Early front runner Marcos Jr's path to Philippine presidency muddled by lawsuits

Mr Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr said he is concerned about the possibility of being disqualified even if he wins the presidential elections. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (BLOOMBERG) - Mr Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr may have a decisive lead in the Philippine presidential race, but his path to obtain the country's highest office remains uncertain three months before the election.

The Commission on Elections, whose four remaining members were appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte, has yet to decide on four disqualification petitions against the late dictator's son, which all cite his conviction nearly three decades ago for failing to file tax returns.

The petitioners, some of whom were arrested and tortured during the military rule of Ferdinand Marcos Sr in the 1970s and 1980s, argue that the tax conviction permanently bars his son from public office.

Mr Marcos' camp says he is qualified to run, describing the cases as "pathetic stunts" that interfere with the right of Filipinos to freely choose leaders. His chief of staff Vic Rodriguez said Mr Marcos' focus is now on nation-building and unifying the country.

Still, Mr Marcos said last week that he is concerned about the possibility of being disqualified even if he wins the presidential elections.

"I take everything seriously, I worry about everything, but I don't let it distract me from the campaign," he said in a television interview.

No matter what happens with the Marcos disqualification petitions, the losing party can appeal before the Supreme Court, which could take months to decide. Here is how the scenarios could play out:

1. Marcos cleared before elections

This would clear any doubts about Mr Marcos' bid for the presidency. He is well ahead of all his competitors, with a December opinion survey showing Vice-President Leni Robredo - the opposition leader who defeated Mr Marcos in 2016 - trailing by 33 points in second place.

One petition, similar to the remaining four, has already been thrown out by a division of the Election Commission. It disagreed with the petitioners' argument that Mr Marcos made false representations in his certificate of candidacy showing he is eligible to run despite a 1995 tax conviction.

They are planning to appeal this ruling before the entire poll body, and the case could go all the way to the Supreme Court.

In the 2016 race, Senator Grace Poe, who was a presidential front runner, was initially disqualified by the poll body for not being a natural-born citizen and failing to meet a residency requirement.

The Supreme Court overturned this decision two months before the elections, but Ms Poe eventually lost to Mr Duterte.

2. Marcos disqualified before election

This scenario would open up the race to a range of candidates currently well behind Mr Marcos. While another candidate with the same surname and from the same party can legally take his place - possibly his sister, Ms Imee Marcos - it is unclear if his supporters would stick around.

Many of them may shift over to Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, who recently praised President Duterte, or former police chief, Senator Panfilo Lacson, according to Dr Jean Encinas-Franco, a professor from the University of the Philippines.

Those two men have emphasised discipline and strong leadership in their campaigns, which Marcos supporters have tended to associate with the late dictator's rule. Mr Duterte, who maintains high popularity, has yet to endorse any presidential candidate.

Still, a large block of voters could remain loyal to the Marcoses even if he is disqualified. "Marcos has been successful in saying that this is just political persecution, that people are doing this because they're afraid of him winning the elections," Dr Franco said.

3. Marcos wins election, then gets disqualified

A protracted legal battle over Mr Marcos' disqualification cases could eventually benefit the President's daughter, Ms Sara Duterte-Carpio, who is leading the vice-presidential race. Election Commission spokesman James Jimenez said in a briefing in January that the vice-president would have to take over if an elected president gets disqualified.

Ms Duterte-Carpio's camp has declined to comment on the issue although she said in a statement tweeted by state TV that the speculation of her possibly replacing Mr Marcos as president was "exceptionally unpleasant".

"In reality, both of us are yet to win the elections. It is putting the cart before the horse," she added.

Some analysts see this scenario as unlikely, as she had a good chance of succeeding her father if she ran for president against Mr Marcos.

Still, it could set up Ms Duterte-Carpio for a lengthy run as president: She could finish out Mr Marcos' remaining time in office and then run again in the next election, potentially ruling for longer than a single six-year term normally allows.

4. Marcos wins election, cases later dismissed

Much depends on the extent to which current President Duterte would want leverage over Mr Marcos. Past Philippine presidents have faced trials after leaving office, with former president Gloria Arroyo pardoning her predecessor Joseph Estrada in 2007 after he was convicted of plunder.

Mr Duterte has faced allegations of illegal activity particularly over his drugs war, with an International Criminal Court prosecutor last year pausing a probe into the policy.

In the past, he has repeatedly denied wrongdoing on the drugs war, and recently said that the accusation before the international court about the killings was "incredible".

Either way, Mr Duterte will play a key role: He can currently appoint three new election commissioners, and he has already picked 11 out of 14 judges who would hear any case that makes its way to the Supreme Court.

Mr Duterte's spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"As soon as he's out of the door, he needs to cover himself," said Dr Sol Iglesias, assistant professor of political science at the University of the Philippines.

If Mr Marcos solidifies his hold on power, however, the poll body and the top court could dismiss the cases on the back of a landslide at the polls, said Mr Victor Manhit, managing director at strategic advisory firm BowerGroupAsia and former deputy secretary in the Philippine Senate.

"When he is the head of government, these commissioners and courts will simply say it's the voice of the people," Mr Manhit said. "They'll hide behind that."

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