How another Marcos could win power in the Philippines

·5-min read
FILE PHOTO: Former Senator Ferdinand
FILE PHOTO: Former Senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. greets supporters gathered outside the Philippine Supreme Court in Manila, Philippines, Monday, April 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

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 symbolized 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.

1. 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 440 kilometers (273 miles) north of Manila. He fled to the U.S. with the family after his father was ousted. The Marcoses 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.

2. 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 Marcoses 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.

3. 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 ($195 million) from Swiss bank deposits recovered from the Marcoses 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.

4. 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 prioritize 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 U.S. and Russia. There is some concern that public efforts to hold the Marcoses 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.”

5. 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 labor 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.

6. What’s happening with the Marcos fortune?

The Marcoses amassed between $5 billion to $10 billion from the government through their cronies, associates and dummies, but only $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 privatizing some $1.1 billion worth including land, shares of stocks and jewelry. It’s also going after another $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.

The Reference Shelf

  • An in-depth report on how online disinformation in the Philippines is helping Bongbong’s presidential bid.

  • Bloomberg Businessweek’s story on the effort to recover the family’s wealth.

  • The backstory to the Imelda Marcos documentary “The Kingmaker.”

  • Bongbong Marcos’s official website.

  • Ateneo de Manila University’s digital library and museum on martial law.

  • The Rappler news website compiled 9 fun facts about Bongbong.

  • A QuickTake on Duterte’s populism and an infographic on South China Sea flashpoints.

  • Bloomberg Opinion’s Clara Ferreira Marques on the significance of the timing of Maria Ressa’s Nobel prize.

Updated on Apr 21, 2022, 12:00 PM

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