Marcos Family Resurgent as Bongbong Gains in Philippine Race

Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Photographer: Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images
  • Late dictator's son topped poll in vice presidential campaign
  • Victims of military rule organize in opposition to candidate

Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s campaign to become vice president of the Philippines is gaining momentum through the backing of people too young to remember his father’s two-decade dictatorship.

Bongbong, as Marcos is known, was tied in top position with 26 percent in a February poll by Social Weather Stations -- up from just 3 percent a year ago. Growing support with voters born after the family fled to Hawaii is driving that gain ahead of the May 9 vote. His website shows the long-serving lawmaker smiling in a crowd of dozens of young people flashing the victory sign.

“The millennials are falling into a post-People Power state of mind, choosing to half forget the horrors of martial law,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila, referring to the popular revolt that overthrew Marcos’s father in 1986. “With growing frustrations over the failures of post-martial law leadership, from heavy traffic to uneven development, people are embracing historical amnesia and flirting with the idea of strongman rule.”

Despite enjoying one of Southeast Asia’s fastest economic growth rates under outgoing president Benigno Aquino, the Philippines remains one of the poorest countries in the region, with development hampered by corruption that has fanned voter discontent. While he acknowledges some of the abuses of his late father’s regime -- the family is estimated to have siphoned off as much as $10 billion in public funds -- Bongbong defends gains made under military rule.

“If I hurt anybody, I will always say sorry, but what have I been guilty of to apologize about?” Marcos, 58, told ABS-CBN News in August. “Will I say sorry for the thousands and thousands of kilometers of roads that were built? Will I say sorry for the agricultural policy that brought us to self-sufficiency in rice? Will I say sorry for the power generation? Will I say sorry for the highest literacy rate in Asia? What am I to say sorry about?”

Seeking Presidency?

Winning the post would put him in a strong position to contest the presidency in the next election, to be held in 2022. Dynastic politics is common -- almost 40 percent of Philippine legislators have links to politically-connected families compared with about 6 percent in the U.S. and 10 percent in Argentina, according to a 2012 study by authors including Ronald Mendoza, an economics professor at the Asian Institute of Management.

“Bongbong’s decision to enter politics might have been greatly influenced by his father but he is his own character,” said Agatha Mauricio, a 27-year-old human resource manager who backs Marcos. “Marcos critics tend to be so caught up with the past that they struggle to see how much we’ve grown and freed ourselves from the shadows of martial law. We can’t let the negativity of the past dictate our future.”

Successive governments have recovered about $4 billion of the family’s ill-gotten gains. In a symbol of the dictatorship’s excesses, former first lady Imelda Marcos left behind 3,000 pairs of shoes and a bulletproof bra when the family fled.

Father Murdered

Aquino, another political scion, is seeking to recover more funds before his term ends in May through an auction of more than 700 pieces of Imelda’s jewelry, with Christie’s International Plc and Sotheby’s vying to run the sale. Aquino’s mother was the first president after the fall of Marcos and his father was an exiled opposition leader murdered by the military upon his return in 1983.

Bongbong’s campaign is rattling victims of the dictatorship. Hundreds gathered at a rally in Manila on Monday to condemn Bongbong for his defense of martial law.

“We need to remind people that his father’s entire life was based on plunder,” said Marie Hilao-Enriquez, a veteran human rights leader whose sister was tortured and killed. “Ferdinand Marcos’s 20-year-rule has come to embody the worst excesses of tyrannical rule, and people need to remember that.”

Call for Unity

“I respect their opinion as everyone is entitled to it,” Bongbong said in an e-mailed reply about the anti-Marcos campaign. “I have dealt with all these things, good and bad, for the past several decades but I have work to do. I am advocating unity and that is what I will pursue if I win the election.”

For Bongbong, politics remains a family affair and he’s been central to the effort to revive the Marcos brand since winning a Senate seat in 2010. Imelda is now a congresswoman, while sister Imee is governor of their home province of Ilocos Norte, the post Bongbong held at the time his father was toppled.

Bongbong attended the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in the 1970s, before returning to the Philippines in 1991. He was elected congressman in 1992, before serving again as Ilocos Norte governor from 1998 to 2007. He was elected back to Congress that year, and authored a bill enacted in 2009 to define the country’s territorial holdings in the South China Sea -- a major theme in the current campaign.

Voters need to look beyond Bongbong’s last name and assess Marcos in his own right, said Benito Lim, a political science professor from the Ateneo de Manila University.

“Bongbong should admit that his father did abuse human rights and had the military torture his political enemies, but it’s a bit unfair to expect him to apologize because it’s not his own doing,” he said. “He should be judged based on what he does now, because there’s no law that says the son should pay for the sins of his father.”

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