Marcos comeback bid shuns norms, recasts history
Many thought history has already passed final judgment on the Marcos regime, and yet Ferdinand “Bongbong’’ Marcos Jr. has engineered an epic opportunity to bring his family back to Malacañang. He has consistently topped preelection surveys despite (or maybe because of) a campaign that thumbs its nose at convention, selectively granting interviews, avoiding officially sanctioned debates, bypassing the mainstream press, rewriting the past on social media—and fatefully putting the nation at a crossroads.
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MANILA, Philippines — Whenever he mounts the stage to speak to the crowd, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. always harps on his call for unity and barely spells out his government agenda should he win as president.
“When I first expressed my desire to run for president of the Republic of the Philippines, I said, ‘I am running because my goal, my dream for our country, is to unite the Filipinos,’” he declared at his proclamation rally on Feb. 8.
An estimated 25,000 people dressed in red and green shirts inside Bulacan’s Philippine Arena cheered for Marcos while a modern version of the martial law-era anthem “Bagong Lipunan” played in the background.
“Unity has been my advocacy because I believe that unity is the first step to survive this crisis, this pandemic, and this economic crisis brought about by the pandemic,” he said.
The former senator occasionally mentions plans to fix the agriculture sector, revive the tourism industry, continue the infrastructure projects of the Duterte administration, and create jobs for Filipinos. His press releases later give details of his plans.
He vows to finish the various bridge and road projects in the Bicol region initiated by President Rodrigo Duterte, recalling that it once took him 18 hours to travel from Manila to Legazpi in Albay province because the roads were in bad condition.
He also backs the construction of a Mindanao railway to boost economic development in the region.
To spur tourism, he said he would build an international airport in Cagayan de Oro City in Misamis Oriental.
He said in October last year that he wanted to transform the Philippines into the next logistics hub in Asia.
“Our strategic location in the Pacific is an advantage that no other country has,” he said in October last year. “It’s time for us to leverage this and aspire to become a major logistics hub in the region. To achieve this, we will need to modernize our existing seaports, airports, and railways or build new ones where necessary.”
Marcos, who served as vice governor, governor, and congressman of his home province of Ilocos Norte, said he would also prioritize the development of the country’s digital infrastructure.
Frustrated with the country’s slow internet connection during an interview with local journalists in late April, he said he would push for one that is more robust.
For education, he plans to add more nonteaching staff in public schools to lessen what he called a “work overload” among teachers.
He pointed out in one of his press releases that some public school teachers would act as librarians or even property custodians even if these jobs do not match their expertise.
He had said that he would revisit the country’s K-12 program and assured teachers he would raise their salaries.
He said he was also against imposing new taxes if they would fall on the consumer “for the simple reason the public are already burdened.”
Fate of PCGG
In at least two interviews, Marcos said he would strengthen the anticorruption role of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), which is principally tasked with recovering the ill-gotten wealth of his family. The PCGG has recovered about P172.4 billion in the family’s ill-gotten wealth as of 2020 and has estimated about P125 billion more are still to be recovered from the Marcoses.
As president, unlike his father, Marcos said he will not declare martial law unless there is a state of war.
His father declared martial law a year before he was to step down in 1973, allowing him to rule as a dictator until the 1986 People Power Revolution drove them out of Malacañang.
In defense of his father’s one-man rule, he told CNN Philippines that the imposition of martial law in September 1972 was necessary to counter the threats from secessionist and communist rebels. He has not acknowledged the atrocities of the brutal regime.
Sticking to script
He does not directly attack his rivals in his rallies, making sure he sticks to his unity script.
He does not directly reply to reporters’ questions, either.
“Have you paid your estate tax?” one asked him at a posh hotel in Tagaytay City on March 22.
Marcos laughed, and then walked away. His staff told journalists covering his campaign that day that they could ask him anything except the P203-billion estate tax that his family owes the government.
The 64-year-old son and namesake of the late ousted dictator has a lot on his plate in this high-stakes presidential election that holds a tantalizing chance for the former first family to return to Malacañang 36 years after they were driven into exile, and on the 50th anniversary of the imposition of martial law to boot.
But from the get-go, Marcos has been hounded by four petitions filed by mostly martial law survivors to disqualify him from running and one petition to cancel his certificate of candidacy—in essence questioning his moral standing to hold public office.
All the petitions were based on the same grounds: that he was barred for life from holding public office because he was convicted of violating the National Internal Revenue Code when he neither paid taxes nor filed income tax returns while serving as vice governor and later as governor of Ilocos Norte from 1982 to 1985.
