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A dictator's son runs for Philippines president in a bid to revive his family's power

Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, speaks during a rally as he campaigns for the presidency in February in Manila.
Ezra Acayan
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Getty Images
Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, speaks during a rally as he campaigns for the presidency in February in Manila.

History could come full circle in the Philippines next month.

Decades after dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in a popular uprising that laid bare the brutality and sweeping corruption of his regime, his son is poised to revive the family's political fortunes in next month's presidential elections.

In the race to replace outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, the latest polling shows that the 64-year-old Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. is maintaining a significant, if slightly receding, lead. While Duterte, 77, cannot by law seek reelection, his daughter is running for vice president alongside Marcos.

But the prospect of a Marcos restoration inflames passions. Supporters see vindication, and opponents see an assault on the country's fragile democracy.

The elder Marcos was "capable, brilliant, cunning, utterly rapacious," says historian Joseph Scalice. However, "what lingers in popular memory is corruption and theft," he says. "But in the end, the Marcos administration — its military rule — was brutal."

Marcos assumed office in 1965, imposed martial law in 1972 and didn't formally lift it until nearly a decade later, in 1981.

Scalice says the Marcos era saw the warrantless arrests of 70,000 people, the deaths of nearly 4,000, the stifling of free speech and the persecution of political rivals.

Martial law provided cover for rights abuses and kleptocracy

After nearly 21 years in power, Marcos' rule collapsed with stunning speed in 1986, as popular discontent boiled over. Army generals revolted and millions of Filipinos marched in the streets. The embattled president's longtime ally, the U.S., called on him to step down.

Pressured from all sides, Marcos surrendered the presidency and fled to Hawaii with his wife Imelda and their family.

Corazon "Cory" Aquino, the widow of assassinated Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino and leader of the peaceful People Power Revolution, became president.

Ferdinand Marcos, with his wife Imelda at his side and Ferdinand Marcos Jr., far right, gestures from the balcony of Malacanang Palace on Feb. 25, 1986, in Manila, after taking the oath of office as president of the Philippines. The family fled to the U.S. shortly thereafter.
Alberto Marquez / AP
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AP
Ferdinand Marcos, with his wife Imelda at his side and Ferdinand Marcos Jr., far right, gestures from the balcony of Malacanang Palace on Feb. 25, 1986, in Manila, after taking the oath of office as president of the Philippines. The family fled to the U.S. shortly thereafter.

Former first lady Imelda Marcos, famous for her lavish shoe collection, recalled stuffing "diamonds into diapers" in the rush to escape aboard a U.S. Air Force plane.

During what was described as their conjugal dictatorship, the first couple is alleged to have stolen between $5 billion and $10 billion. The Philippine government has recovered some $3.4 billion from the couple's ill-gotten wealth, and is still collecting.

Imelda Marcos arrives at the Commission on Elections to lend support for her daughter Imee Marcos in filing her candidacy for a Senate seat in 2018 in Manila.
Bullit Marquez / AP
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AP
Imelda Marcos arrives at the Commission on Elections to lend support for her daughter Imee Marcos in filing her candidacy for a Senate seat in 2018 in Manila.

Marcos, tainted as a kleptocrat, died in Hawaii in 1989. But his widow returned to the Philippines in 1991, an undiminished force in the family's political machinery. She was elected to the Philippines House of Representatives four times, and unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 1992, yearning all the while for her family's return to power.

"I miss the clout of being first lady ... I miss the clout wherein you can do so much," she said in an interview for the 2019 documentary The Kingmaker, confessing that she always wanted her only son to follow his father's footsteps and become president.

Now, at 92, she may get her wish.

The son hopes to rewrite the Marcos legacy

Since returning from exile, the younger Marcos has occupied elected office as governor in the family stronghold of Ilocos Norte province. He's served as a member of congress and senator, compiling what critics say is a legislative record of no particular distinction. In 2016, he lost a close contest for vice president.

He is campaigning for president as a "unifying" candidate, even as critics argue his family has neither apologized for — nor properly accounted for — its past behavior.

In a bid to rewrite the past, Marcos narrates polished videos that portray his parents as philanthropists and his father as a great innovator, sidestepping any mention of human rights abuses or theft of the national treasury.

Imelda Marcos endorses her son Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., second from right, as a vice presidential candidate in 2015.
Bullit Marquez / AP
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AP
Imelda Marcos endorses her son Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., second from right, as a vice presidential candidate in 2015.

Scalice says that revisionist effort, aided by falsehoods and misinformation, can flourish because textbooks in Philippine high schools have never taught the crimes of the martial law era.

"It's always been sort of passed over as 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 myth-making glorifies a period of tyranny and corruption in which Marcos the son was as invested as his parents, Scalice says. 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 Philippine life."

A supporter holds pictures of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda Marcos, as Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. and Davao city Mayor Sara Duterte, daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte, take part in a rally to campaign for the presidency and the vice presidency in February, in Manila.
Ezra Acayan / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A supporter holds pictures of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda Marcos, as Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. and Davao city Mayor Sara Duterte, daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte, take part in a rally to campaign for the presidency and the vice presidency in February, in Manila.

