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The Marcos family’s last gasp

With President Duterte in power, the Marcos family is ascendant in Philippine national politics again.

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Updated: October 8, 2018

The remains of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos have been buried at the national heroes’ cemetery; his only son and namesake has a live election protest against the incumbent vice president; his eldest daughter Imee, the governor of his home province of Ilocos Norte, is polling well among likely candidates for the Senate; and his wife Imelda, at 89, is on her third term as representative of the Marcos’ old congressional bailiwick.

But despite the obvious support of a still-popular president and a slick, long-running, well-funded social media operation promoting the Marcos worldview, the Duterte era may turn out to be the Marcos family’s last gasp. These years may be their last opportunity to win back the presidency and everything that goes with it.

It will certainly not be for lack of trying, or the help of friends in high places.

Duterte has been vocal about his gratitude to Imee, one of the few provincial governors to support his presidential campaign from the start. In fact, he wears his debt of gratitude so proudly it has even embarrassed her; in one of those occasional but characteristic moments in his stream-of-consciousness speeches when he makes what lawyers call admissions against self-interest, he said that Imee had donated money to his campaign. (He even told a tale of how Imee had to take out a loan to make the donation.) But in his official accounting of campaign contributions and election expenses (a legal requirement, upon pain of legal sanctions), Duterte did not list Imee Marcos as a donor. (She had to issue a denial.)

Duterte, at 73 the oldest Philippine president to serve in office, has also been vocal about the demands of the presidency and his desire to resign—if, that is, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. were vice president. As it is, Ferdinand Jr’s election protest against Vice President Leni Robredo remains pending, with the Supreme Court sitting as the Presidential Election Tribunal conducting a manual recount of the three “pilot areas” alleged by the Marcos campaign to have suffered election fraud. Every now and then, Duterte has asked, in public, about the status of the election protest. Marcos Jr., who won his first (and only) national election in 2010, when he ran for the Senate, lost the vice-presidential race by only a quarter of a million votes.

His sister Imee is poised to become the third Marcos to enter the Senate, after the two Ferdinands. The latest survey shows that she has a 94-percent national awareness rating, and ranks eighth out of some five dozen prospective candidates. Twelve Senate seats are at stake in the May 13, 2019 elections.

But underneath this veneer of inevitability, the Marcos family must only be too aware of its vulnerabilities.

If the trend holds, the Philippines will have another Senator Marcos in its political directory. But it is still early days. And the family’s track record in national elections since they were allowed to return to the Philippines has been checkered; Imelda lost in the 1992 presidential race, Ferdinand Jr. lost his first attempt at the Senate in 1995, he lost the vice-presidential vote in 2016. Their only win at the national level came in the 2010 Senate race.

Ferdinand Jr.’s election protest is also not the sure win his social media handlers are painting it to be. It isn’t a sure loss, either, but the odds are against him. Two of his three original causes of action have been rejected by the election tribunal. (The first one was an attempt to question the validity of the 2016 elections as a whole, including Duterte’s victory) In the ongoing manual recount, he has just lost his controversial bid to raise the “shading threshold” required to have the voter’s ballot considered valid. He has to prove election fraud in the three provinces he identified for his election protest to proceed; if he fails to prove it, however, that’s the end of the line for him.

Imelda’s third term as congresswoman ends next year; by law, she cannot run for reelection. As her latest appearances on TV also show, her cognitive faculties are no longer what they used to be. Imee and Ferdinand Jr. are only in their early 60s, so it is possible they both have more years in political office ahead of them. But no Marcos from the third generation is emerging as a political personality. Imee’s son MJ is a provincial board member on his first term; Ferdinand Jr.’s son Sandro has a sizeable following on social media. But they do not have the reputation, or the stomach, for Marcos-style politics.

The family’s erstwhile allies have also not stood still, waiting for the next generation to grow up. Perhaps most galling of all for the once all-powerful family, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. would have been vice-president now if the so-called Solid North, the bloc of northern provinces famously loyal to old man Marcos, had held together for his son. Ferdinand Jr. won them overwhelmingly, but Robredo’s number of votes from the Solid North provinces was—wait for it—larger than Ferdinand Jr’s total losing margin.

None of this is to discount the Marcos family’s considerable advantages: great wealth; fame or infamy (no real difference to many); a revisionist campaign in full gear; President Duterte’s goodwill; not least, the ability to lie through the teeth about the Marcos dictatorship. But when Imelda retires, and if Ferdinand Jr. loses, not even a Senate seat for Imee can mask the distinct possibility: The Marcos family does not have a viable successor generation.

John Nery is the Associate Editor and Opinion Columnist of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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