Presidential frontrunner and former senator, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., graces the stage during a campaign rally in San Fernando, Pampanga, April 30, 2022.
Torture survivor has a warning ahead of Philippines' presidential election
04:04 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Six years after losing the race for vice president, the son of Philippines’ dictator Ferdinand Marcos is taking on his old rival Leni Robredo – and this time they’re both aiming for the presidency.

A win for Ferdinand Marcos Jr on May 9 would return the Marcos dynasty to the Malacañang Palace, more than three decades after the family plundered the country’s coffers before fleeing a mass uprising against their corrupt and brutal rule.

That a Marcos could once again take power is almost unthinkable to people still scarred by torture and the death of their relatives, but polls suggest Marcos Jr will win – and by a considerable margin.

Known as “Bongbong” in the Philippines, Marcos Jr is running on a platform of “unity” and has promised more jobs, lower prices, and more investment in agriculture and infrastructure. His running mate for vice president is Sara Duterte Carpio, the daughter of tough-talking outgoing leader Rodrigo Duterte, and their supporters see them as continuing his policies, including his controversial “war on drugs.”

Presidential frontrunner and former senator, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, graces the stage during a campaign rally in San Fernando, Pampanga, on April 30.

Robredo, who is running as an independent supported by an army of citizen campaigners dressed in pink, has promised transparency in government, to improve the education system and ensure free access to doctors.

While a grassroots movement has recently galvanized around her, analysts say Marcos Jr’s push for the presidency is the culmination of a decades-old rebranding campaign to revive the Marcos family’s name and image.

Marcos Jr has tied his campaign to his father’s legacy, with his slogan “rise again” tapping into people’s nostalgia for his father’s time as a so-called golden era for the country. In a recent interview with CNN affiliate CNN Philippines, Marcos Jr praised his father, calling him a “political genius” and his mother – the family matriarch and four-time Congresswoman – a “supreme politician.”

Philippines Vice President Leni Robredo takes part in a grand rally as she campaigns for the Philippine presidency in Dagupan, Pangasinan on April 9.

Supporters of the Marcos family say the period was a time of progress and prosperity, characterized by the building of major infrastructure projects like hospitals, roads and bridges. Critics say that was an illusion and those projects were driven by widespread corruption, foreign loans and ballooning debt.

The Marcos legacy still haunts the survivors of martial law atrocities. They ask how the country could be so quick to forgive the Marcos years and fear what will happen if a Marcos is once again allowed to rule.

CNN has reached out to Marcos Jr and his campaign for comment on the allegations into the family’s “ill-gotten wealth,” court cases and on the martial law-era atrocities but has not received a response.

The Marcos legacy

The only son of the authoritarian leader, Marcos Jr entered politics early, becoming vice governor of northern Ilocos Norte province in 1980 at the age of 23.

At the time, the Philippines had been living under martial law for almost a decade, a period of time when rights groups say tens of thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured or killed for perceived or real criticism of the government.

A memorial wall dedicated to the victims of the late President Marcos' martial rule in the Philippines is seen in Quezon City, Philippines, on April 27.

Hundreds of their names are inscribed in gold lettering on a Wall of Remembrance in the Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Monument of Heroes) in Quezon city, near the capital Manila. As Bonifacio Ilagan walks alongside the monument, he pauses at his younger sister’s name.

Rizalina P. Ilagan was abducted by a special intelligence unit of the military in the mid-1970s, her brother said. “She went missing together with nine other activists. And we never got to see her again.”

Bonifacio Ilagan was 23 when he said he was detained and tortured in prison for protesting against the Marcos regime.

Bonifacio 'Boni' Ilagan, a Filipino director and playright who was detained during the martial law era, poses for a portrait in an office for human rights activists in Quezon City, Philippines on April 27.

“The worst part of the torture was when they ordered me to pull down my trousers and my underwear and tried to insert a stick through my penis,” said Ilagan, now 70, who is co-convenor of the group Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses and Martial Law.

“They never cared about human rights. They impressed upon us they had the power of life and death over us because it was martial law. Because they were backed by no less than President Marcos.”

Marcos Jr was 29 when his family were chased into exile in Hawaii following a People Power Revolution that toppled his father’s regime in 1986. Marcos Sr died in exile three years later, but his family returned in 1991 and became wealthy, influential politicians, with successive family members representing their dynastic stronghold of Ilocos Norte.