The Commission on Elections (Comelec) threw out all the petitions, removing the roadblocks for his run. In dismissing the last petition on April 20, the poll body’s First Division ruled that the case against him did not fall under tax evasion and that his failure to file income tax returns was not a crime of “moral turpitude.”
Can’t get near him
But the issue of the unpaid estate tax, which his rival Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso constantly raises, and which Antonio Carpio, a retired senior associate justice of the Supreme Court, keeps pressing him to address, refuses to die down.
It’s not surprising that he has not only been evading questions on the issue but actually avoiding the pack of reporters trailing him since the campaign kicked off on Feb. 8.
His bodyguards and media staff make sure that journalists poised for an ambush interview won’t get near him.
At his campaign rally in Sampaloc, Manila, on April 23, reporters were allowed to stay backstage, only to be moved later to the side of a road, with a barricade separating them from the stage and the candidate.
Things got out of hand at a Quezon City rally on April 13, Holy Wednesday, when one bodyguard shoved Rappler reporter Lian Buan against a scaffolding and held her mobile phone down as she tried to record an interview with Marcos.
In a rare instance that reporters managed to get within shouting distance of the media-shy candidate on April 20, BBC Manila correspondent Howard Johnson asked him: “Mr. Marcos, can you really be a good president if you don’t answer serious questions? Can you really be a good president if you’re not doing serious interviews?”
Marcos chuckled, ignoring him and continued to walk away.
Always ‘out in public’
He feigns innocence about his dismissal of efforts by journalists to speak with him.
“I don’t know why they’re saying that I’m hard to get into an ambush interview. I’m always out in public,” Marcos said in an April 26 interview with CNN Philippines.
He said he would be his own spokesperson if elected president. But he continues to duck interviews, forums, and debates organized by news organizations, press groups, and the Comelec. Early on, he declined an interview because of the supposed bias of the journalist against him. In another, he said there was a scheduling conflict.
But he showed up and gamely fielded questions at dzRH’s interview of presidential candidates and at the presidential debate organized by Sonshine Media Network International, the network owned by televangelist Apollo Quiboloy, President Duterte’s spiritual adviser.
Quiboloy, who is wanted by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation for child sex trafficking and other charges, has endorsed Marcos Jr. and his running mate, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte.
Instead of debates, the Marcos camp preferred a panel interview, “to measure the depth of a candidate” away from political “noise.” But when the Comelec canceled its final round of debates and offered a panel interview, they still declined.
His spokesperson, Victor Rodriguez, said Marcos would rather wrap up his campaign with visits to supporters, town hall meetings and rallies.
His strongest rival, Vice President Leni Robredo, who narrowly defeated him in the 2016 vice presidential race, last week challenged him to a one-on-one debate “anytime, anywhere” to allow voters to scrutinize their platforms. She was rebuffed by Rodriguez.
Jean Encinas Franco, a University of the Philippines political science professor, offered an explanation of why Marcos and his campaign were determined to not have the public, the media, and his opponents vet his agenda.
“They are shielding not just Marcos Jr. but also those who believe him from learning the truth: that he has no track record and that he is only hanging on to his father’s supposed ‘legacy,’ and, most importantly, that his family has not been accountable and brought to justice regarding their ill-gotten wealth and rights violations,” Franco told the Inquirer.
She said his camp was aware that a host of issues could be thrown at him, and they wanted “to shield him from responding to these questions, and be seen as uncomfortable.”
To explain his hesitation in meeting the press and his opponents head-on, Marcos says that he would rather talk directly to the people and discuss his plans with them. But when he takes the stage to address the crowd, he just repeats his message of “unity” and nothing much else.
The crowds in different cities and towns nationwide would hear essentially the same lines in as many rallies that his camp has mounted.
Could this type of campaigning work in his favor?
According to analysts, Marcos’ possible victory could be the result of his family’s decadeslong efforts to stage a political comeback, backed by their massive campaign on Facebook, TikTok and Twitter to alter public perception of their checkered past and paint them as likable.
Since returning from exile in Hawaii in November 1991, members of the family have slowly regained political power and influence. Marcos himself was elected governor of Ilocos Norte, congressman and senator. His mother Imelda served as congresswoman, and his elder sister Imee is an incumbent senator.
As he basks in high survey ratings, Marcos has been tagged by Tsek.ph, an academe-based fact-checking group, as the main beneficiary of “positive but misleading messaging” by pro-Marcos trolls on social media.
“Find me one. Show me one. One, just one,” he retorted when recently asked about the supposed network of trolls propping up his social media campaign. “They don’t exist.”