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Is the Philippines on the verge of another Marcos presidency?

Mindanao, Philippines  On February 25 1986, Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos Senior slipped out of the presidential residence overlooking Manila’s Pasig River under the cover of darkness. His 21-year bloody rule had just collapsed. Outside, tens of thousands of protesters were ready to storm the iron gates of the centuries-old Malacanan Palace. With the US offering sanctuary, Marcos, his family, and their closest aides quickly made their escape, ending up in Hawaii.

In their rush to leave the country, Marcos’ wife, Imelda, left behind thousands of pairs of shoes from her collection, including Louboutins and Ferragamos, precious jewels, and documents detailing hundreds of millions of dollars in hidden Swiss bank deposits. Still, they managed to pack 24 bars of solid gold into their luggage, at least $4 million worth of precious gems stuffed in Pampers diaper boxes, and crates of tens of millions of peso bills, among other valuables. US Customs promptly seized all upon their arrival in Honolulu aboard two American Air Force transport planes. 

The loot was eventually returned to the Philippine government. But before Marcos could be prosecuted for alleged crimes committed during his two decades in power, he died in exile in 1989. His remains were eventually returned to the Philippines. In 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte, an admirer of his predecessor’s strongman rule, allowed the Marcos family to bury their patriarch at the national cemetery alongside many fallen heroes.

The burial was not the end of the Marcos story, only the prelude. Just 36 years after the “People Power Revolution” and Marcos’ ouster, the latest chapter in their long-running family saga is about to be written.

On May 9, the country of more than 110 million people is set to elect a new president. The frontrunner in the race is the late leader’s only son and namesake, Ferdinand Marcos Junior.

If his numbers hold, Marcos Junior, also referred to by his nickname, “Bongbong,” or his newly-coined campaign initials, BBM, could be the Philippine’s next leader. He is riding on the promise of “unity” and the revival of the “golden years” under his father’s rule. That would be a complete reversal of the fate of his family, who seemed to have been written off after his father’s downfall.

‘No one is above the law’

Excluding the contested 1986 polls, Marcos Junior could also be the first candidate to win an outright majority since his father’s re-election in 1969.

Marcos Junior’s running mate is Duterte’s daughter, Sara, the mayor of Davao City and heir to the Dutertes’ political empire. Her rise lends him political machinery and the appearance as the administration’s pick, although the president himself has refrained from giving an outright endorsement.

But even as Marcos Junior’s biggest supporters project an air of inevitability and predict a landslide victory, his rivals, as well as independent observers and activists, are pushing back hard, saying Filipinos could not afford to have another Marcos presidency.

“A Marcos return is inevitable only if we believe it to be. If we surrender our power and agency. If we accept explanation instead of action,” Sheila Coronel, a veteran Filipino journalist and professor at Columbia Journalism School, said in an online forum recently.

There are an estimated 65.74 million Filipinos eligible to vote. In 2016, voter turnout hit 80 percent and is predicted to be as high this election cycle. There is no run-off in the Philippines, and a presidential candidate only needs a plurality — winning more votes than other rivals — to claim victory.

One unusual feature of the country’s electoral system is that presidents and vice presidents are elected separately, not in tandem. That frequently results in the election of candidates coming from rival parties, much like Duterte and Vice President Leni Robredo, who ended up with clashing personalities and policies. They are also limited to serving one six-year term.

Now, Robredo is running for president, and she is the most formidable candidate that stands in the way of Marcos Junior’s path back to the presidential palace.

Robredo, a human rights lawyer and economist, is behind by double digits in most surveys. Her record of achievements and promise of transparent leadership are weighed down by relentless disinformation on social media. She was in a similar situation in 2016, trailing behind Marcos Junior for most of the campaign for vice president. But when the final votes were tallied, Robredo, a prolific campaigner, stunned the Marcos camp by pulling a come-from-behind victory with a margin of less than 300,000.

In the current campaign trail, Robredo has often drawn larger crowds than Marcos Junior, even though the latter has secured more endorsements from governors and mayors nationwide. That has become one source of anxiety in the Marcos camp. Last April 23, more than 400,000 people showed up to Robredo’s 57th birthday rally in Metro Manila, according to organisers. It was even bigger than Duterte’s final campaign rally before his victory in 2016. 