Social media and online influencers help burnish the family image

The Marcoses appear to be benefiting from "an extensive network" of anonymously managed social media accounts and online influencers, says Gemma Mendoza, who oversees coverage of disinformation for the Philippine news platform Rappler. Maria Ressa, Rappler's CEO won last year's Nobel Peace Prize. The network of influencers is seeking to advance the "family's makeover" and "to alter public perception," Mendoza says.

Their conspiracy-laced content, followed by millions, vilifies Marcos rivals and the mainstream media, she says, trolling and intimidating journalists assigned to cover the campaign.

"That's very worrisome for democracy, for press freedom, because the press is bearing the brunt of this," Mendoza says.

None of the dozen online influencers NPR reached out to agreed to be interviewed.

Historian Manuel Quezon says the Philippines is part of a global trend whereby extreme views find favor with voters, while fueling anti-democratic impulses. He says the Marcoses do not publicly support such narratives, but he says the phenomenon has been a boon to the family's political fortunes.

"Think Q-Anon, but Philippine style," he says.

Tax issues dog Marcos

Meanwhile, the Philippines Bureau of Internal Revenue recently confirmed it had presented Marcos Jr. with a tax notice last December in connection with his father's estate.

Former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who supports current Vice President Leni Robredo's candidacy for president, says the newest demand letter is only the latest of several sent over the past two decades that Marcos has shown a "willful refusal" to pay. Twenty-five years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that 23 billion pesos ($442 million) was due. Carpio says with interest and penalties, the tax obligation has likely ballooned and the Marcos heirs should be criminally charged for lack of payment.

Women activists hold a makeshift prison cell with colleagues wearing masks depicting President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. (right), son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and currently presidential aspirant for the May 9 elections, during a march to Malacanang Palace to celebrate International Women's Day in Manila last month.
Ted Aljibe / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Women activists hold a makeshift prison cell with colleagues wearing masks depicting President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. (right), son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and currently presidential aspirant for the May 9 elections, during a march to Malacanang Palace to celebrate International Women's Day in Manila last month.

In a statement last week, Marcos spokesman Victor Rodriguez blasted Carpio for "lies, hatred, and black propaganda," saying that properties of the estate had been forfeited "in favor of the government in satisfaction of the estate tax due."

Former BIR Chairman Kim Henares, who served from 2010 to 2016, tells NPR that during her tenure, she chose not to pursue criminal charges because she determined that the Marcos family would deploy a battery of lawyers, and the case would absorb all the resources of her office.

The Marcos campaign did not respond to NPR's request for comment on this or any other issue.

Marcos leads a counterrevolution

Manila-based political analyst Richard Heydarian says Marcos has effectively tapped into discontent over the governments that followed his father's rule. Successive administrations did not, as promised, narrow the gap between the rich and poor or stamp out corruption, he says.

While average income has risen over the years, the Philippine Statistics Authority says nearly 24% of Filipinos, or 26 million people, lived below the poverty threshold in 2021, a result exacerbated by the pandemic.

Five years ago, 86% of Filipinos were found to have less than $10,000 in wealth.

Heydarian says many Filipinos are disillusioned and nostalgic, and a considerable number over age 50 are "trying to convince their children and their grandchildren that – 'Hey, if we go back to the Marcos era, those were the golden days, those were the days of strength, and innocence and statesmanship.'"

Marcos has promised to improve health care, expand educational opportunities and combat climate change.

But tucking into dinner at a Manila fish market, Jeffrey Zorilla, 39, a freelance actor, says it's the warm memories his parents have of the senior Marcos that appeal 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, his parents told him it instilled "discipline."

U.S.-China tensions loom over the election

While his father's loyalties to the United States were unquestioned, Marcos Jr. lives in a world where the U.S.-China rivalry presents geopolitical stakes of a different order, and they loom over the Philippines.

Beijing's expansive claim to most of the South China Sea unnerves its smaller neighbors — including the Philippines.

By wide margins, Filipinos say they distrust China and want Philippine interests defended. But Marcos says he is inclined to walk away from a landmark Hague tribunal ruling favoring the Philippines over China and its claim to much of the South China Sea. This position sets him apart from his four main rivals, who are far more hard-line on China.

Scalice says the Philippine business community backing Marcos wants him leaning toward Beijing.

"They are concerned that if they are too close to the military maneuvers of Washington or diplomatic statements of Washington, that they will alienate China and they will lose their economic opportunities," he says.

Scalice calls it an "untenable balancing act." Whether Marcos will be the one who must weigh it up will depend on his rivals and whether they can mobilize against the brand he's offering.

Analyst Robert Herrara-Lim says the chances of that happening in the May 9 election are "small but not insignificant."

If disgruntled voters begin to think Marcos "has not held himself accountable," he says, they might start saying, "You know what? Maybe he isn't the guy for [this] office."

Ella Mage contributed to this story from Manila.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.