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Marcos Jr: Down but not out

Mr Marcos with supporters at a campaign rally in Manila on May 7. He has been adept at channelling the good memories of his father and namesake, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, while keeping his distance from the bad ones.
Mr Marcos with supporters at a campaign rally in Manila on May 7. He has been adept at channelling the good memories of his father and namesake, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, while keeping his distance from the bad ones.PHOTO: REUTERS

He falters in bid for vice-presidency after scaling up political ranks

The Philippine Congress will proclaim today the country's next vice- president and it won't be Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

It is Ms Leni Robredo, the 52- year-old lawyer-activist who is backed by outgoing President Benigno Aquino.

This is but a minor setback for Mr Marcos. He received more than 14.1 million votes in the May 9 elections and trailed Ms Robredo by just 263,000 votes.

What his run for vice-president has proven is that the Philippines looks set to have another Marcos as ruler. That is already a victory for a family that 30 years ago was chased out of the country with torches and pitchforks.

Only 58, Mr Marcos can afford to have another go. He may even aim higher and run for president. But that will be six years from now. The wind can still shift both ways.

One thing is certain, though: Mr Marcos - who takes his father's name but insists on being called Bongbong - is not going away soon.

For now, he is technically a jobless father of three boys. His six-year term as senator has ended.

HEIR APPARENT

Since I was three, my mother has been telling me, 'You will be president.'

FORMER SENATOR FERDINAND MARCOS JR

LOST OPPORTUNITY

I think this was the Marcoses' best and perhaps last chance to recapture Malacanang. Things could be very different after Duterte.

POLITICAL ANALYST RICHARD JAVAD HEYDARIAN, of De La Salle University.

His eldest is also named Ferdinand: 22-year-old Ferdinand Alexander, who caught the attention of millions of swooning teenage girls when he represented his father at a university forum, which was posted on YouTube. He was later ridiculed for mistakenly voting for a candidate who was not his father's running mate.

When Mr Marcos was about his son's age, his life was anything but ordinary.

He was the heir of the most feared man in the Philippines, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and he lived his teenage life like he had nothing to lose. He was a globe-trotting playboy who hosted wild yacht parties and posed for a magazine cover in a tuxedo accessorised with a top hat and a cane, his slim, boyish frame leaning on a Rolls-Royce.

He wanted to be a rock star like The Beatles. Even now, when egged on to sing at karaoke parties, he would croon the classic Let It Be.

But his mother, the intractable Imelda Marcos, chased that dream away, along with The Beatles, who had to flee the Philippines in 1966 after Mrs Marcos, slighted by what she saw as an unforgivable snub, stirred up a mob that went after the legendary British band.

The mother wanted the son to succeed the father. "Since I was three, my mother has been telling me, 'You will be president,'" he said.

That plan ended up on the backburner in 1986, when a military- backed uprising forced the Marcoses to flee to Hawaii. Many thought that was the last they would ever hear of the family.

Yet, more than three decades on, in a remarkable political comeback, Mr Marcos managed to climb his way to within a heartbeat of becoming the Philippines' No. 2 leader.

A voting bloc of some nine million in the northern Philippine region of Ilocos - known as the "Solid North" - has been propelling his rise.

Since returning from exile in 1991, Mr Marcos has, with ease, become a congressman, governor and senator. He has been adept at channelling the good memories of his father, while keeping his distance from the bad ones.

He has repeatedly refused to apologise for the US$10 billion (S$13.8 billion) his parents had been accused of plundering from the state's coffers, or the tens of thousands who were killed, tortured or jailed during the 10 years his father imposed martial rule.

He is instead framing his father's reign as a "golden age" for the Philippines. Yet, he also insists: "I am not my past."

It isn't the name alone that can account for his success in politics. To his credit, he has proven to be a competent politician.

As governor, he transformed Ilocos Norte province from a backwater into a bustling commercial hub. He also takes credit for making possible the nation's biggest wind energy project.

He authored more than 50 Bills as senator. He was co-author of at least seven that became law, including those meant to check drink driving and cybercrimes, and expand benefits to the elderly.

If his mother, now 86, survives the next six years, she may still get to see her son retake Malacanang, the seat of political power in the Philippines and the family's old home.

But there is still a steep hill to climb. Like his father before him, Mr Marcos will have to deal with his family's arch-foe, the Aquinos.

Mr Aquino will only be 56 when he steps down as President next month, and he already has vowed to make sure the Marcoses will never return to Malacanang.

Meanwhile, Mr Marcos may again have to duke it out with Ms Robredo in the run-up to the next presidential election in 2022.

Also, another Aquino is already being lined up as the family's standard bearer: the 39-year-old Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino, the outgoing President's cousin.

Mr Marcos' future may well hang on how tough-talking firebrand Rodrigo Duterte will fare as president.

In their campaigns, both Mr Duterte and Mr Marcos tapped into anxiety about corruption, crime and drug abuse, and rode on a promise to break up a system seen to have benefited an oligarchy.

If Mr Duterte falters, so too will Mr Marcos. But if Mr Duterte flies, Mr Marcos may very well ride that tailwind all the way to the presidency.

Polls showed popular support for Mr Marcos both from young voters who share his view that his father presided over a "golden age", and those old enough to have lived through the Marcos years and judged them favourably. He also drew about a million votes from a powerful religious sect that flourished under his father's rule.

For now, though, Mr Marcos can bide his time.

He has allergies, so he doesn't keep dogs or cats as pets.

What he does mostly is read, mostly non-fiction. For light reading, he reads the Archie's comics series, the same ones meant for prepubescent boys and girls.

He doesn't drink often, but when he does, he sticks to San Miguel beer. He doesn't like to be photographed when he's eating, and he's ticklish when someone touches his back or has an arm around his shoulder.

But not everyone thinks Mr Marcos has another shot at the nation's highest office.

Political analyst Richard Javad Heydarian sees his failure to clinch the vice-presidency as losing "a perfect opportunity" to make it a stepping stone to the presidency.

"I think this was the Marcoses' best and perhaps last chance to recapture Malacanang. Things could be very different after Duterte," said Professor Heydarian.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2016, with the headline 'Marcos Jr: Down but not out'. Print Edition | Subscribe