Only son of Philippine dictator Marcos has eyes on top job

Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is still hoping he will soon become vice-president, which will depend on the result of a legal challenge he filed regarding the outcome of last year's elections. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE/MANILA (BLOOMBERG) - More than three decades after a popular uprising ousted Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, his son is girding for a return to the presidential palace where he grew up.

While the next election to replace President Rodrigo Duterte isn't due until 2022, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. says his decision to run may hinge on whether a court upholds a legal challenge to the results of last year's vice presidential election that he narrowly lost.

Winning that job would strengthen his chances to succeed Duterte.

"That's what you want to be," Marcos, known by the nickname Bongbong, said in an interview on Tuesday when asked about his presidential ambitions.

"Every private in the army wants to be a general. Every janitor wants to be a CEO."

Marcos, 60, is one of the most divisive political figures in the Philippines, where roughly 3,000 people died and thousands more were tortured when his father suspended elections and declared martial law in the 1970s.

Despite the family history, Marcos won 14.1 million votes in last year's election, the most of anyone besides Duterte and Vice President Leni Robredo.

Marcos is seen as intelligent and a skilled communicator, but questions remain over how he'd treat the power brokers that backed the ouster of his father if he were to take office, according to Bob Herrera-Lim, a managing director with Teneo Strategy, which advises companies on investments.

"Any investor would have to at least look at the possibility of greater political polarization," he said. "They would not automatically scratch the Philippines off, but the Marcos name still has a lot of baggage."

Marcos is still hoping he'll soon become vice president, an election that is conducted separately from the presidency in the Philippines. While the Supreme Court allowed a recount in three provinces that Marcos claims would show massive cheating, the ballot boxes haven't been transferred to Manila where the votes will be counted.

The case could take years to resolve.

Election Challenge

At the exclusive Manila Golf Club near the city's financial district, Marcos said last week that he's focused on the election protest and gathering evidence to show where and how cheating took place. He said that while running for president "has always been an option," it would be "unwise for anyone to decide what they will do in 2022 in 2017."

"2022 is too far away and politics in the Philippines evolves very rapidly," Marcos said.

As a teenager, Marcos said he didn't envision a life in politics. Instead, he dreamed of becoming either a rock star or an astronaut.

"My father sort of wanted me to enter politics," said Marcos, who has three kids of his own. "He sort of forced me and pushed in that way."

Following street protests against election fraud in 1986, Marcos fled to Hawaii with his parents and three sisters. Shortly after the death of his father, Marcos decided to return to the Philippines in 1991 at the age of 35.

Billions Siphoned

"I had six years of boredom," he said. "That's enough."

Marcos was soon elected as a congressman in the same district his father first won in 1949, and that is currently held by his 88-year-old mother Imelda Marcos, who famously left behind thousands of pairs of shoes when the family had fled.

Elected governor of the northern Ilocos Norte province in the 1990s, Marcos Jr. later passed the governorship to his sister before entering the Senate.

Marcos has continuously lauded his father's achievements. Of the US$5 billion to US$10 billion worth of assets estimated to have been siphoned off during his 20 years as president, Marcos is dismissive.

"My family is worth nothing," he said. "They've taken everything."

Still, Marcos has said his family is now happy to cooperate with the Philippine government to settle any allegations related to ill-gotten wealth. Successive governments have recovered more than US$3 billion of ill-gotten assets from Marcos and his associates, and more than 200 lawsuits seeking to recover billions of pesos more are pending in various courts.

"You don't want to have these things hanging over your head," he said. "If you can settle them, settle them."

Constitution Changes

While Marcos hasn't yet declared himself a candidate for the 2022 presidential election, he offered a range of policy positions in the interview. He wants to depoliticise the judiciary, military and police while also creating a civil service that functions effectively no matter who is president.

He also suggested changes to the 1987 constitution, which weakened the power of the executive to prevent a repeat of the perceived excesses under his father.

"Government needs to have more strength to be effective," he said.

Pointing to the surging economies of regional competitors like Vietnam, Marcos lamented three decades of lost opportunities. He said he'd like to remove red tape that hinders the government and business.

On foreign policy, Marcos said that he broadly agrees with the pro-China stance initiated by Duterte, whom he has known since the mid-1990s and remains close to. Last year Duterte gave the late strongman a hero's burial, giving closure to his family and supporters even while reopening wounds for families of the victims.

'Jaw Dropped' Still, Marcos said he was shocked when Duterte announced a "divorce from the U.S" in Beijing last October.

"I remember watching it and my jaw dropped," Marcos said. "I was sitting with the cabinet secretaries and we were all, did he just say that? Yes he did."

Marcos sees the US relationship as special for the Philippines, noting that President Donald Trump is a friend of his mother dating back to the 1970s.

"I've been with my mother when we had dinner with him," Marcos said. "He's exactly the same person I met when we had dinner." In the Philippines, Marcos remains a celebrity. After speaking at a packed media event earlier this month, journalists queued to have their picture taken with him.

"We never went away," Marcos said of his family's involvement in politics, adding that his motive is to serve the public. "It's not some sinister plan to bring back the Marcoses."

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