MANILA - On an recent uncomfortably hot Sunday morning, Philippine Senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. pressed his way through a crowd at a small park along Manila Bay, shaking hands and saying thank you.
It was Labor Day and Marcos, and the 57-year-old popular vice-presidential candidate who goes by the nickname “Bongbong,” gave a short speech for a few hundred public sector workers.
“We’re not just all talk,” he said in halting Tagalog. “It’s not just slogans. It’s not just destroying and fighting with our opponents, but trying to find real solutions to the problems that our citizens face, the problems that our workers face.”
Under the shade of a tree, Dennis Pareja, a central Philippines cargo ship employee, said the Oxford-educated Marcos would be good for the country’s millions of overseas contractual workers. He also said the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. who declared martial law in 1972 and whose administration was alleged to have carried out human rights abuses to quell thousands of activists and opponents, was a good person.
“[Martial law] was only under his father. This is not a ‘like father, like son’ situation. He’s different from his father. Bongbong has learned the lessons and will not repeat that,” said Pareja.
Pareja was seven years old when millions of Filipinos marched on a major thoroughfare fronting the country’s military and police headquarters in Metro Manila and demanded Marcos Sr.’s ouster.
They said the elder Marcos had stolen a hastily called February election in which Corazon Aquino, widow of Benigno Aquino Jr., the slain and widely respected opponent of Marcos, had a significant majority of votes. After several days of protests, the dictator took sanctuary in Hawaii, where he died three years later.
Allegations of the plunder of billions of dollars that sunk the country into massive debt and widespread corruption would follow the family, which kept its loyal base in the northern province of Ilocos Norte through the exile years and beyond.
Looking to the future
At the workers’ rally, Marcos told reporters, “You cannot change the past. The past is the past, so we are looking to the future. That’s what’s getting us the support.”
Budding political careers of two Marcos children were interrupted by the exile. By the late 1990s, the family returned to national politics with Marcos and his sister Imee Marcos-Manotoc taking turns at a congressional seat that their 86-year old mother Imelda now holds and will run for one last time.
Marcos, Jr., now a senator, could possibly clinch the second highest office of the country on May 9. He has been at the top, if not tied for the lead in national opinion surveys, with his strongest base among those who lived through the martial law years.
Roly Alvarez was 17 when martial law took effect in 1972. She said life was “beautiful” then and she longed for the days when she said there was little criminality. “[Bongbong] has got a good purpose [for running],” said Alvarez of Marikina City in Metro Manila. “Like he has the same intention that his father did [keeping crime under control]. It probably wasn’t Bongbong’s fault whatever it was they said about his father.”
Sorry, but no apology
Marcos has repeatedly said he would not apologize for “something I did not do,” when asked whether his family should say it is sorry for the abuses committed during his father’s rule.
One of his most vocal critics, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, has pressed for an apology.
In the mid-1990s a Hawaii court found Marcos’ estate liable for torture, summary executions and disappearances and ruled that $2 billion be paid out to victims. But only a fraction had been distributed before the question arose of whether the United States had jurisdiction over claims that took place in the Philippines. Investigators said the family was worth $10 billion.
Twenty-four-year-old Josh Lim of Manila said people needed to “do research” to know that the country’s wealth plunged in the early 1980s because of the global oil crisis combined with a stock market crash.
“Many people said that we are number two to Japan during Marcos time. And well, it is sad that our history, the Philippine history, was distorted by the yellow people, yellow propaganda, if you’re aware of that,” he said.
Lim was referring to the Aquino family whose late matriarch, former president and mother of the current president Corazon Aquino, made the yellow ribbon and yellow-colored clothing a symbol of the restoration of democracy to the Philippines in 1986.
Bonifacio Ilagan, spokesman for the Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses to Malacañang (the presidential palace), said with just days to go before the election his organization, comprised of groups of former martial law detainees and torture victims, would campaign hard against Marcos.
He said apart from seeking justice for 75,000 victims seeking reparations, the campaign also wants “justice for our country that has been plundered, whose history has been distorted by the Marcoses.” “I don’t think our country deserves a leader who lies, who keeps stolen money and who cannot recognize right from wrong,” said Ilagan.
On the campaign stump, Marcos has stuck to a positive message.
“Beyond campaigning for myself, I am campaigning to advance unity, for all of us to live as one. This is the only way I see that our people can once again feel their lives are renewed and progressing,” said Marcos.
One political analyst said while Marcos has consistently polled ahead of his six main vice presidential rivals with about 25-28 percent of support, his ratings have “remained flat” for the past four months.
Leni Robredo, a Camarines Sur congresswoman and candidate of the Liberal Party, which is an Aquino stronghold, has inched her way up, edging him by one or two percentage points in recent weeks.