Queen of Corruption Imelda Marcos Expected to Return to the Presidential Palace
Everything old is new again in the Philippines where family names, wealth, and a virulent internet dominate a tumultuous race for the next president.
The image of Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled as a profligate dictator for two decades, shines brighter than ever nearly 36 years after he and his free-spending wife, Imelda, were tossed out in the bloodless “People Power Revolution” and flown with family and cronies—and $77 million worth of cash, gold, jewelry, and three diamond-encrusted tiaras—on a U.S. Air Force plane to Hawaii.
Now their son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., is running for president and has a good chance of victory in May in tandem with the vice-presidential candidate, Inday Sara Duterte, daughter of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte—the “Trump of the East.” Never mind that her old man is charged in the International Criminal Court in the Hague with killing thousands of Filipinos—some of them, possibly, personally—in his vicious anti-drug crusade.
Either uncaring or unaware of the corruption that engulfed the old Marcos regime, voters are rallying around Ferdinand Jr. convinced that his dad was their greatest national leader. His field of rivals—who are falling behind in the polls—includes the recently retired world renowned boxer Manny Pacquiao. Acclaimed as the only fighter to win championships in four divisions, flyweight, featherweight, lightweight and welterweight, he’s having trouble fighting his way into contention despite efforts to take on the mantle of Duterte.
“In my administration, God willing, the war on drugs will continue but in the right way,” Pacquiao told The Philippine Inquirer. Elected to the Philippine Senate, Pacquiao tried and failed to get Duterte’s backing for president. His mistake may have been to criticize the Duterte regime for corruption. Nor would Duterte have appreciated his pledge that “no human rights will be abused.”
The late Ferdinand Marcos’ widow Imelda, now 92, is throwing her name and assets behind the campaign for Bongbong, 64. Marcos fans are sure his victory would clear the family of the last vestiges of the disgrace of his father’s disastrous fall from grace. Polls show Bongbong consistently ahead in a field in which Pacquiao is a disappointing third or fourth behind Manila Mayor Francisco Domagoso, a former TV and film star widely known by his stage name, Isko Moreno.
Ferdinand Marcos died in Hawaii three and a half years after his overthrow in 1986. Ever since, Imelda has been fighting off claims that she and her husband had salted away about $10 billion in Swiss accounts and much more elsewhere.
Bongbong, scion of the Marcos family, has served a term in the Senate and as governor of Ilocos Norte, his father’s birthplace and provincial stronghold far north of Manila. Sister Imee, a senator, has also been governor of Ilocos Norte, and Marcos—as president—appointed Imelda as the first governor of Metro Manila, which he formed in 1975 as the National Capital Region, a cluster of 16 cities with old Manila at the core.
“About 10 percent of the population hates the Marcos family,” said Patrick Tumale, who follows the ups and downs of local politics from Duterte’s base of Davao, the rough-and-tumble port city on the large southern island of Mindanao. Many of those opponents claim they were victims during Martial Law, which Marcos imposed in 1972.
“Lots of posts from social media have been showing how cruel and corrupt Ferdinand Marcos was during his administration,” Tumale told The Daily Beast. “The reason for that is to spread hate for the Marcos family so no Marcos can be president again.”
In the battle for hearts, minds and votes, however, Bongbong’s people have fought back with a tidal wave of claims of Marcos’s “achievements,” said Tumale. “Facebook and other social media sites have been flooded by posts about how good the country was when Ferdinand Marcos was the president. Support from the younger generation has started growing as well.”
The rehabilitation began with Imelda’s return from exile 30 years ago. Two years later Marcos’ frozen remains were shipped to Ilocos Norte and finally buried five years ago with Duterte’s blessing and full military honors in Manila’s Heroes’ Cemetery. Memories have faded of the 3,000 pairs of shoes, 2,000 gowns and hundreds of bras and girdles discovered in Malacañang Palace, the seat of presidential power in Manila, after helicopters flew the Marcos family, diamonds, and gold stuffed into diapers, to Clark Air Base for the flight to Hickam Air Base in Hawaii.