The Marcos family lived a lavish lifestyle while in power, spending money on expensive artworks and overseas properties, even as debt spiraled and millions suffered in poverty. Former first lady Imelda Marcos was famously known for her excess spending, which included an extensive designer shoe collection. She fled the country with a stash of jewels, including a rare 25-carat pink diamond and Cartier diamond tiara, which was seized by US customs and later valued at $21 million.

Ferdinand Marcos, with his wife Imelda at his side and Ferdinand Marcos Jr, far right, on the balcony of Malacanang Palace on February 25, 1986 in Manila.

Almost 40 years after their fall, the Philippines government is still trying to claw back billions of dollars in stolen funds.

The Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Governance (PCGG) tasked with recovering the family and their associates’ ill-gotten wealth estimates about $10 billion was stolen from the Filipino people – it has so far recovered about $3 billion and dozens of cases remain active.

The family has repeatedly denied using state funds for their personal use – a claim challenged by multiple court cases.

“When I was young, we were battling against the misgovernance of Ferdinand Marcos Sr,” said Ilagan, now a filmmaker and playwright. “Now I am nearing the departure era, as they say, I find myself fighting against Ferdinand Marcos Jr.”

The rebrand

Supporters of presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr record the presentations during a campaign sortie in San Fernando City, Pampanga, on April 29.

Marcos Jr’s rise to presidential favorite follows a social media campaign to revise history, analysts say.

Fatima Gaw, co-covenor of the Philippine Media Monitoring Laboratory, says YouTube is a “breeding ground” for videos that she says deny, distort or even justify the atrocities under Marcos Sr.

“They’ve been using a lot of influencers or content creators on YouTube, to peddle this fabricated narrative about the Marcos era being the golden age of the Philippines, that there was peace and order during the time,” said Gaw, who is also assistant professor of communication research at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication.

TikTok is also being used to appeal to younger or first-time voters – those too young to remember the martial law period. “It’s an arsenal of tools in denialism, distortionism and cherrypicking,” Gaw said.

A performer holds the Philippines flag during a campaign sortie in an open parking lot in San Fernando City, Pampanga, on April 29.

Marcos Jr has denied using disinformation and told CNN Philippines that his social media presence is organic.

The Marcos rebrand has also been made possible by the failure of the Philippines government and institutions to protect the history in the public’s consciousness, Gaw said.

In 2016, President Duterte announced the reinterment of Marcos Sr in the National Heroes’ Cemetery in Manila, a move approved by the Supreme Court. The surprise decision triggered protests by opponents who had launched a court challenge to have the burial stopped.

Gaw said the disinformation campaign has “primed the public now, in 2022, to feel for Marcos Jr, that he’s actually the victim of a big cover up by the media.”

Other analysts say Marcos Jr simply appeals to Filipinos tired of the political bickering and promises of progress and economic reform from successive administrations that many feel have failed to benefit ordinary people.

Supporters of presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr cheer during a campaign rally in San Fernando City, Pampanga, on April 29.

Personalities and dynasties dominate Philippines politics, with power concentrated in the hands of a few elite, influential families. Marcos Jr may be part of one of the country’s most notorious dynasties, but unlike Robredo, he has managed to reposition himself as separate from the liberal elites that have long ruled the Philippines’ political landscape.

“The return of the Marcos name is expected mainly because after 1986 revolution gave so much expectation to the Philippine people – to the point of substantial changes in the way politics is practiced and governance is provided to the people,” said Philippines-based political analyst Edmund Tayao.

“But after the revolution, there was a return of the same elites in politics. Expected far reaching institutional reforms did not happen.”

The popularity of Marcos Jr

Glenn Blasquez, a maritime school owner and supporter of Ferdinand Marcos Jr and Sara Duterte, attends a campaign rally in San Fernando City, Pampanga, on April 29.

Marcos Jr’s popularity appears to span ages, professions and social demographics.

Speaking from his home in Manila, Glenn Mark Blasquez, 37, said he is voting for Marcos Jr on May 9 because he promises the return of ambitious infrastructure development for the internet, roads, agriculture and shipping.

