- There may be a change in the subservience in tone towards China under a Marcos Jr. presidency, predicted one analyst.
- Vice-President Leni Robredo, a 57-year-old lawyer and economist, will need a low turnout or a late surge of support to score an upset.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr. appears poised to be the next president of the Philippines as millions began voting on Monday, under the watchful eyes of thousands of security forces after violence claimed four lives over the weekend.
If he wins, Marcos Jr. — son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr.— is expected to walk a tightrope between the U.S. and China.
"Eight out of 10 Filipinos would like us to be more assertive against China," said Victor Manhit from BowerGroupAsia, who was citing a survey by Social Weather Stations, a private non-profit organization that tracks public opinion on political, social and economic issues in the Philippines.
"There are at least 84% of Filipinos telling us that if we are a small country, maybe it's time to build multilateral partnership and strength. And that's why we saw during the campaign itself that Marcos slowly shifted. It's possible that he heard this public clamor," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box Asia" on Monday.
Popularly known as Bongbong, Marcos has tried to recast his father's legacy as comparable to former U.S. president John F. Kennedy's family in its glamor. His father Ferdinand Marcos Sr. ruled with an iron fist for two decades until he was overthrown in 1986, and exiled to Hawaii where he died.
According opinion polls released last Monday, the 64-year-old namesake son of the deposed dictator will win more than half the votes to become the first presidential candidate to secure an absolute majority in decades.
The survey showed he polled at 56% — way ahead of his main rival incumbent Vice-President Leni Robredo who was at a distant 23%.
Robredo, a 57-year-old lawyer and economist, will need a low turnout or a late surge of support to score an upset.
Outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, 77, is constitutionally barred from seeking a second term. He has not endorsed any candidate, but his daughter Sara is Bongbong Marcos' running mate.
Lessons from Duterte
The Philippines has long been a traditional military ally of the U.S. but after his presidential election in 2016, Duterte moved closer to China and dramatically declared his country's "separation" from the U.S.
It is still unclear how Marcos Jr.'s expected victory would change the country's relationship with China, but there has been public unhappiness with the slant toward China and some subtle hints of a change, according to Manhit.
The next president "should learn from the lessons" of the Duterte administration, which "won nothing" at the end of the day, he said, adding that "appeasement only benefited Chinese interests."
He also pointed out that none of the promised Chinese investments came into the Philippines.
Another analyst predicted that there would be a change in the subservience in tone toward China under a Marcos Jr. presidency.
"I think the slavish language towards China would be far more subdued. I don't think he's gonna go out there and say 'I love China' or that I'm 'gonna separate from the U.S'.," said Richard Heydarian, a political scientist at the Polytechnic University of Philippines.
"Marcos is a smooth operator," he said , adding that "anyone" would be "an improvement over Duterte on so many fronts." He said he expects extra-judicial killings in the Philippines to go down if Marcos Jr. became president.
Millions head to the polls
After six years of hardline rule under Duterte, during which the country witnessed a brutal anti-drug war, a landslide win for the younger Marcos could cast democracy in the Philippines into unchartered waters.
Both Bongbong and Sara Duterte have said they are best qualified to "unify" the country.
Filippinos will also elect a vice-president, senators, lower house legislators and provincial as well as local officials in polls that have attracted about 65.7 million registered voters in the country and 1.69 million others overseas, according to information from the election committee.
Over 50% of voters are between the ages of 18 and 41, which means they have no memory of the brutal rule of Marcos Sr. because they were either not born or too young to understand the mass incarcerations, torture and other abuses of that era.
Elections in the Philippines are frequently marred by violence. On Saturday, four people were killed in a shootout between candidates for mayoral elections in the northern Ilocos Sur province. Three security guards were also killed in Buluan municipality on restive Mindanao island in the southern Philippines on Monday when gunmen opened fire at a polling station, according to AFP news agency.
In all, there were 16 election-related violent incidents during this campaign, less than in 2016 and 2019. More than 60,000 security personnel have been deployed to protect polling stations and election workers.