But how could people forget those days so quickly and easily? “As a very young society, most Filipinos alive today have no memory of the misery that came with the collapse of the economy in Marcos’s last years,” said Alfred McCoy, author of eye-opening books on Philippine issues. “Troubled societies often romanticize their dictators past, getting sentimental about the good old days.”
It’s “such sentimentalism,” McCoy, professor at the University of Wisconsin, told The Daily Beast, that “puts the wind in the sails of Bongbong’s would-be ship of state.”
This being the Philippines, the heart of the anti-Marcos movement is another powerful family.
The train of events that led to Marcos’ final downfall came after Benigno Aquino Jr. was gunned down in 1983 as he arrived in Manila after years of self-exile in the U.S. In the aftermath of the Marcos’ mad flight to Hawaii, Cory Aquino rose to the presidency thanks to the emotional surge for retribution against Marcos.
Their son, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, riding the wave after his mother died in 2009, was elected president in 2010 for the term before Duterte’s election. The Aquino family would love it if Isko Moreno, who mourned Noynoy’s death of renal failure last June at 61, could upset Bongbong at the polls.
Almost forgotten, the Presidential Commission on Good Government, set up by Cory Aquino soon after she took office, still makes a show of going after the missing Marcos billions. In a report issued in 2020, the commission claimed to have recovered about $3.4 billion of ill-got wealth from the Marcos family and their cronies while another $1.3 billion remains “under litigation.” In the morass of court cases, they’re all richer than ever considering all the profits they’ve made from investing the stolen cash. And they’d be pretty sure of favorable court decisions under another Marcos presidency.
Now, to the consternation of the regime’s foes and critics, many voters are more impressed by the brutal war on drugs that has made Duterte so popular on his native turf than by the corruption that goes on everywhere, on all levels.
The Philippine constitution, imposed during the presidency of Cory Aquino as an antidote to Marcos-style dictatorship, keeps the 76-year-old Duterte from seeking a second six-year term, but he’s running for the Senate and going after his critics. A prime target: journalist Maria Ressa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10.
A graduate of Princeton and a veteran correspondent for CNN before founding the gadfly website Rappler ten years ago, Ressa has emerged as a crusader in a society where dozens of journalists have been assassinated in recent years. The Philippine government has filed 10 arrest warrants against her, she said in her Nobel speech in Oslo, enough to “send me to jail for about 100 years.” For the past five years, said Ressa, she’s been battling for “an end to impunity on two fronts: Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war and Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook.”
Ressa, as outraged by the gaming of social media as she is by Duterte, accused Chinese operatives of “creating fake accounts” on Facebook for Duterte’s daughter and “polishing the image” of the Marcos family. She said, Bongbong “is the frontrunner for president” with his own “extensive disinformation network on social media,” as exposed by Rappler in 2019.
In a system in which voters cast ballots separately for president and vice president, Bongbong and Sara belong to different parties. “Bongbong has officially ‘adopted’ Sara as his VP,” Carlos Conde, senior researcher in the Philippines for Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Beast. “They’re party mates for all practical purposes. I think they resorted to this instead of running in one party in order to make the alliance less brazen, less in your face, and to allow Sara an out in case the alliance turns sour.”
“Bongbong has capitalized on his family’s years and years of revising history and deodorizing the Marcos name, “ Conde explained. He’s “now aided in no small measure by social media like Facebook. The disinformation is staggering.”
A Bongbong-Sara government, Conde predicts, would be “a continuation of Duterte’s policies such as the drug war.” Also, he noted, the elder Duterte and his allies are “deathly afraid of the ICC, regardless of how much they try to dismiss its investigation” and would be “assured of protection” they’re “angling for.”
Venerated worldwide for her noble words, Ressa, who holds dual U.S. and Philippine citizenship, may appear as a Joan of Arc outside her own country for speaking truth to power, but she’s not making a dent in a system built on cronyism and corruption.