“We need that momentum,” he said. “We need someone who is also a leader to continue that kind of progress.”

Asked about Marcos Sr’s legacy including rights violations and graft allegations, Blasquez said he thinks Filipinos “should move forward rather than moving backward.”

“I think the only thing Marcos Jr wants is to continue the legacy of his father to be a good leader, to be a unified country,” he said.

Gerald Cruz, a 33-year-old shopkeeper from Rizal province in Luzon, said he’s voting for Marcos Jr because he’s promised to continue President Duterte’s ‘Build, Build, Build’ infrastructure initiative and cut the cost of electricity.

“Our electrical bill has more than doubled. If electricity costs keep increasing, everything will be affected,” he said. “He wants to unite the Philippines. That’s what I like about him.”

Volunteers carrying paraphernalia conduct a house-to-house campaign for Vice President Leni Robredo's presidential bid in Antipolo City, Philippines, on April 27.

Sociologist Jayeel Cornelio said Marcos Jr’s message of unity is appealing to voters.

“You don’t get that from the other candidates, that desire for national greatness. And obviously, it has to do with the economy,” said Cornelio, associate professor and director of development studies at the Ateneo de Manila university.

But not all voters feel that way.

Alyza Natiag, 26, from Antipolo, east of Metro Manila, goes house to house volunteering for the Robredo campaign, distributing pamphlets and speaking to residents.

One of many young supporters, Natiag said Robredo stands for transparency and good governance, and believes she will help the poor, tackle corruption, improve education and restore the trust of the people in government.

Natiag said she’s “very worried” what a Marcos presidency would mean for the country.

“This is not just our fight, but for the Philippines,” she said. “This is the time for the Philippines to really decide – who becomes president will have a heart for all Filipinos and not just themselves.”

Alyza Natiag, a customer service representative, poses for a portrait in her house in Antipolo City, Philippines, on April 27 before conducting a house-to-house campaign for Vice President Leni Robredo.

What would a Marcos presidency mean?

The Marcos regime may have ended in the 1980s, but campaigners say the Marcoses were never held accountable for the scale of their misdeeds and fear Marcos Jr could erode efforts to settle past injustices.

As President, Marcos Jr would be head of the institutions created to investigate allegations against his family’s former regime.

Supporters of presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr listen during a campaign rally in San Fernando City, Pampanga, on April 29.

“What’s going to happen to the Presidential Commission on Good Governance (PCGG)? What’s going to happen to that if the President himself comes from exactly that same family? Institutionally, again, what’s going happen to the Commission on Human Rights?” asked sociologist Cornelio.

Speaking to CNN Philippines, Marcos Jr said if he becomes President he would “strengthen” the PCGG and “lead by example” on graft and corruption. He said he would expand the agency so its target is not just his family, but other individuals.

“Instead of directing themselves against the Marcoses only, if I have a relative who is corrupt, then that person’s name will come out, not only us, everyone,” he said.

Some inroads have been made by prosecutors but matters remain unsettled.

Marcos Jr’s mother, Imelda, now 92, was found guilty of corruption in 2018 for illegally funneling state cash into private Swiss foundations she set up while serving as Manila governor during her husband’s regime. A Supreme Court appeal remains pending and Imelda never went to prison.

And there remains an unsettled estate tax of the Marcos family that is estimated to now be worth $3.9 billion, CNN Philippines reports – Marcos Jr and his mother are court-approved executors of the late dictator’s estate.

Marcos Jr has repeatedly dismissed the unsettled tax issue and has said he is not involved in ongoing cases into his family’s wealth.

Political analyst Tayao said the country’s constitution and systems of checks and balances are robust enough to prevent another Marcos Sr-style dictatorship.

Presidential frontrunner and former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr on stage during a campaign rally in San Fernando, Pampanga, on April 30.

But survivors of martial law still dealing with the trauma of the past say a Marcos Jr presidency will mean the end of justice for victims; the whitewashing of history complete.

“In the final analysis, it’s democracy in the Philippines that the Marcoses trampled upon. It’s the perversion of values, the culture of impunity,” said martial law survivor Ilagan.

“It’s not a battle between two families, it’s a battle – as we say in the literary world – between good and evil.”

CNN’s Rico Cruz contributed.