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Malacañang Inside Stories: A peek into the Marcos family dynamics

The return of the Marcos family to Malacañang Palace in 2022 marked a significant and controversial chapter in the political history of the Philippines. Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., the son of the ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, has navigated a complex web of alliances and rivalries to reclaim and maintain power.


Marcos teamed up with the daughter of former president Duterte, Sara Duterte, campaigned on a vision of unity. While publicly maintaining an even-keeled approach, there are strong undercurrents shaping Marcos' policies from within his inner circle, particularly within his family as well as close allies of the family in both politics and business.


This paper delves into the intricate dynamics of the Marcos administration, focusing on the influential figures and the underlying strategies that shape their governance. The intricate power plays within Malacañang reveal much about the current state and future trajectory of Filipino politics.



First Lady Liza Araneta-Marcos


First Lady Liza Araneta-Marcos, a lawyer by profession, belongs to one of the Philippines' richest dynastic families controlling big businesses. She's reputed to be a moderating voice reining in her husband's populist tendencies, while eyeing a potential gubernatorial run in Iloilo. Already, the First Lady has been active in civic action activities in Iloilo, which could raise her political profile and entrench the family's control over the country’s central regions. A 2028 presidential bid seems improbable given her background outside national politics, but she could leverage a strong vice-president showing.


Rumors have been persistent about the First Lady’s power and influence in Malacanang. Speculations have been rife that Liza is the true power behind the throne, with many believing that she calls most of the shots in presidential appointments and decision-making within Malacañang Palace. According to palace insiders, the First Lady maintains a very small circle of confidantes and is known to relieve staff who are found to be ineffective and disadvantageous to her working style and interests.


While presidential spouses do not have any official role in formulating or implementing the country's foreign policy, they can sometimes wield informal influence, especially in terms of public diplomacy efforts. As first lady, Liza Araneta-Marcos’ work has been largely focused on promoting Filipino culture and tradition. Since stepping foot on Malacañang, the presidential spouse has met with several diplomatic envoys. Most notable of these meetings, however, are the first lady’s encounters with China’s ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian, whom she met at least four times already since becoming first lady. These meetings come amid simmering tensions between the Philippines and China over the disputed South China Sea and the continuous operations of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) in the country.


On August 4, 2022, the first lady hosted a luncheon for the Chinese envoy and even gave the ambassador a tour inside the palace. In October of the same year, Liza had a lunch meeting with the Chinese ambassador in Makati. In February 2024, she graced the New Year reception of the Chinese Embassy and reportedly spoke with the Chinese ambassador during the event. Earlier in June, Ambassador Huang attended an event mounted by the First Lady at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) in Pasay City. While details about the First Lady’s conversations with China’s Philippines envoy are not known, her meetings with the Chinese ambassador can be deemed as potential back-channel diplomacy efforts of the Marcos administration.


In addition to the meetings with Chinese envoy, Liza Araneta-Marcos also had several notable engagements with U.S. Ambassador MaryKay Carlson, underscoring the close diplomatic ties between the Philippines and the United States. On July 27, 2022, Liza Araneta-Marcos hosted a meeting with U.S. Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, his wife Betty Del Toro, and Ambassador MaryKay Carlson. This meeting highlighted the strong military and diplomatic relations between the two countries. On August 3, 2022, Liza Araneta-Marcos hosted her first official event at Malacañang Palace, a luncheon for lady ambassadors, including MaryKay Carlson. This event, held at the Rizal Ceremonial Hall, was aimed at fostering diplomatic relationships and promoting international camaraderie​​. The First Lady and Ambassador MaryKay Carlson also headlined the Go Negosyo Women’s Summit on March 18, 2023. The summit, focusing on innovation and technology for gender equality, featured various female leaders and entrepreneurs. This event showcased the commitment of both nations to promoting women's empowerment and technological advancement​.


