A flashy 20-vehicle motorcade swept into the sleepy Philippine town of Cain ta, just east of Manila, where it came to an unscheduled halt. As curious onlookers gathered last week, elegantly dressed presidential candidate Imelda Marcos, the 62year-old widow of ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, emerged from a campaign bus. Although her usual silver-grey stretch Mercedes-Benz limousine was parked nearby in case she tired of her less majestic mode of transportation, the onetime beauty queen was travelling, for now at least, like a commoner. Working the growing crowd like a seasoned politician, Marcos led about 300 townspeople to an open field, where she mounted a makeshift stage and showered them with words of
encouragement. “If you are poor and think it is hopeless to face your problems, do not fear,” she said. “Your mother is here and I will lead you to the fulfilment of all your dreams and all your hopes.”
In fact, six years after angry Filipinos took to the streets of Manila to drive Ferdinand Marcos and his luxury-loving wife from power, many of the nation’s reformist aspirations lie in tatters. Democratically elected President Corazón Aquino, who has fought off six coup attempts since assuming office in 1986, has largely failed in her promise to deliver the Philippines from corrupt landowners and overwhelming poverty. And with Aquino’s decision not to seek re-election in the May 11 presidential contest, disillusioned voters, many of them
nostalgic for strong rule, must now choose from among eight other candidates for their country’s highest job. The most flamboyant of them all is the self-proclaimed Mother of the Nation, Imelda Marcos.
Marcos is not expected to succeed in her bid to return to the position of privilege that she once enjoyed in Manila’s opulent Malacañang Palace. But her candidacy itself would have seemed unimaginable to most Filipinos just a few months ago. The Aquino government only allowed her to return from exile in the United States to try her for corruption and tax evasion. Marcos insists that she is innocent. “We have been most vilified and maligned,” she told Maclean ’s last week, adding of her husband: “Marcos was a giver, not a taker.” The government alleges that the Marcos family pilfered billions of dollars from the state treasury during the president’s 20-year rule. They also allege that the former first lady, who became governor of Metro Manila in 1975, has more than $400 million hidden away in Swiss bank accounts.
Several thousand well-wishers were on hand to greet Marcos when she arrived back in the capital aboard a specially chartered Boeing 747 jet last Nov. 4. Among them was her son, Ferdinand Jr., 34, better known by his nickname, Bong Bong, who had returned to Manila just four days earlier. She immediately set up house in the $2,000-a-night Imperial Suite in the city’s Plaza Hotel, where she continues to live. Despite outward appearances, she insists that she is “penniless” and “homeless”—just like the impoverished constituency that she claims to speak for. She refuses to disclose who is paying her skyrocketing bills. But in Cainta last week, she tried to convince the indigent masses that she is committed to easing their plight. “As long as there is one Filipino poor and suffering, my work is not done,” she said.
Those may sound like odd words coming from a woman with legendary champagne tastes. In her haste to escape into exile, she left behind more than 1,200 pairs of shoes, 427 designer dresses and 71 pairs of sunglasses.
Many of those items are now displayed in Malacañang Palace to illustrate the excesses of the Marcos regime. Also exhibited is a bulletproof bra, although the former first lady -
denies that it belonged to her. Government officials have said that she may reclaim some of her personal effects. But before her return, Marcos declared that she no longer wanted the belongings, sniffing that “they have been used.” Now promising to auction them off to help the needy, she claims that the government is blocking her attempts to do so.
In a country where two out of every three households lack adequate food, Marcos’s regal style might seem a political liability. But her glitzy showmanship and vague speeches— which call for a restoration of “national greatness”—appeal to many of the dispossessed. At the impromptu rally in Cainta last week, Marcos, who was dubbed the “Muse of Manila” in a 1953 beauty pageant, broke into a familiar love song that inspired many in the crowd to sing along. “Because of you there is happiness in my life,” she crooned. “Love means serving you, and if it were my fate to be your slave, all of this I would endure.”
That escapist message strikes a chord among the urban and rural poor of the Philippines. Said F. Sionil Jose, a prominent Manilabased novelist: “Imelda is a great manufacturer of dreams, and people are very susceptible to this kind of manipulation.” Around Cainta, at least, his assessment seemed partly correct. “She is really pro-poor,” said Edward Santos, who runs a small video shop. Santos complained that the country is worse off under Aquino. Now, he said, “the only thing we export are maids and prostitutes.” And Manila resident Necites Dorvelo said that she does not believe that Marcos embezzled funds. Said Dorvelo: “They judge her wrongly—she is very loving and has been very honest with the Filipino people.”
Marcos, who declared her candidacy just minutes after pleading not guilty to corruption before a special anti-graft court in Manila on
Jan. 7, maintains that the indictments against her are false. After her 1990 acquittal on similar charges of racketeering and fraud in New York City, she made a much-publicized pilgrimage to the city’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where she crawled down the centre aisle on her hands and knees in prayer. She now says that she is confident that she will also be cleared of the latest charges, and insists that she returned home to restore her reputation. “More than life, I value my good name,” she said. As evidence of her innocence, she asked: “If I were guilty, would I look like this at 62? Wouldn’t all that ugliness show on my face?”
But clearly, many Filipinos remain wary of the Marcos name. Recent opinion polls showed that 39 per cent of respondents believe that Imelda Marcos cannot be trusted. And 41 per cent said that, of all the candidates, she was the most inclined to - abuse power. That lack of
widespread support leaves her trapped in the lower tier of presidential aspirants. Said University of the Philippines political scientist Alex Magno: “Imelda has no political machine.” But a clear front-runner to succeed Aquino has yet to emerge. The president herself has
endorsed former defence secretary Fidel Ramos, 63, who helped Aquino topple the Marcos regime. Ramos faces a strong challenge, however, from former Marcos crony Edward Cojuangco, 56. A powerful and extremely wealthy businessman, Cojuangco also fled the Philippines after his friend’s overthrow, returning in 1989. Some Filipinos worry that his election would return the country to old, Marcos-style government. “I would like to think my personal interests run parallel with this country,” Cojuangco has proclaimed. Many of his opponents have rallied around House Speaker Ramon Mitra, 63. A leading member of the ruling Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino party, Mitra has tried to clean up his own image as a patronage politician by promising to appoint a “chief graft-buster” if he is elected.
Meanwhile, Bong Bong Marcos has been too busy since his return to help in his mother’s attempt at political reincarnation. He has been campaigning for a congressional seat in his late father’s home province of llocos Norte, and is widely expected to win. And Imelda Marcos says that she will soon return her husband’s body, currently preserved in a refrigerated Honolulu crypt, to the land he once ruled for burial. Even if the woman once known in her homeland as the Iron Butterfly fails in her current grab for power, it seems certain that the once-exiled Marcoses are back to stay.
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