confronted by the power of the purse of Congress.

The situation, then, is one in which the Veep has had her resources removed, and just as badly, threatened with an impeachment. The threat itself affects only the Veep; but an equally grave one, in which the use (and perceived abuse) of confidential funds by local officials could be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, a cataclysmic blow against increasingly powerful local barons. It preserves the status quo going into the midterms, which is precisely where the President and his people want things to be. Meanwhile, the holidays will give a traditional and temporary public opinion boost to the national leadership.

II. A discomforting realization about democracy

By: Manuel L. Quezon III@inquirerdotnet

Philippine Daily Inquirer / 05:13 AM November 29, 2023

When I interviewed Maria Ressa last year for this year’s edition of the Fookien Times Yearbook, she said the next two years would make or break liberal democracy depending on the outcome of a whole series of elections to come. The scorecard to date, from her perspective, would be mixed, verging on the discouraging. In Poland, to be sure, the right wing lost; but in Argentina, and most recently, in the Netherlands, right-wing, illiberal candidates have pulled political upsets. As the shrinking number of “Eisenhower Republicans” frustrated at the Stockholm Syndrome daily demonstrated by their party’s relationship with Donald Trump (almost sure to get his party’s nomination again) shows, it took conservatives having a political dalliance with former fringe types to give birth to a new era of right-wing populism that has liberal democrats and leftists of different kinds, globally, in retreat.

As Ishaan Tharoor recently noted in a Washington Post analysis, “The ability of the far right to break into the castle has always been contingent on the center-right establishment lowering the drawbridge.” In our case, it wasn’t so much the lowering of a drawbridge but instead the use of Rodrigo Duterte as a battering ram to smash the economics-driven succession debate which would have kept the up-to-then discredited Arroyo-Estrada-Marcos combination out of power, and with them, a growing list of actually imprisoned former vote-getters (Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr., Juan Ponce Enrile, and friends, to name just a prominent few) possibly permanently in jail and out of power. Duterte became the incarnation of the formerly marginal now coming into their own, as he channeled the resentments and fears of a new middle class but also repudiated the old middle class and its politics born in the Ramon Magsaysay era.

This repudiation in turn created the political space for a restoration. There is a longstanding tradition in our politics (which has been challenged in the courts but only recently), and it is this: Election confers absolution. At its best, it brings former rebels or the defeated, back into the political mainstream, a peaceable but arguably, meaningful way, of challenging the colonial order in the days before independence, and of bringing dissident, even radical, voices and views, into the political mix since independence. It allows individual leaders to submit themselves to a referendum in which the public settles questions that might otherwise divide society for generations.

When this happens, a new political consensus is formed: This is how tradition helps maintain political stability and can foster political evolution. From this perspective, the Marcoses slowly, but systematically, accomplished their political rehabilitation in a manner that was both democratic and accepting of the very revolution that had thrown them out of power. Lee Kuan Yew, always snidely so sure of himself without having to preside over a society with a far longer history and far more complicated society than his own, failed to see this when he sneered at Filipinos for being soft and forgiving about the Marcoses: as the recent headlines in that city-state have shown, nothing ever stopped Singapore from accepting the ill-gotten money of private and public figures; nor did Lee let facts get in the way of his sweeping pronouncements, it seems (it was the Swiss, who taught the Singaporeans a thing or two about private banking), who insisted the Philippines allow the Marcoses to come back, in exchange for freezing the Marcos accounts, while insisting European human rights standards be accepted by giving the former ruling family their day in our domestic courts.

It’s important to revisit this historical zig-zag, not just of one family, but an entire society: because, in achieving the first majority presidency however you measure it (since 1969, in an ordinary election; since 1986, in an extraordinary election), Ferdinand Marcos Jr. accomplished what every Fifth Republic president from Marcos to Duterte failed to do-a majority-in a society whose increasing ignorance has had one, political, constant: The constant repetition that democracy is the rule of the majority. So for the first time in 30 years, we have a majority: only for those who wrap themselves in the mantle of democracy to deny him democratic respectability.

The world, oddly enough, has had no such misgivings. Whether it’s the United States or the European Union, Japan, or Australia, the democratic verdict has been accepted and what President Marcos has done is bring back the Philippines to that place in the world order in which it formerly, respectably, and credibly, existed: as a supporter of democracy, and the cooperation, stability, and security that comes from accepting international law and human rights.

But this requires pondering the formerly unthinkable: the possibility that the Marcos administration represents the democratic center in our national life. And may do so, for the foreseeable future.

III. Missing the forest from the trees department

I read his blog for his observations on the economy but not so much for his views on politics, and his latest entry, The Administration Is Making A Huge Mistake, is a good demonstration of how people in the business world aren’t necessarily the most astute political observers. Put another way, the points he raises could be read entirely the opposite way and it would make more political sense.

Simply put, he believes the Marcos-Romualdez combine is courting danger by risking turning Rodrigo Duterte into a political martyr. To be sure that is the risk involved with going against someone who is popular. Comparisons are inevitably made to Ninoy Aquino but to do so is to misunderstand what the Aquino assassination unleashed and why it can’t apply to Duterte: People Power. The former unleashed it; the latter, extinguished it.

Three broad factors: first, after six years of Duterte, the major blocs all crave quiet and stability; second, the Marcos majority, the first under the present republic and the first since 1965 (for a normal first term election) or 1986 (in any kind of presidential election), has redefined the political center. It’s no longer the repudiated, old, “Middle Forces;” and third, the ability to shock and awe on the part of Duterte has faded somewhat, while Marcos-Romualdez’s relative deftness, politically, continues to surprise.

Another one which I think he gets entirely wrong is his assertion that an impeachment, when it comes to the V.P., has “no legs to stand on.” In the first place in legal circles they might disagree; on the other hand, impeachment as is always said, is a political process and if Congress wills it, anything can be made to stick.

Originally published at



Manuel L. Quezon III

Columnist, Philippine Daily Inquirer. Editor-at-large Views strictly mine. I have a newsletter, blog, podcast, and Patreon.