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How another Marcos could win power in the Philippines

How another Marcos could win power in the Philippines

Ferdinand Marcos Junior, presidential candidate and son of the late dictator, is running on a campaign that steers public discourse away from the crimes of his father's rule. (Photo: AFP/Ted ALJIBE)

Millions of people took to the streets in the Philippines to force President Ferdinand Marcos from office in 1986 after a two decade reign in which thousands were killed under martial law, the economy contracted and government coffers were plundered - infamously symbolised by his wife Imelda’s extravagant shoe collection. Lately, however, the family has seen a resurgence in popularity, much of it driven by social media.

Scion Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has been the front-runner to succeed another strongman, Rodrigo Duterte, as president in this year’s May 9 election. Yet the Marcos candidacy has also reopened some old wounds - and he could still be disqualified.

WHO IS BONGBONG MARCOS?

Bongbong, 64, is the only son of the former first couple. While in his 20s he was already governor in their home province of Ilocos Norte, about 440km north of Manila. He fled to the US with the family after his father was ousted. The Marcos' returned to the Philippines in 1991, two years after the patriarch’s death. Bongbong won a congressional seat a year later, then became governor again.

He lost his first attempt for a position elected nationwide - a 1995 race for the Senate - but won a seat in 2010. With his term ending, he ran in 2016 for vice president, narrowly lost to Leni Robredo, then unsuccessfully protested the results.

His resume has also caused a stir: His Senate profile initially stated that he had an Oxford degree in philosophy, politics and economics. Critics said he had a special diploma that fell short of an actual degree. In October, the University of Oxford waded in, saying that Marcos didn’t complete his degree. The website has been amended.

HOW DID THEY GET SO POPULAR?

Family members have been in politics and government for decades in their home province, which includes a village named Ferdinand in a municipality called Marcos. Their power didn’t initially translate nationally after their return; along with Bongbong’s Senate loss, Imelda failed in two presidential bids. But in a country where dynastic politics is common and embraced, the Marcos' rebuilt their political capital by forging alliances with other politicians including Duterte, who allowed a hero’s burial for the late dictator.

This influence now is bolstered by social media like Facebook and YouTube, where posts rewriting history about the Marcos dictatorship, painting it as a golden era, have spread widely, boosting Bongbong’s campaign. He has denied any connection to the posts. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa last year called disinformation on social media an “atom bomb” for public discourse in the Philippines.

WHAT ABOUT THE PAST?

Thousands were killed or disappeared and many more were tortured or suffered other human rights violations under martial law. The government in 2013 allocated 10 billion pesos (US$195 million) from Swiss bank deposits recovered from the Marcos' as compensation. Some victims, not wanting to see another Marcos as president, filed petitions trying to disqualify Bongbong, citing his conviction for failure to file tax returns in the 1980s as grounds.

They were dismissed by divisions of the Commission on Elections, but appeals are pending. (If the commission were to disqualify him, he could still run while he appeals to the Supreme Court.) Bongbong has dodged questions about his father’s regime, telling television interviewers on Jan 24: “We will no longer go back to 35-year-old issues,” he said.

WHAT'S HIS STRATEGY?

He has teamed up with Duterte’s daughter Sara, who’s running separately for the vice presidency, aiming to benefit from her father’s continued popularity. (The constitution bans Duterte from seeking a second term.) In the Senate, Bongbong helped pass bills mostly pertaining to local governments. If he becomes president, Bongbong has promised “unifying leadership” and to prioritise pandemic recovery and the economy. He also has pledged to aid the farm sector, de-congest Manila’s roads, push renewables and continue fighting a long-running communist insurgency.

He said he plans to negotiate a resolution to territorial disputes with China while fostering ties with the US and Russia. There is some concern that public efforts to hold the Marcos' accountable and to recover ill-gotten wealth will stop if Bongbong wins. In the 2019 documentary “The Kingmaker”, Imelda Marcos is quoted saying becoming president is her son’s “destiny”. 

WHO ELSE IS RUNNING?

Vice President Robredo, the opposition leader who defeated Bongbong in 2016, has been a distant second to the dictator’s son. Also among the contenders are Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, boxer-turned-Senator Manny Pacquiao, Senator Ping Lacson and labour rights activist Leody de Guzman. Duterte is supporting his daughter but hasn’t named his favorite for president. Whoever gets the most votes wins; there’s no runoff.

WHAT'S HAPPENING WITH THE MARCOS FORTUNE?

The Marcos' amassed between US$5 billion to US$10 billion from the government through their cronies, associates and dummies, but only US$3.4 billion has been recovered as of the end of 2020, according to the Presidential Commission on Good Government, which was set up to identify and retrieve the assets.

For this, the dictator Marcos holds the Guinness world record for the “greatest robbery of a government”. Most of the recovered wealth was remitted to the national treasury and used for agriculture programs. The commission is still selling or privatising some US$1.1 billion worth including land, shares of stocks and jewelry. It’s also going after another US$2.5 billion from the Marcos fortune, some of which was concealed in various foreign banks, including in Switzerland, as well as in the form of vacation homes and fine art.

Source: Bloomberg/fh

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