“She is a good speaker but not credible,” said Claro Francisco, a radio reporter on the island province of Leyte, which is the home of numerous relatives of Imelda Marcos. Imelda has been glorified in the popular imagination as a glamorous, dynamic figure rather than blamed for the corruption in which she was immersed. After her return from Hawaii, she was elected four times to the Philippine congress from Leyte while living in Ilocos Norte.
“Bongbong as presidential aspirant and Sara as vice presidential aspirant became popular [on social media],” Francisco told The Daily Beast. They “get ratings as the people’s choice, really the champions.” As for Ressa, “Will people agree with all she said? I think NO.”
Clearly, however, she’s struck a raw nerve.
The invective against Ressa and Rappler, as Conde observed, is “well-organized,” “relentless and brutal.” It began after she took to inveighing against “the weaponization of the internet,” he said, and “got worse when her outfit started publishing ground-breaking reporting on the drug war.”
Calling her “the most vilified person in the Philippines bar none,” Conde said it was not a matter of “genuine dislike for something she does or represents.” Rather, he said, “It’s all the result of years and years of vilification that Duterte and his ilk feed. This criticism of her, as a serious indication of how bad she is as a person, is all manufactured.”
The response to her appearance as “hero of the year” on the cover of the December Esquire confirms that impression. “Hero of the gutter press,” said one writer on Facebook. “Icon of lies,” said another. “Hero of fake news.” In all caps, a third writer wrote, “HERO OF ALL LIER’S ! THE QUEEN OF FAKE NEWS IN THE PHILIPPINES!!”
In the crazy world of Philippine politics, the anti-Ressa campaign plays into the groundswell of support for Bongbong Marcos and Sara Duterte.
In swarming Davao, the country’s largest city after Metro Manila, it’s a matter of like father, like daughter. Duterte was mayor for 22 years before winning the presidency in 2016, and his daughter, previously his vice mayor, is still the mayor while running for vice president.
Victory for Bongbong and Sara would bring together two dynasties, the Duterte clan in Davao and the Marcoses from Ilocos Norte.
“Bongbong Marcos and Sara Duterte will be the next leaders of the country because of the support they are getting from different religious groups, private and public organizations, and ethnic groups throughout the Philippines,” said Patrick Tumale in Davao. “Bongbong has gained his popularity from his father.”
As with Ressa, the global perception of the drug war and the way it is seen inside the Philippines is very different. The anti-drug crusade waged at Duterte’s behest began in his days as mayor of Davao. It was then upgraded to the national level when he became president. The campaign, Duterte has maintained, was “lawfully directed against drug lords and pushers.”
But that’s hardly the real story. In his inauguration speech in June 2016, he actually condoned the slaughter of suspects without the benefit of trials, telling his nationwide audience, “If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself.’’
Duterte, claiming to be pursuing a handful of policemen accused of extrajudicial killings, has refused to cooperate with the International Criminal Court, which is investigating the legality of the drug war, and asked the court to defer the case against him. The court, assessing “the scope and effect of the deferral request,” agreed to suspend its investigation temporarily.
And yet, “Kill, kill, kill” was a virtual slogan for the anti-drug campaign in which the Philippine Drug Enforcement agency acknowledges 6,191 were killed in “legitimate” pursuit of criminals. Duterte’s foes estimate the death toll was closer to 30,000.
For all the criticism of Duterte’s war on drugs, it hasn’t made him less popular. In fact, in a society in which drug abuse has been a major problem, he’s often praised for being tough. Candidates for high office invariably promise to keep up the war on drugs if not exactly the familiar watchwords, “Kill, kill.”
This is ultimately a tale of two women seen very differently in the Philippines compared to the rest of the world.
On Ressa, “I don’t think she’s that influential here,” said Tumale. And as for Imelda, she continues to reach Filipino voters with her bombastic maternal appeal. “I want to mother not only the Philippines but the world,” she boasts. “Perception is real. Nobody can stop me.”