Country chased dictator Marcos’s billions for years. Now his son could end up in charge.

·8-min read
Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand
Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Lipa, Batangas province, Philippines, April 20, 2022. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

By Andreo Calonzo

For decades, successive Philippine leaders have fought to recoup as much as $10 billion siphoned during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Now his only son is set to oversee the search for the loot.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., known as Bongbong, has a double-digit lead in a May 9 election that in many ways has become a referendum on his father’s legacy. Barring a last-minute upset, Marcos Jr.’s return to the presidential palace where he spent his youth will show his success at redefining an era marred by authoritarianism and ostentatious corruption into one seen by his supporters as a “Golden Age” in the Southeast Asian nation of 109 million people.

Marcos Jr.’s opponents remember his father’s dictatorship as a harrowing period, which saw more than 2,000 people die and thousands more tortured after he declared martial law in the 1970s. His family’s fortune included a building on Wall Street named after Donald Trump, paintings by Michelangelo and Van Gogh, and more than $600 million stashed in Swiss banks.

Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand
Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, speaks during his campaign rally in Manila, Philippines, April 23, 2022. REUTES/Lisa Marie David

While some $3 billion has been recovered since the family fled the country in 1986, about two dozen lawsuits are still pending to obtain another $2 billion.

Still, Marcos Jr. has managed to rehabilitate his family’s image, in part thanks to a social-media campaign by supporters who paint a rosy version of the dictatorship. The 64-year-old politician has embraced his father on the campaign trail, using his signature “V” hand sign and playing an anthem from the martial law era during rallies.

Ahead of the vote, Marcos Jr. has pledged to create jobs, reduce tax burdens, build infrastructure and attract more tourists to the archipelago. And, crucially, he also plans to overhaul a presidential commission created to find assets siphoned by his family.

Investigators should go after “not only us — everyone,” Marcos Jr. told CNN Philippines on April 26 about the commission, which was established days after his family fled. “Because we’re in a different time. That’s not the issue anymore. The issue is graft and corruption in government.”

Besides the stolen assets, Marcos is also facing a $4 billion estate tax bill and his 92-year-old mother Imelda Marcos — famous for leaving behind thousands of pairs of designers shoes — is appealing a graft conviction at the Supreme Court. What’s more, he faces a $354 million fine for contempt of court in the U.S. after he failed to comply with rulings on disbursing the family’s assets, which could potentially see him arrested if he travels to America.

Marcos Jr.’s personal legal battles raise a host of conflict-of-interest questions if he becomes president. A Bloomberg survey in March found that Philippine investors were lukewarm toward a potential Marcos Jr. presidency and preferred Vice President Leni Robredo, who is running a distant second.

Financial mismanagement during the elder Marcos’s rule eventually backfired, leading to double-digit inflation, an inability to pay back foreign debts and the country’s worst recession in decades. While the Philippines has managed to keep its investment-grade credit rating since 2013, the world is now in a more precarious place: High inflation, stoked by Russia’s war in Ukraine, is punishing countries that eschew fiscal discipline.

And although Marcos Jr. is generally seen as more pro-American than Duterte, who shifted the Philippines closer to China and Russia, his legal cases risk complicating ties with the Biden administration. While the U.S. tolerated the elder Marcos’s rule as part of a Cold War strategy, President Joe Biden has drawn a firm line between democracies and autocracies as it seeks to counter China.

“It’s only reasonable for investors and analysts to have deep concerns over what type of governance a Marcos Two administration will push for,” said Ronald Mendoza, dean of the Ateneo School of Government in Manila who was previously a senior economist with the United Nations.

Marcos Jr. has avoided public debates in the run-up to the vote, saying he prefers to communicate directly with the public. His chief of staff, Vic Rodriguez, declined to answer written questions about Marcos Jr.’s tax cases and how he would govern if he wins.

“For now, we appeal for your patience and understanding as we do not allow ourselves to look beyond the forthcoming elections,” Rodriguez said in a mobile-phone message.