“I believe the momentum is on my side,” Robredo told TRT World in a brief interview while campaigning on the southern island of Mindanao in recent weeks. The question now is, how fast is her surge to close the gap with the frontrunner?

On Friday, Robredo threw down the gauntlet, challenging frontrunner Marcos Junior to a one-on-one debate, saying “we owe it to the people and to our country.” Throughout the campaign, Marcos had refused to attend any of the debates organised by either the country’s election commission or the top television networks.      

There’s much that Marcos Junior needs to answer, including whether his family would be willing to return the alleged billions of dollars taken from the Filipino public. In 2003, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled that Marco’s wealth, above his $304,000 income as president, is “ill-gotten.”

In his two decades in power, it is estimated that the Marcos family plundered the Philippine coffers of more than $10 billion.

Of that amount, more than $3 billion has already been recovered, including from the sale of New York real estate properties, the most prominent of which is 40 Wall Street, now popularly known as the Trump Tower. When the Marcoses bought the property in 1982, they paid an estimated $70 million, using a shell corporation based in the Dutch Antilles.

New York was one of Imelda’s favourite shopping spree destinations. In the summer of 1978, she spent $1.43 million on jewellery at a Bulgari shop there.

Another $2.5 billion in assets are still under litigation. The rest remains missing or untraceable. It was only in 1998, for instance, that Filipino investigators found out about a $2 million Merrill Lynch account opened in New York in 1972 that had already ballooned to $35 million by 2000. The beneficiary of that account: Marcos Junior.

During the Marcos presidency, the Philippine Central Bank went bankrupt, and the Philippines was referred to as the “Sick Man of Asia.” Between 1972, when Marcos declared martial law, and 1985, the Philippines also incurred more than $23 billion in debt. In 1982, government data showed that one out of three families did not have enough food to meet the daily minimum recommended calories.

In interviews with friendly media outfits following his campaign, Marcos Junior has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing during his father’s rule. He also said that “there’s a lot of fake news involved” in his family’s ill-gotten wealth cases and estate tax debts.

Marcos Junior has been forced to address the issue anew after it was revealed by tax collectors that his family still owes as much as $4 billion in estate tax and interests for all properties they claimed and inherited following the death of Marcos Senior. 

International boxing champion Senator Emmanuel Pacquiao, who is also running for president, said that it would be the country’s loss if they voted for Marcos Junior despite all the serious allegations of corruption hounding his rival.

“No one is above the law,” Pacquiao told TRT World during a press conference in Mindanao, adding that if elected, he would exert his “political will” to enforce the Supreme Court ruling and collect the Marcos debts. He had earlier said that the Marcos family members think they are “above the law” and exempt from court judgments. 

In a forum he hosted online, New York City-based Filipino lawyer, Ruben Carranza, said that as a co-administrator of the family estate, Marcos Junior knows where “the unlawfully acquired wealth [is] hidden,” adding he is “the key” to their recovery.

Carranza, who was one of the main government lawyers who won several cases against the Marcoses, added that Marcos Junior knows that their family’s wealth is “stolen” because of the 2003 Supreme Court decision declaring it as such.

He warned that a Marcos Junior victory would make it more difficult for the government to go after the remaining hidden wealth.

Part of the money recovered by the government from the Marcoses has already been awarded to rights victims and their surviving families. Between 1972 to 1981, there were an estimated 70,000 detained during martial law, 34,000 were tortured, and 3,200 were killed.

Marcos Junior has insisted that he is not sorry for the rights abuses committed during his father’s time, saying, “I can only apologise for what I have done.”

Samira Gutoc, a senate candidate from Mindanao, told TRT World that given Marcos Junior’s refusal to acknowledge the rights violations under his father, there’s a “real danger” of more abuses if the son is elected president.

Writing in his diary in 1972, Marcos Senior admitted to worrying about the future of his son, who at a young age was already being groomed to be his country’s future leader.

Marcos wrote, “Bongbong is our principal worry. He is too carefree and lazy.

“So I wrote him the fatal secret of the Marcos man – they are brilliant but lazy. And they tend to be so careless they buckle down to a dogged, unrelenting resolve to fight off sloth, or a traumatic experience [gives] them a bitterness that congeals into a determined resolve to achieve and be victorious.”

On May 9, the Philippines will finally decide if they want that man.

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