Liza is known to have a close relationship with her sons - Sandro, Vinny, and Simon, and are very protective of them. As the matriarch of the family, she is believed to wield significant influence over them. Insiders say Liza is a doting mother who is deeply involved in her sons' lives. She is said to have played an active role in their upbringing and continues to provide guidance and support as they navigate adulthood. This could potentially extend to having a say in their choice of partners, especially if she perceives any potential threats to the family's political ambitions or reputation.


Marcos’ eldest son, Sandro, is seen as the crown prince being prepped for future power. Sandro is an incumbent congressman representing a congressional district in his family’s bailiwick Ilocos Norte. Sandro would be an improbable and unlikely presidential candidate in 2028, given relative youth and limited experience in national-level politics. However, his prospects brighten over the longer-term if he follows a more incremental path developing his experience and national profile over successive election cycles. More plausible is Sandro being appointed to a prominent national position by his father or extended Marcos’ relatives to raise his stature as a potential standard-bearer beyond 2028 in future elections.


The elder sister – Imme Marcos


Senator Imee Marcos, the president's savvy elder sister is central to preserving the family's political machinery. She's expected to groom younger generations of Marcos scions to follow in the dynasty's footsteps. Imee is widely expected to seek re-election to the Senate in 2025 to solidify the family's political machinery. She's seen as a long-term play to nurture the Marcos dynasty's next generation while preserving her own power base. A 2028 presidential run appears unlikely given the crowded field, but she could position herself as a vice-presidential candidate to a family-backed slate.


Recent reports show a strain in the relationship between Imee and the First Lady. In an interview, the First Lady revealed that last time she talked to the senator was in Christmas in 2023. The rife appears to be due to Imee’s silence amid tirades against President Marcos, particularly by former president Rodrigo Duterte. Imee has likewise been supportive of Duterte’s daughter Sara, who has earned the ire of the First Lady after the vice-president allegedly laughed at a joke cracked by the former president at an anti-Charter Change rally that insinuated that President Marcos is under the influence of drugs.


Imee’s close ties with the Dutertes has raised concerns and speculations about potential tensions within the Marcos family. The First Lady may view Sara Duterte as a potential rival, particularly if the latter harbors presidential ambitions. Imee's support for the Dutertes could be seen as a betrayal or a threat to the Marcos family's interests, straining her relationship with Liza.


The mother – Imelda Marcos


Imelda Marcos, the president’s 93-year-old mother, dubbed the steel butterfly, remains an influential force bending the administration from her Leyte stronghold. She retains clout over patronage networks vital to the family's resurgence. Imelda’s presence as guest of honor at the opening of the new chancery of the Chinese Embassy in Forbes Park, Makati is evidence that the former first lady is still deemed as an important figure in the country’s political landscape.


When she was first lady between 1965 and 1986, Imelda played a significant role in the Philippines’ foreign policy and diplomacy. Building rapport with foreign leaders at that time, Imelda cultivated personal relationships with many world leaders, often through glamorous social events. She leveraged these connections to advance her husband's foreign policy interests and secure support for the Marcos government. Imelda was instrumental in the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the Philippines and China in 1975. She visited China multiple times and helped lay the groundwork for normalizing ties after years of the Philippines recognizing only Taiwan. In 1973, Imelda made a high-profile visit to China, becoming one of the first foreign visitors after the Cultural Revolution. This "Bamboo Curtain" visit was seen as an important symbolic gesture in bridging the divide between the two countries.


While Imelda’s influence in local politics has waned considerably given her advanced age and health condition, she continues to maintain loyalists and advocates, albeit at a much lower number compared to when she still active in government. Imelda has not made any major public statements related to policy matters or providing advice to her son’s administration, unlike during her husband's presidency.


The cousin – Martin Romualdez


Congressman Martin Romualdez, first cousin of the president from his mother’s side, holds a powerful position in the House of Representative as House Speaker. Romualdez is seen by many as Bongbong's de facto prime minister advancing the family's interests. He may leverage his clout to diminish the influence incumbent Vice-President Sara Duterte. Romualdez is believed to covet the presidency in 2028 as the family's anointed proxy candidate. His role concentrating legislative power under Bongbong puts him in pole position to be the continuity choice.

