LAOAG CITY, Philippines - As the local campaign got into full swing in Ilocos Norte last Friday, there was no turning back for the Marcoses.
The rift among its family members broke wide open as last minute attempts to make Ilocos Norte Governor Michael Marcos-Keon withdraw his re-election bid failed.
Keon is pitted against his first cousin Imee Marcos, who admitted even she was surprised at entering the race. “Ako na yata ang naunang nagulat, (even I was surprised),” Imee says.
At the root of the rift is Senator Manuel Villar’s presidential bid.
Some scenes from the campaign sortie of Sen. Benigno Aquino III and Mar Roxas in Ilocos Norte and Imee Marcos who is running for governor
The Marcoses promised to deliver Ilocos Norte in exchange for Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr.’s slot in the Nacionalista Party (NP) senatorial slate.
But Keon is running under the banner of Lakas-Kampi and is supporting the candidacy of Gilbert Teodoro for president.
Imee and her mother, former First Lady Imelda, who is running for representative of Ilocos Norte’s second district, the seat vacated by her son, Ferdinand Jr. or ”Bongbong,” are with Villar’s Nacionalista Party.
Also Friday, Imelda claimed trucks of Keon’s camp barricaded her motorcade, prompting her to remark: “ I thought blood is thicker than water, but in the Philippines, politics is thicker than blood!”
Imee says it was Keon that her brother Bongbong approached first about his senatorial bid.
“Pagkatapos noon, may kasunduan...humarap pa siya kay Cynthia Villar at magiging loyal kay apo Villar (Senator Manuel Villar) Kabaligtaran ang nangyari, nabigla kami," she says.
(We had an agreement, he faced Cynthia Villar and said he would be loyal to Apo Villar. The reverse happened, we were shocked.)
A political ally, former Ilocos Norte governor Rudy Fariñas, who has now mended fences with the Marcoses after a bitter feud, puts it more bluntly.
"Napahiya ang Marcos family. Napilitan lumaban si Imee para may magdala kay Bongbong. Kung ija-junk ng Ilocos si Villar, junk din nila si Bongbong. Pero may interes si Keon sa Lakas-Kampi at the expense of the Marcoses. Sa mga Ilokano, mali naman siya. Kung si Bongbong kay Villar, di siya sama. Sabi nga ni Imelda, Bongbong is a prince without a kingdom. Si Bongbong, walang isang mayor na Nacionalista. All out Gibo si Keon," he says.
(The Marcos family was put in a spot and Imee had to run to carry Bongbong’s candidacy. If Ilocos will junk Villar, Villar will junk Bongbong. Keon had interests in Lakas-Kampi at the expense of the Marcoses. Ilocanos will see this as a wrong, if Bongbong goes with Villar, so should Keon. Imelda even said, Bongbong is a prince without a kingdom. Bongbong doesn’t have a single mayor in Nacionalista. Keon is all out for Gibo.)
Imee says she hobbled a coalition together at the last hour before the deadline for the filing of certificates of candidacy in December last year.
“Tinawagan ko na lang kung sino-sino na kilala kong masisipag. (I called anyone whom I thought was hardworking),” she says. These include Fariñas, who lost to Keon for the gubernatorial post in 2007 after the Marcoses went door-to-door for the political neophyte.
Fariñas said he wanted to retire from politics but met the Marcoses halfway with their offer for a comeback.
“Hindi nawala ang dangal ko. Nanaig din iyong pagkakaibigan namin, parang kantyawan lovers ulit, on na naman tayo. Matagal kaming magkasama ni Bongbong," he says.
(I did not lose my dignity. Our friendship took precedence, we're teasing each other that we’re lovers again. Bongbong and I were together for a long time.)
But Keon says it was all a misunderstanding and a result of Marcos loyalists driving a wedge between him and his cousins.
“Basically, the issue was they were misunderstanding certain aspects of my political alliance. It’s a pity, I have been very loyal to my relatives and I have served them to the best of my ability. I don’t relish the fact that I have to fight with my cousins. But be that as it may, the situation warrants that I take a position and I will not withdraw," Keon says.
Keon laughs off charges that he was disloyal and ungrateful. “It’s quite ungrateful of her to be pursuing my position and they’re the ones who put me here and I have done nothing to break their faith and belief in me,” he adds.
Keon has the backing of three political parties, the administration’s Lakas-Kampi, former President Estrada’s Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP) and even Senator Benigno Aquino III’s Liberal Party.
A week before the opening salvo of the local campaign, Aquino and running mate Senator Manuel Roxas II paid Keon a call in the provincial capitol. The capital Laoag was plastered with Keon, Aquino and Roxas posters.
Fariñas says it was amusing to have the son of the Marcos’ arch nemesis Aquino supported by Keon, politically.
“Natawa nga ako. Keon is trying to impress upon them that he will support them. Siguro sa Marcoses, they can see now that he is finally showing his true colors by entertaining two presidential candidates,” Fariñas says.
The Keon camp boasts of 17 mayors with only 6 going for Imee Marcos.
“I’ve worked very hard for the last 3 years strengthening my ties with all the mayors I’ve practiced an open-door policy. I’m easily accessible. I’m happy that majority of the mayors stood by me despite the fact that my kalaban has attempted to woo them away from me," Keon says.
Even the mayor of Sarrat, the birthplace of Former President Marcos, is for Keon, but Mayor Edilberto Balintona says having to choose is agonizing not just for him but for the people was well.
“I could see the confusion, we are for the Marcoses, we will always be. Marcos-Keon is also a Marcos. We are torn between our love of the Marcoses and gratitude for the good performance of Keon," Balintona says.
On the other hand, Bobby Clemente, the mayor of Paoay, where the Malacañang of the North is located, is for the former president’s daughter, the “original Marcos” as he puts it.
“Si Michael nandiyan because of the Marcoses .Yung original na Marcos ang tumulong dito sa Paoay,” Clemente says.
Businessman Ricardo Tolentino, who is provincial coordinator of Friends of Noynoy and Mar, believes the beneficiary of the Marcos feud is Senator Aquino. ” Sa nakita namang nangyayari na hidwaan nila, pabor sa kampo ni Senador Noynoy, walang mayorya na malaki,” he says.
With the Marcoses for Villar and Keon supporting Teodoro, the pro-Aquino supporters from the business community say the LP standard-bearer may place a strong second to either candidate in the May polls. Senator Aquino said he placed ninth in the Ilocos region in the 2007 senatorial elections.
Aquino breezed through the capital Laoag with younger sister Kris in tow. Ilocanos crowded the public market for a view of the motorcade. One old Ilocano farmer I interviewed said he was rooting for Noynoy because “ada ti puso (he has a heart)”
But the Marcos loyalists and pro-Aquino advocates agree on one thing. As Mayor Balintona of Sarrat put it: "It will be the people of Ilocos Norte that will lose, if only they (Marcoses) could arrange themselves well, we could move on and unite. How I wish we could move as one so we can claim what we used to claim before--the Solid North.”