To Marcos Jr.’s supporters, the corruption claims against his family are either fabricated, exaggerated or irrelevant. His opponents fear a Marcos revival will erode democratic accountability, particularly given he’s running on a ticket with Sara Duterte. The daughter of current President Rodrigo Duterte remains popular among Filipinos despite seeking to silence critics and overseeing a drugs war marred by allegations of extrajudicial killings.

“Marcos Jr. is the continuity candidate,” said Sol Iglesias, assistant professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, who researches political violence in the country. “Democratic backsliding, or a regression back to authoritarian rule, is not off the table.”

Marcos Jr. first moved into the presidential palace when he was just eight years old, and was quickly pushed into a life of politics. He spent time at both the University of Oxford and the Wharton School of Business — failing to obtain a degree from either school — before returning to help run the family’s home province of Ilocos Norte in the north. He became governor in 1983 at the age of 26.

Just three years later, as millions of protesters hit the streets in Manila, he abruptly fled to the U.S. with his parents. On the flight they took diamonds, gold bars, jewelry and millions of dollars in cash.

New leader Corazon Aquino’s first executive order established the Presidential Commission on Good Government to confiscate plundered wealth. It seized property and assets belonging to the family and Marcos cronies, including stakes in companies including San Miguel Corporation, one of the world’s largest beer makers.

More than P174 billion ($3.3 billion) has been returned to the government as of end-2020. The organization is still pursuing another P100 billion in 23 pending cases against the Marcos family and their associates.

While no assets were seized from Marcos Jr., he became the executor of the family’s estate after his father’s death in 1989, filing motions and appearing as a witness in some cases before a special court handling the cases. He returned to the Philippines in 1991 and soon won a seat in the House of Representatives.

“I cannot devote my life to the past and I am not going to,” Marcos Jr. said in a 1993 deposition, according to a transcript seen by Bloomberg. “And that is why I am not spending my time running around looking for the supposed money.”

Still, some of those who have hunted the cash say he knows more than he’s letting on.

“Marcos Jr. calls the shots,” said Ruben Carranza, who was a commissioner at the Presidential Commission on Good Government from 2001 to 2004. “He decides some of the detailed positions.”

Since the commission ultimately answers to the president, Marcos Jr. could dismiss the cases against his family or even abolish the agency, said retired Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio, who has pushed for him to be disqualified because he was found guilty of not filing tax returns in the 1980s.

“I pity the next tax agency head,” said Kim Jacinto-Henares, who headed the Bureau of Internal Revenue from 2010 to 2016 and is now an adviser at the Washington-based Albright Stonebridge Group. “If Marcos wins, how can you tell the people to pay taxes, if you can’t collect your president’s liabilities?”

Marcos Jr. publicly disclosed wealth of 204 million pesos in 2016 when he served as senator, and there’s no publicly available details on his net worth since then. He has regularly sidestepped questions about his wealth, while saying his family would comply with any court rulings.

“Let the courts do their work,” he told CNN Philippines in late April, one of the few interviews he’s done during the campaign.

Supporters of Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand
Supporters of Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, gather during his campaign rally in Manila, Philippines, April 23, 2022. REUTES/Lisa Marie David

All seven cases seeking his disqualification from the presidential race for failing to file tax returns have been dismissed by election authorities, but some have been appealed and could reach the Supreme Court. His family also disputes the estate tax bill for 23.3 billion pesos, saying the calculation was made on property already seized by the government.

“The fair and just tax base to be used in computing the estate tax cannot yet be established with certainty,” Rodriguez, Marcos Jr.’s spokesman, said in a March statement.

As for the U.S. case, it’s likely that Marcos Jr. will ensure he has diplomatic immunity before he steps foot on American soil. The U.S. has often shifted with geopolitical realities: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now a key U.S. partner in Asia after being denied a visa over riots that killed about 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, in the state he led back in 2002.

Marcos Jr. supporters like Lisa, who owns a roadside diner north of Manila and asked to be identified by her first name, said she believes he’ll prove that he’s different from his father.

“Many of us think that he will no longer steal,” she said. “And that this is their chance to return the wealth that was stolen by their family.”

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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