MANILA — They danced to a martial law anthem updated to a pop tune. They cheered when an A-list celebrity proclaimed that the spirit of Ferdinand E. Marcos, the former dictator, was alive. And when Mr. Marcos’ namesake son held up the peace sign his father popularized a generation ago, the screaming crowd reflected it.
It’s election season in the Philippines, and history is being rewritten, one campaign rally at a time.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has spent decades defending his family name against accusations of greed and corruption and downplaying the legacy of his father’s brutal rule. During his presidential campaign, he has cast himself as a unifier, while false narratives online reimagine his father’s regime as a “golden era” in the nation’s history.
Now, as the patriarch of the Marcos dynasty, Mr. Marcos is expected to be the first person to win presidential elections in the Philippines by a majority in more than three decades.
The race is presented as a competition between those who remember the past and those who are accused of trying to distort it, the latest chapter in a brazen attempt to absolve the Marcoses of their wrongdoing and nullify any effort to hold the family accountable. . Five years of President Rodrigo Duterte, a strong Marcos ally known for his bloody war on drugs and jailing his critics, may have heralded a return of the Marcos family.
“It will determine not only our future but also our past,” said Maria Ressa, a journalist and Nobel Prize winner who is an outspoken critic of both Duterte and Marcos.
The Marcoses are accused of looting up to $10 billion from the government before fleeing to Hawaii in 1986, when peaceful “People Power” protests toppled the Marcos regime. The family returned to the country shortly after Father Marcos’ death in 1989.
Despite exile, Marcos’s name never truly left the political establishment.
Mr. Marcos, known by his childhood nickname, “Bongbong,” served as lieutenant governor, governor and congressman in Ilocos Norte, the family stronghold, for most of the period between the 1980s and 2010. That year , entered the national political scene when he was elected senator. Imelda Marcos, his 92-year-old mother, ran twice for president and lost in the 1990s.
The rehabilitation of the family surname has been a recurring theme. For decades, the Marcoses have sought to target young voters who have no memory of martial law or the torture and murder of political prisoners. Fifty-six percent of the voting population in the Philippines is between the ages of 18 and 41, and most did not witness the atrocities of the Marcos regime, ideal circumstances for the spread of disinformation, opponents say.
In January, Twitter said it had removed more than 300 accounts promoting Marcos’ presidential candidacy for violating rules on spam and manipulation. The The influential Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines said in a statement it was appalled by “historical revisionism” in the election and “the attempt to erase or destroy our collective memory by planting lies and false narratives.”
Marcos’s spokesman, Vic Rodríguez, said there was “no certainty” that the Twitter accounts belonged to his followers.
Last week Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said it had suspended more than 400 election-related accounts, Pages and groups for violating its standards. The company cited a video on Marcos’ official Facebook page falsely accusing his electoral rival, Leni Robredo, who is vice president, of cheating in the 2016 vice presidential race. (The president and vice president are elected separately.) In Philippines).
Various groups have tried to disqualify Marcos’ candidacy, pointing to a 1995 tax evasion conviction and the $3.9 billion in estate taxes his family still owes the government. Marcos, 64, has dismissed the attacks as “fake news” and has refused to participate in nearly every presidential debate.
At a rally in Las Piñas, Ella Mae Alipao, 15, said she got most of the news about Mr. Marcos from TikTok and Facebook, and that she didn’t “trust much in books.” After Marcos’ father was expelled, Alipao said, “Filipinos found out how good he was; That’s when they realized they should have made him president for longer.”
Mr Marcos has made similar comments: “I am not going to claim my father’s name because his name needs no claim,” he said in 1995. “I am so sure that history will judge him well.”
In the 36 years since the father was ousted, many Filipinos have become disillusioned with the country’s democracy. Poverty is widespread, income inequality remains high, and few people trust their elected leaders. When Duterte came to power, he promised sea change, ushering in a new era of strongman politics that has been embraced by many across the country.
Duterte formed an alliance with the Marcoses early in his six-year presidential term. In 2016, he arranged for his father’s body to be transferred to the Philippine equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery, despite protests. And it wasn’t until Sara Duterte, Duterte’s daughter, made the surprise announcement that she would run for vice president instead of president that Marcos gained her big lead in the polls.
In recent weeks, the opposition has been working hard to counter false online narratives about the Marcoses. Sergio Osmena III, a former political prisoner, senator and grandson of the Philippines’ fourth president, said he had hired 10,000 volunteers to mount a counteroffensive against the Marcos campaign by posting videos about the economic devastation and human rights violations of the Philippines. the Marco years. .
“It’s probably too late,” he said.
The Marcoses have been remarkably adept at avoiding jail. Mr. Marcos was sentenced to up to three years in prison in 1995 for tax-related convictions, but his sentence was overturned on appeal two years later, even though his conviction remained on the books. In 2018, his mother was sentenced to up to 11 years in prison for creating private foundations to hide his unexplained wealth. He posted bail and the Supreme Court is still reviewing his appeal.
The government has recovered just $3.3 billion of the estimated $10 billion the Marcoses are accused of stealing, but $2.4 billion in assets are still under litigation, with various groups fighting over them. If Mr. Marcos wins the presidency, many fear those proceedings, along with the $3.9 billion in estate taxes, will be eliminated, cementing the false notion that the Marcoses are innocent.
Among some young voters, that view has already taken hold. “If he’s a thief, how come he hasn’t been jailed?” asked Rjay Garcia, a 19-year-old rug salesman, at a recent rally in the city of Santa Rosa. Mr. Garcia said that he believed the cases against Mr. Marcos’s family were meant to “destroy his reputation” and that he had “never heard of” the Popular Power protests.
Even those with intimate memories of the country’s struggle for democracy may feel that it is time to move on.
Benjamin Abalos Jr., campaign manager for Mr. Marcos, led the protests against the Marcos regime as a member of the Ateneo Law School student council. He said that he never spoke of those days with his candidate. “Whatever justice was achieved in those 36 years, I think enough is enough,” he said. “Maybe now it’s about moving on.”
Such attitudes could indicate that a full rehabilitation of the Marcos name will soon be completed. The family now includes a governor, a senator, a mayor and a prospective congressman. Marcos’ eldest son, Ferdinand Alexander, 28, is running for a congressional seat in Ilocos Norte, where his cousin, Matthew Marcos Manotoc, is governor.
Marcos has used his alliance with Duterte to cast himself as a unifier ready to lead, but his political record is mostly scant.
While in his six years in the Senate he helped pass laws to protect seniors and expand emergency relief to children, nearly 70 percent of the 52 bills he sponsored concerned the designation of holidays and festivals, the renaming of highways and the redistricting of provinces and cities, a review by The New York Times found.
An investigation in 2015 found that his resume on the Senate website had been embellished to include a Bachelor of Arts from Oxford University. The university later said that she did not complete her degree, but instead obtained a special diploma in social studies. Mr. Marcos has denied misrepresenting his education.
Although Marcos is considered the favorite in the May 9 elections, demonstrations by Robredo, the vice president, have drawn hundreds of thousands of young supporters in recent weeks. Rioters have shouted “magnanakaw” or “thief” at Marcos’ motorcade, and petitions to disqualify his candidacy are still under appeal, though experts say they are unlikely to succeed.
“The fight of man against power is the fight of memory against oblivion,” said journalist Ressa, recalling a quote from author Milan Kundera. She described the election as a “microcosm of a global battle over the facts.”
“If the facts don’t win,” he said, “we’ll have a whole new story.”