The results of a recent election in the Philippines might bring significant changes to the country’s domestic and foreign policies. This, in turn, could provide an opportunity for closer ties with Russia.

A resident takes stays in the shade behind a campaign billboard of Rodrigo Duterte along a boulevard at his hometown in Davao city in southern Philippines, May 11, 2016. Photo: AP

On May 9, when all Russians were celebrating Victory Day, thousands of miles away the Philippines held a general election that had a dramatic effect on the political situation in the country. Just one week later, on May 16, the new President-elect Rodrigo Duterte announced his plans to curb social freedoms and impose more order in the country, even pledging to restore the death penalty for certain crimes.

Political scientists will likely be mulling over the phenomenon of that election for quite some time. How did a prosperous island-state with a relatively robust economic growth rate (6 percent per year) make a sudden turn to the left?

According to economists, this island-state with a population of 103 million people located in Southeast Asia is currently one of the most dynamically developing countries in the world. The country’s economic growth has enabled additional social spending. Under acting President Benigno Aquino III, the unemployment rate declined to 2 percent a year, as he launched state programs aimed at cutting unemployment, reducing poverty, and increasing investments into core education.

However, based on preliminary results, the victory in the presidential election did not go to a representative of one of the political forces that have traditionally been in power in the Philippines – the liberals, conservatives or nationalists. Instead, voters chose 71-year-old leftist populist mayor Rodrigo Duterte, a member of the Philippine Democratic Party (PDP)-Laban. It appears that the combination of the growing degree of prosperity and a steadily high poverty level (about one-third of the population) played the decisive role in Duterte's victory. He will be sworn into office on June 30 for a term of six years.

Once a regional politician, he became known all over the nation due to his successful performance of his duties as the mayor of Davao (the second-largest city in the Philippines), where he cracked down on crime and urged the nation to put an end to organized crime without bothering with legal formalities.

In general, the winning candidate's pre-election platform was rather controversial. He promises to attract foreign investment and, at the same time, opposes the liberalization of the labor market; he is pro-life, but, simultaneously, makes a very non-Catholic demand to legalize gay marriage and publicly refers to the Pope in very unflattering terms. But the Laban party's strongest and most popular points involved the calls for the federalization of the Philippines and the implementation of coherent and democratic agrarian reform.

Will the American outpost hold?

The Philippines may very well be the Unites States' most loyal ally in the entire Southeast Asia region. Close ties between the two countries go back more than a hundred years to the Spanish-American war, when the Philippines fell under American influence. Since then, the U.S. has dominated the Philippines' economy, culture, and foreign policy regardless of what political party was in power in this Asian country. But until now, the leftists have never ruled the Philippines.

However, a quick look at PDP-Laban's platform shows an adherence to "Pan-Asian values," which actually means that Duterte's future administration will be focusing on strengthening the Asian direction of Philippine diplomacy. As a result, the Philippines could be more actively involved in such organizations as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), East Asia Summits, and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), as well as the Non-Aligned Movement, which counts the Philippines among its members.

For example, Dmitry Mosyakov, professor at Moscow University for the Humanities and director of the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania Studies, believes that the new President will try to steer Manila's foreign policies towards a more balanced and practical approach and, therefore, cease overt confrontation with Beijing.

During the election campaign, PDP-Laban and its candidate urged the nation to abandon its bitter confrontation with China despite the fact that Duterte shares the leading national politicians' opinion that the Philippines has a rightful claim to the disputed Spratly Islands.

Duterte's resolve to pursue independent foreign policy manifested itself during the election campaign, when he promised to engage in a new round of negotiations on the 2014 Visiting Forces Agreement signed between the Philippines and President Barack Obama's U.S. administration. The Philippine left perceives the agreement as a limitation imposed on the country's international, military, and political actions.

Recommended: "Who will lead in Asia-Pacific – the US, China or Russia?"

Prospective partner

During the Cold War, the Philippines were firmly under American control, so there is no long-standing tradition of Soviet-Philippine relations. Actually, diplomatic relations between Russia and the Philippines were established only forty years ago.

Still, with Moscow's growing interest in the vast Southeast Asia region, having the populist President Duterte in charge of the country could provide the opportunity for the intensification of Russian-Philippine relations, even more so if the newly elected officials decide to reconsider their nation’s role as the second "unsinkable aircraft carrier" of the U.S. in East Asia. At least Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov thinks that, "The Philippines has a lot of potential as Russia's partner in the Asian region."

The two countries can work together as part of Russia’s general cooperation with ASEAN members. Judging by the winning party’s foreign policy rhetoric, under the new president, Moscow’s and Manila’s approaches to the resolution of East Asia crises (for example, the situation around the Korean Peninsula or territorial disputes) might converge.

Objectively, there is also room for increasing economic cooperation, even though its actual levels are quite low. In 2015, total Russian-Philippine trade turnover amounted to just $0.58 billion, a significant drop from $1.4 billion in the year earlier period. Unfortunately, commercial exchange between the two countries lacks diversification, as the supply of oil and petroleum products accounts for 88 percent of Russia’s export to the Philippines.

During the summer, the new administration - the most leftist government in the country’s history - will take over in the Philippines. Soon we will find out what will come of anticipated changes in Manila’s domestic and foreign policies, and if they might lead to an opening for Moscow.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.