MANILA – “Kering-keri po iyan!” shouted Ilocos Norte Gov. Maria Imelda Josefa “Imee” Marcos before a crowd of young members of an LGBT group during a campaign sortie in Laguna, in what appeared to be a move to court members of the vote-rich youth group for her first Senate bid.
Sporting bangs to offset her sharp facial features and donning a simple purple-plaid shirt, seemingly shunning the luxury she was known to have grown up with, the eldest daughter of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos launched her Senate bid aiming to project an image of a simple and youthful woman able to empathize with ordinary Filipinos.
A long-time player in local politics, serving as Ilocos Norte representative and governor both for three full terms, Marcos said she is running for the Senate because she wants to uplift many Filipinos from poverty, as she pushes for pro-farmer and pro-consumer policies.
Marcos is pressing for the removal of value-added tax in some basic goods and urging the government to provide more safeguards for farmers in light of the signing of the law that would allow unimpeded rice importation.
She is touting such advocacies in the backdrop of a family history which critics say is marked by plunder, repression, and foreign debt that Filipinos are still paying for to this day.
And Marcos herself is facing graft charges after the House of Representatives recommended that she be held accountable for alleged misuse of her province's tobacco excise taxes in July 2018.
“Naninindigan ako na kayang tapusin ang kahirapan sa ating panahon… Ito ay may solusyon. Mas malawak ang langit kesa sa lupa. Mas maraming solusyon kesa problema iyan,” Marcos said in a dzMM interview in December.
(I believe that poverty can be ended in this generation… This can be solved. The sky is wider than the land. There are more solutions than problems.)
But a political analyst said Marcos’ first foray into the Senate is aimed at making the Marcos brand still relevant in the national political scene and continuing the family’s political comeback since the strongman patriarch’s fall through a popular revolt in 1986.
Marcos decided to run for senator as her brother, former Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., continues to pursue his electoral protest against Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, who he claims cheated him.
It appeared to be a reluctant run at first for the 63-year-old Marcos, who admitted herself that she had previously considered that the Senate “was not for me.”
“I think it prompted her and the family to come back to national politics because maybe they felt that Bongbong as senator was not enough. It was not enough to leave a lasting impression,” said University of the Philippines political science department head Ela Atienza.
“Like most political families with national ambitions, it’s important for them to also get national prominence and being part of the Senate is an important platform for them,” Atienza added.
GHOSTS OF MARTIAL LAW HAUNT IMEE’S CAMPAIGN
But Marcos’ Senate bid, as expected, has seen rough sailing, with her family’s ill-gotten wealth and the dark days of her father’s dictatorship still hounding her on the campaign trail.
The Marcoses have been rehabilitating their image through what critics describe as “historical revisionism.” They have been accused of employing online “trolls” who silence critics and burnish their reputation, particularly among the youth.
“Mapanuri ngayon ang mga millennials, ang kabataan (The millennials and the youth now are very critical). They have access to tremendous amounts of information, enough for them to make their own analysis,” Marcos said.
“'Yung mga kabataan eh talagang nalilito kung ano talaga so gusto nilang malaman 'yung version rin namin.”
(Some of our youth are confused, so they want to know our side of the story.)
The late dictator’s heirs have also taken pains to urge the public to “move on” from the past, but critics say this cannot happen without a sincere apology from the family for the human rights abuses, raiding of public coffers, and other atrocities committed under the Marcos dictatorship.
There are recent reminders too. In November, Marcos' mother, former first lady Imelda, was convicted of 7 counts of graft for using her Cabinet position during her husband's regime to maintain Swiss bank accounts.
She has evaded arrest, posting bail while the case is on appeal.
Marcos, echoing a statement of her brother Bongbong, said Filipinos must learn from lessons from the martial law era, but she has refused to issue an apology that would amount to taking personal responsibility for the wrongdoings committed during the period.
