The story could come full circle in the Philippines next month.
Decades after the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a popular uprising who laid bare the brutality and widespread corruption of his regime, his son is about to revive the the family’s political fortunes in the presidential elections next month.
In the race to replace incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte, the latest polls show that 64-year-old Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. retains a significant lead, albeit slightly down. While Duterte, 77, cannot legally seek re-election, his daughter is running for vice president alongside Marcos.
But the prospect of a Marcos restoration ignites passions. Proponents see it as a vindication, and opponents see it as an attack on the country’s fragile democracy.
The elder Marcos was “capable, brilliant, cunning, utterly rapacious”, says historian Joseph Scalice. However, “what remains in popular memory is corruption and theft,” he says. “But in the end, the Marcos administration – his military rule – was brutal.”
Marcos took office in 1965, imposed martial law in 1972 and did not officially lift it until almost a decade later, in 1981.
Scalice says the Marcos era saw the warrantless arrests of 70,000 people, the deaths of almost 4,000, the stifling of free speech and the persecution of political rivals.
Martial law covered rights abuses and kleptocracy
After nearly 21 years in power, Marcos’ rule crumbled with stunning speed in 1986 as popular discontent boiled over. The generals of the army revolt and millions of Filipinos marched through the streets. The embattled president’s longtime ally, the United States, has called on him to step down.
Under pressure from all sides, Marcos gave up the presidency and fled to Hawaii with his wife Imelda and their family.
Corazon “Cory” Aquino, the widow of slain Filipino opposition leader Benigno Aquino and leader of the Peaceful People Power Revolution, became president.
Former first lady Imelda Marcos, famous for her lavish shoe collection, recalled stuffing ‘diamonds in diapers’ in the rush to escape on a US Air Force plane .
During what has been described as their marital dictatorship, the first couple allegedly stole between $5 billion and $10 billion. The Philippine government has clawed back some $3.4 billion of the couple’s ill-gotten wealth and is continuing to collect.
Marcos, considered a kleptocrat, died in Hawaii in 1989. But his widow returned to the Philippines in 1991, an undiminished force in the family political apparatus. She was elected to the Philippine House of Representatives four times and unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 1992, all the time longing for her family’s return to power.
“I miss the weight of being first lady…I miss the weight that you can do so many things in,” she said in an interview for the 2019 documentary the kingmaker, confess that she always wanted her only son to follow in his father’s footsteps footsteps and become president.
Now, at 92, she can get her wish.
Son hopes to rewrite Marcos’ legacy
Since his return from exile, the young Marcos has held an elected post as governor in the family fief of the province of Ilocos Norte. He served as a congressman and senator, compiling what critics say is an undistinguished legislative record. In 2016, he lost a close contest for the position of vice president.
He is campaigning for president as a “unifying” candidate, even though critics say his family has not apologized – or properly explained – for his past behavior.
In an effort to rewrite the past, Marcos narrates polished videos that portray his parents as philanthropists and his father as a great innovator, avoiding any mention of human rights abuses or theft from the national treasure.
Scalice says that the revisionist effort, aided by lies and misinformation, can thrive because Filipino high school textbooks never taught the crimes of the martial law era.
“It’s always kind of glossed over the personal excesses of the Marcos couple, Ferdinand and Imelda, and Imelda is remembered not for her brutality, but for her shoes,” he says.
Such mythmaking glorifies a time of tyranny and corruption in which Marcos the Son was as invested as his parents, says Scalice. The danger is not that Marcos Jr. will bring back martial law, he says – rather that “a brutal dictatorship is being rehabilitated and brought back into Filipino life”.
Social media and online influencers help restore family image
The Marcos seem to enjoy of “a vast network” of anonymously run social media accounts and online influencers, says Gemma Mendoza, who oversees misinformation coverage for Philippine news platform Rappler. Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler, won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. The influencer network seeks to advance the “family makeover” and “alter public perception,” Mendoza said.
Their conspiratorial content, followed by millions, vilifies Marcos’ rivals and the mainstream media, she says, hounding and intimidating reporters covering the campaign.
