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Marcos Family: Philippines' 'Comeback Clan'

May 14, 2010 – 10:03 AM
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Jonathan Adams

Jonathan Adams Contributor

(May 14) -- There may be no second acts in American lives, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. But that rule certainly doesn't apply in the Philippines.

Monday's election saw the political resurgence of the Marcos family, with the 80-year-old, shoe-loving matriarch Imelda Marcos winning a House seat, her son Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. winning a Senate seat, and her daughter Imee winning a provincial governor's seat, all from their family stronghold of Ilocos Norte, in the north of the archipelago.

Outsiders might find it odd that a family linked to allegations of massive plunder and the Philippines' notorious martial law era could remain a political force.
Imelda Marcos
Romeo Gacad, AFP / Getty Images
Philippine's former first lady Imelda Marcos sings during a victory party at the Marcos mansion Friday following her election to the House of Representatives.

But commentators say it reflects a distinctly Filipino brand of clan-based, patronage politics -- and shows how far the country's democracy still has to go before it grows up.

"I don't want to underestimate the Filipino people, but I think this [election] was a chance to make the right choice, and unfortunately we still failed -- and I'm not just talking about the Marcoses," said Maria Belen Bonoan, senior program officer for the Philippines at the Asia Foundation.

She noted as well the second-place showing of a convicted plunderer, former President Joseph Estrada, in Monday's presidential race. (Estrada is now alleging fraud in the vote, the results of which are not yet official.)

"Sometimes I feel ashamed about the whole thing, but I think it's part of our progression and evolution," Bonoan said. "We democratized a long time ago, but as far as real democracy goes, people are still trying to grasp and learn."

The Marcos family was worth an estimated $35 billion in the 1970s at the peak of their power, Imelda told a British journalist in 2006. Autocrat Ferdinand Marcos -- Imelda's late husband -- announced martial law in 1972, banned free media, dissolved Congress and oversaw a repressive regime that jailed and tortured its political opponents, some of whom disappeared without a trace.

In a 2004 report, Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog, ranked Ferdinand Marcos as the second largest alleged embezzler among world leaders in the past two decades with $5 billion to $10 billion in alleged graft, a spot behind Mobutu Sese Seko, the rapacious "Father of the Nation" of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo).

The Marcos family has been the target of some 9,000 criminal and civil suits, but no one in the family has done jail time. The suits are generally dismissed or overturned on appeal, though a few are still pending.

Imelda denies any corruption by herself or family members, telling Reuters recently that "Marcos was not a thief" and that she hoped to get back some of the $5 billion in alleged ill-gotten family assets already seized by the government.

Ferdinand Marcos' regime crumbled in 1986 after one of his most outspoken critics -- Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, father of the likely new president Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III -- was shot and killed on his return to the Philippines. That assassination remains unsolved to this day. The "People Power" movement led by Ninoy's wife, Corazon Aquino, forced Marcos from office, and he and Imelda fled to the U.S.

Locals in Ilocos Norte don't seem disturbed by the Marcos family's checkered past. They gave Imelda a landslide victory -- about 80 percent of the vote -- on Monday.

The Asia Foundation's Bonoan explains that by noting that many Filipinos still base their votes on clan loyalties. She added that throughout the Philippines, vote-buying is pervasive.
Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos, and his elder sister Imee Marcos
AP
Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos and his elder sister, Imee Marcos, candidates for senator and governor respectively, show their index fingers stained with ink as proof that they voted. Like their mother, the Marcos children handily won their seats.

Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Manila-based Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said that locals remain loyal to the family due to a long history of patronage.

"During Marcos' time, the whole province was pampered with so many infrastructure projects," he said. "So they managed to retain that support, even during People Power."

He said the Marcos family possessed in spades that most important of political assets: name recognition. And younger voters "have no experience of the martial law period," he said. The junior Ferdinand, "Bongbong," has charisma, to boot. "He's young, handsome and articulate," Casiple said. "If you don't know about the background of the Marcos family, you would be really attracted to him as a politician."

The comeback of the Marcos family and Aquino's likely ascent to the presidency sets the stage for a high-profile family feud over the legacy of Ferdinand Sr.'s rule.

Media reports have raised talk of a settlement with the Marcos family over a long-running effort to recover all of the family's allegedly ill-gotten gains.

Aquino has also said he will create a "truth commission" to probe his father's assassination, including possible links to Marcos, as well as other martial law-era crimes. But analysts say the probe is unlikely to get far, as many of the key figures are dead and the ones still living aren't talking.

The Marcos family has long campaigned for a military burial with full honors for Ferdinand, whose body now lies on display in a glass case in the family's mausoleum. Two presidential candidates were open to the idea. But not Noynoy Aquino. "We have so many problems from his time until now, why should we honor him? " he told reporters.

Bonoan raised a more practical concern, quipping: "What are they going to bury? It's not a real body anymore, it's wax. Everybody knows that, it's not a secret."
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