Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos Jr was resoundingly elected as president of the Philippines. Photo: AFP / Artur Widak / NurPhoto

MANILA – With just over week before the deadline for candidates to file for next year’s presidential elections, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr received a boost from the party his father founded four decades earlier.

The Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL), a far-right party that once ruled the Southeast Asian country with an iron fist, nominated the sole son and namesake of former Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos as the country’s next president.

It marked the clearest indication yet of the Marcoses’ bid to recapture the Malacanang Palace following their unceremonious fall from power during the 1986 “People Power’ Revolution. Bongbong Marcos, who narrowly lost the vice-presidential race in 2016, fell just short of officially confirming his presidential bid, but made it clear that he was “very, very close to announcing” his next step.

Throughout the year, the Marcoses hesitated to show their cards, mainly concerned by the potential run of presidential daughter Sara Duterte, who has led pre-election surveys since last year. But amid squabbles within the administration, and Sara Duterte’s campaign seemingly losing steam, the Marcoses are snatching a newfound opportunity.

In his latest interview, Bongbong Marcos also ruled out the long-speculated joint ticket with the presidential daughter, who recently announced that she will rather seek re-election in the Duterte home base of Davao City. By all indications, a Marcos run for the presidency is a foregone conclusion, setting the stage for a fierce election race next year.

Half a century ago, former strongman Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, citing an alleged communist threat to justify a nationwide crackdown. Main opposition leaders were jailed, while independent media networks were shuttered. Marcos also scrapped the American colonial era 1935 Constitution, supplanting a two-party system with an authoritarian regime under the KBL.

Under Marcos’ brutal reign, as many as 70,000 activists and suspected rebels were jailed, with 34,000 tortured and 3,000 killed, according to Amnesty International. Under US pressure, the ailing Filipino strongman lifted martial law in 1981, but he tried to hang on to power by rigging elections and intimidating potential rivals, including former senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino II, who was assassinated upon his return to the country a few years later.

The “conjugal dictatorship” under Ferdinand Marcos and First Lady Imelda Marcos was also notoriously corrupt, driving the country to the verge of bankruptcy until they were forced out of power by a civilian-backed coup and nationwide protests in 1986.

Imelda Marcos and her late husband were accused of plundering state coffers. Photo: AFP / Artur Widak / NurPhoto

The Marcoses have been accused of embezzling up to $10 billion from the country’s coffers. Following decades of painstaking litigation, the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), an agency tasked with recovering ill-gotten wealth, was able to retrieve up to PHP 171 billion ($3.5 billion) from the Marcoses’ accounts across the world.

But as leaked documents such as the so-called “Panama Papers” have shown, the Marcoses are likely still in possession of large amounts of ill-gotten wealth stashed in offshore accounts. In 2018, Imelda Marcos was found guilty of graft and corruption by a Philippine court but she never served her sentence.

Since their return to the Philippines in the 1990s, following a brief exile in Hawaii., the Marcoses have gradually returned to becoming once again a major force in national politics. Imee Marcos, the daughter of the former dictator, was elected as a senator in 2019. Imelda has served as a congresswoman representing the Marcos stronghold in the north, Ilocos Norte, a position that is being handed down to her grandson, Sandro Marcos.

The Marcoses and their close relatives occupy almost all key positions of the government in the northern province. In recent years, they have also build a formidable alliance with the Dutertes from the southern province of Davao. In fact, during the 2016 elections, Bongbong was seen as the de facto running-mate of long-time mayor Rodrigo Duterte, whose father served in the cabinet of the former dictator.

Well-resourced and charismatic, the Marcoses also built and funded a vast network of disinformation, glorifying the martial law era as an age of prosperity and order. Bongbong himself has widely popular vlogs online, especially on YouTube, where he portrays his father as a national hero and repeatedly whitewashes the atrocities committed under the latter’s rule.

In a nod to their alliance, President Duterte, who publicly thanked the Marcoses for campaign donations, immediately proceeded with burying the former dictator in the Cemetery of National Heroes despite massive public outcry. Banking on Duterte’s support as well as Marcos loyalists such as Solicitor General Jose Calida, Bongbong Marcos sought to reverse his electoral defeat in the 2016 elections by repeatedly contesting the victory of opposition leader, Vice-President Leni Robredo.

Undeterred by the failure of their legal maneuvers to unseat the incumbent vice-president, the Marcoses pursued a potential joint ticket with the Dutertes. Imee Marcos openly declared that her brother, Bongbong, would be “honored” to run in tandem with Sara Duterte in next year’s elections.

Multiple meetings and rounds of negotiations, however, failed to produce a breakthrough, as Sara Duterte pressed ahead with her own bid to become her father’s successor.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte with his children Sebastian (L), Veronica (2nd L), Sara (2nd R) and Paolo (R) after the oath-taking ceremony at the Malacanang Palace in Manila in June, 2016. Photo: AFP / Presidential Communication Operations Office

Soon, however, faultlines began to appear in the administration, as President Duterte pressed ahead with his own plans to run in tandem with his long-time aide, Senator Christopher Go.

The power-grab maneuver enraged both Sara Duterte as well as former ally Senator Emmanuel Pacquiao, who has declared his own bid for the presidency this month. Sensing an opening, the Marcoses began to signal their own bid for the presidency.

“I feel that at least it’s a possibility. It’s certainly part of the plan. The presidency is not taken off the table by any means,” Bongbong Marcos said earlier this month in an online forum organized by the influential Chinese-Filipino business community.

“In fact, if you look at the surveys, I do better in the presidential survey than the vice presidential survey. So that’s a common sentiment — that many of our supporters want me to run for the presidency,” Marcos said, encouraged by surveys suggesting a tightening race at the top between Sara Duterte, Bongbong Marcos and Manila’s charismatic mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno.

Following his endorsement for the presidency by the KBL, a party founded by his father, Bongbong Marcos thumbed down a tandem with Sara as “probably out of the question for now.” He was seemingly encouraged by Sara’s potential withdrawal from the race altogether.

“I still consider it a possibility that she will change her mind, but for now we consider it that she will stand by what she said that she won’t run,” Marcos told the media in the clearest indication yet of his own bid for the presidency next year.

For the critics, however, a Marcos run wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, since it could fire up the liberal opposition, convince Leni Robredo to also join the race, and end up further splitting the ruling establishment. A showdown between Sara Duterte and Bongbong Marcos in next year’s elections is still a possibility, as each dynasty has its own ambitions and interests to protect.

“So we look at these as former votes of President Duterte when he ran in 2016, and it shows that these votes are no longer solid for President Duterte or Sara (Duterte-Carpio) or whoever his anointed will be, because they are already fragmented” said opposition figure Howard Calleja, who is overseeing efforts to unify the liberal-progressive forces behind a single candidate for next year’s elections.