Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s office last week described accusations that Chinese influence may have helped to determine the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections as “nonsense”. The claims are currently unsubstantiated and came from an anonymous source. The Philippine and Chinese foreign ministries, China’s embassy in Manila and the Philippine election commission did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters. First suggestions of fraud came from former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, who early last week claimed a “most reliable international entity” had informed him that senior Chinese officials were “bragging that they had been able to influence the 2016 Philippine elections so that Duterte would be president.” Duterte’s spokesperson Harry Roque, in his regular briefing, described Del Rosario’s remarks as “nonsense” and called him a “proven traitor” before going so far as to tell him to “shut up.”
Accusations of election fraud are as old as elections themselves, but the fallout related to these accusations can be enormous. With free and fair elections a bedrock guarantee for democratic participation, the seeming uptick in recent claims of election fraud is worrying. Politicians must understand that placing short-term personal goals of electoral success over long-term collective goals of democratic norms and popular sovereignty through unproven claims of election fraud can be irrevocably damaging. However, by that same logic, actual election fraud or interference can be just as damaging to faith in electoral processes. Without taking a side on the validity of these claims, two interesting threads emerge.
If Beijing did intervene in the 2016 elections, the move would signal a flex in the geopolitical might of China looking to cement its role as a hegemon in its maritime space and broader sphere of influence. This interference could also undermine Duterte’s popularity in the Philippines, as his embrace of China and reluctance to criticize its foreign policy or maritime conduct has been controversial. Yet, with these seemingly obvious explanations for Beijing’s reasoning, the accusations may be simply from the mind of Rosario, representing a political play to align the Philippines against its powerful neighbour to the north.
The Philippines, in need of funding for domestic infrastructure projects, recently made use of investments from the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the chief funding source for the expansionary Belt and Road Initiative. Under Duterte, the Philippines has pivoted away from the United States, toward China, resulting in several bilateral agreements. In October 2016, Manila and Beijing sealed $24 billion worth of deals and 13 government-to-government agreements. The two politicians at the center of the fraud accusations, Duterte and Rosario, represent two broad paths forward for the Philippines, defined by capitulation or resistance to demands from Beijing. Rosario is one of only a handful of diplomats to stand up to China’s expansionary foreign policy, as he was a key part of the Philippines’ landmark arbitration victory against Beijing’s sweeping South China Sea claims. In addition to questions over Duterte’s fealty to China, Rosario also referred to a May 2018 speech by Duterte in which he said his Chinese counterpart had assured him Beijing would not let him be removed from office. Duterte has addressed his relationship with Beijing, long maintaining that it would be pointless and dangerous to challenge China, an admission that, while probably correct, does little to undermine Rosario’s claims about a one-sided relationship with Beijing.
The Philippines will hold presidential elections next in 2022. While Duterte is not eligible to seek a second term, he has indicated he may run for vice president, which could be a potential backdoor to the top job. Domestic issues such as the violent drug war and rebounding from the coronavirus pandemic through vaccination, along with the geopolitical tightrope of a struggle for influence between China and the United States, will be top priorities for the administration that emerges from a scattered field of candidates.