“It’s very worrying for democracy, for freedom of the press, because the press bears the brunt of it,” Mendoza said.
None of the twelve online influencers NPR contacted agreed to be interviewed.
Historian Manuel Quezon says the Philippines is part of a global trend where extreme views find favor with voters, while fueling anti-democratic impulses. He says the Marcoses don’t publicly support such accounts, but he says the phenomenon has been a boon to the family’s political fortunes.
“Think Q-Anon, but Filipino style,” he says.
Marcos Dog Tax Matters
Meanwhile, the Philippines Bureau of Internal Revenue recently confirmed that it served Marcos Jr. with a tax notice last December. in connection with his father’s estate.
Former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who is supporting current Vice President Leni Robredo’s candidacy for president, said the latest formal notice is just the latest of several sent over the past two decades and that Marcos showed a “deliberate refusal” to pay. Twenty-five years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that 23 billion pesos ($442 million) was owed. Carpio says with interest and penalties, tax liability likely ballooned and the Marcos heirs should be prosecuted for non-payment.
In a statement last week, Marcos spokesman Victor Rodriguez blasted Carpio for “lies, hatred and black propaganda”, saying the estate’s properties had been confiscated “for the benefit of the government in settlement of tax due land”.
Former BIR President Kim Henares, who served from 2010 to 2016, told NPR that during her tenure she chose not to bring criminal charges because she determined that the Marcos family would deploy a battery of lawyers, and the case would absorb all the resources of his firm.
The Marcos campaign did not respond to NPR’s request for comment on this or any other issue.
Marcos leads a counter-revolution
According to Manila-based political analyst Richard Heydarian, Marcos effectively exploited discontent with the governments that followed his father’s rule. Successive administrations have not, as promised, narrowed the gap between rich and poor or eradicated corruption, he says.
While average income has increased over the years, the Philippine Statistics Authority says nearly 24% of Filipinos, or 26 million people, lived below the poverty line in 2021, a result exacerbated by the pandemic.
Five years ago, 86% of Filipinos had less than $10,000 in wealth.
Heydarian says that many Filipinos are disillusioned and nostalgic, and a considerable number over 50 “try to convince their children and grandchildren that – ‘Hey, if we go back to the Marcos era, that was the golden age was the time of strength, innocence and political savvy.'”
Marcos promised to improve health care, expand educational opportunities and fight climate change.
But having dinner at a fish market in Manila, Jeffrey Zorilla, 39, a freelance actor, says it’s the warm memories his parents have of the eldest Marcos that appeals to him.
“Bring back the life we had before,” he says, when “the peso was strong.” He says, “Marcos did that.”
As for martial law, her parents told her that it instilled “discipline”.
US-China tensions weigh on election
While his father’s loyalty to the United States was indisputable, Marcos Jr. lives in a world where the American-Chinese rivalry presents geopolitical stakes of another order, and which weigh on the Philippines.
Beijing’s extensive claim to most of the South China Sea angers its smaller neighbors, including the Philippines.
Wide margins, Filipinos say they distrust China and want Filipino interests to be defended. But Marcos says he is inclined to walk away from a historic Hague court ruling favoring the Philippines over China and its claim to much of the South China Sea. This position distinguishes it from its four main rivals, which are much more intransigent vis-à-vis China.
Scalice says the Filipino business community that backs Marcos wants him to lean towards Beijing.
“They fear that if they get too close to Washington’s military maneuvers or Washington’s diplomatic pronouncements, they will alienate China and lose their economic opportunities,” he says.
Scalice calls it an “untenable balancing act”. Whether Marcos is the one to weigh in will depend on his rivals and their ability to rally against the brand he offers.
Analyst Robert Herrara-Lim says the chances of that happening in the May 9 election are “low but not negligible”.
If disgruntled voters start thinking that Marcos “didn’t hold himself accountable,” he says, they might start saying, “You know what? Maybe he’s not the guy for [this] Office.”
Ella Mage contributed to this story from Manila.