“Talagang bahagi na ng kasaysayan natin ‘yan. Ang pinaka importante, araling maigi. Kung may madadampot na mabuting leksyon, eh bakit hindi gamitin?” Marcos said.
(That’s part of our history. What’s important is we should study it carefully. If a lesson can be learned from it, why not use it?)
“Kung may nasaktan, natanggal sa trabaho, namatayan, eh talagang kami ay nagpapaumanhin. Subalit 'yung sinasabi na admission na tantamount sa pagsasabi na kasalanan namin, mahirap naman kasi di ko naman alam ang mga pangyayari noon, bata pa kami at wala pa sa awtoridad na akuin iyon.”
(If someone got hurt, got removed from their job, lost his loved one, we apologize. But if they are asking for an admission that would be tantamount to saying that we are to blame, that would be hard because I was not aware of what happened before. We were still young and had no authority to take responsibility for the atrocities.)
Marcos insists her family has not been given enough chance to air its side.
This time, she is asking those who supported and worked for her father to come out and help them support her family’s narrative.
FAKE COLLEGE DEGREE?
As if the weight of being a Marcos was not enough, the governor also got embroiled in a controversy over her educational background in the run-up to the elections.
Marcos claims to have graduated from the University of the Philippines College of Law and Princeton University, but university officials have denied that the governor earned degrees from the two prestigious institutions.
Atienza said the issue on Marcos’ educational background has hamstrung her campaign, as she deprived herself of a bigger platform to tout her advocacies by dodging the media, which has refused to put the issue to rest until the Ilocos Norte governor addresses it squarely.
“I think the constant pressure every day for the past few months about her graduation, diploma, has created some dent in terms of new possible sources of votes,” Atienza said.
“She does not appear in the debates. Many of the people in the top 12 [in the surveys] have evaded a lot of these public debates. Perhaps that’s a way of avoiding uncomfortable questions.”
‘SOLID NORTH’ ONLY FOR IMEE?
University of Santo Tomas political science professor Edmund Tayao, meanwhile, said allegations that Marcos asked the so-called “Solid North,” or provinces in Northern Luzon traditionally supportive of the Marcos family, to only vote for her and leave blank the 11 other spots in their ballots, may affect her chances in the upcoming polls.
“That did not play out to her advantage because the south retaliated by saying, ‘Okay if that is the case, then we’re not going to vote for you.’ That’s quite sizable,” Tayao said.
“That’s why there’s a consistent drop in the numbers of former Gov. Imee,” he added.
In the Pulse Asia senatorial preference surveys, Marcos ranked 7-11 in Sept. 2018, but she slipped in the rankings as the months passed, placing in the 10-14 spot in the latest survey conducted in April.
Tayao said being at the bottom half of the winners’ circle in the surveys, Marcos is in a precarious situation, as the numerous issues hounding her and her family seemed to have played out against her.
“Like home TV shopping, ‘Wait there’s more!’ Mayroon nang mga negative, nadagdagan pa (the negative news kept on piling up),” he said.
Tayao said the endorsement of popular President Rodrigo Duterte, known to be friendly to the Marcos family, could somehow counter her negative public image. But ultimately, it’s the Ilocos Norte governor who is responsible for how the public perceives her.
“If it’s only plain and simple the endorsement of the President, then it could have made all the difference,” Tayao said. “However we try to look at it, the personality is still the main consideration for voters.”
Atienza said a Senate win for Marcos would be a boon for her brother Bongbong, who might be eyeing the presidency in 2022.
But the unending controversies surrounding the Marcos family could continue to dent Bongbong’s chances in a potential presidential bid.
“What we will see is maybe the support of the Ilocanos would be enough to put her… perhaps at the bottom winning 6. But I think what she has not done enough is to get more voters,” Atienza said.
“If they are preparing for the 2022 elections -- perhaps Bongbong will run again if he does not succeed in the current appeal -- that would make the 2022 project difficult.”