Overall, much will depend on how the volatile family dynamics and factions resolve themselves leading into 2028. A unified Marcos slate with Romualdez as the standard bearer, backed by Imee and Sandro, could make him a formidable contender harnessing the full machinery.

However, a multi-polar scramble pitting Romualdez against Imee, Liza and external opponents like Sara Duterte could split the family vote and derail all their ambitions. Managing the delicate alliance of hardline nationalists and corporate interests around Bongbong will be crucial.


Other Palace Power Brokers


Enrique K. Razon - The port and gaming tycoon was among Marcos Jr.'s biggest campaign donors. Razon’s family has long-standing ties to the Marcos family dating back to the Martial Law era under Ferdinand Marcos Sr. Razon’s father was a crony who expanded the family’s port business rapidly thanks to favorable concessions from the Marcos patriarch.

In the early months of Bongbong Marcos' tenure, Razon has actively pushed for the privatization of more public utilities and infrastructure assets - a move that could massively benefit ICTSI and Prime Metroline's other logistics holdings. Razon is also lobbying to take over the operations of Manila's two main airfields - a privatization bid that could net him billions more in future revenue streams if successful.


In the booming gaming sector, Razon's Bloomberry Resorts is poised to benefit from Marcos's pro-casino policies. The administration has signaled expanding gaming and entertainment zones nationwide - an agenda aligned with Razon's years-long push to turn Manila into a gambling mecca akin to Las Vegas.


Ramon Ang: Ramon Ang and his company San Miguel have long-standing financial ties to the Marcos family dating back decades to the Martial Law era under Marcos Sr. During Marcos Sr.’s time, the San Miguel conglomerate expanded rapidly across many sectors, benefiting from close connections to the ruling regime.


Under Bongbong Marcos, Ang was an active donor to the presidential campaign. In the early months of the new administration, SMC has already landed several lucrative infrastructure contracts and government concessions worth billions of pesos. This includes deals for airport development, toll roads, energy projects and more.


Ang's unfettered access and ability to quickly secure these business commitments from the Marcos government highlights the enduring transactional dynamics between the first family and powerful oligarchs. While providing the new regime a financial support base, it also stokes perceptions of cronyism that have long plagued Philippine politics.


Juan Ponce Enrile: As Chief Presidential Legal Counsel, Juan Ponce Enrile is one of Bongbong Marcos' most trusted confidantes and wielder of influence behind the scenes. Enrile maintains close ties to the family forged over decades. He is known to have regular private meetings with Bongbong Marcos to share counsel shaped by his long political experience.

Enrile's backing lends an air of historical legitimacy and continuity to the current administration that it is eager to cultivate. As one of the last links to the Marcos patriarchy's golden era, his avuncular presence helps reinforce Bongbong's dusted-off narrative of a benevolent "parliamentary democracy" under martial rule.

In turn, Marcos has been protective of the aging Enrile, who still wields influence through his children's political machinery in his Cagayan bailiwick. When Enrile faced graft charges in 2014, Marcos Jr. rallied support against his detention, which he portrayed as political persecution.

Beyond such transactional ties, Enrile provides the invaluable optics of a respected elder statesman publicly reinforcing the dusted narrative that the Marcos years constituted a "golden era" of peace and prosperity. This helps counter lingering perceptions of human rights abuses and plunder that continue tarnishing the family's reputation globally.


 

The intricate landscape of alliances, rivalries, and familial ambitions woven within Malacañang Palace under the Marcos administration provides compelling insights into the modern Filipino political dynamics. The influence of First Lady Liza Araneta-Marcos, the ambitions of Sandro Marcos, and the strategic positions of figures like Martin Romualdez and Imee Marcos highlight the delicate balance of power and the constant maneuvering required to maintain political dominance. As the Marcos family navigates these internal and external dynamics, their ability to manage these relationships will be crucial in shaping the Philippines' political landscape leading up to the 2028 elections and beyond.

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