MANILA, Philippines >> They bopped along to the beat of a martial law anthem updated into 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 Marcos’ son and namesake held up the peace sign made popular by his father a generation ago, the shrieking crowds mirrored it in return.
It is 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’s name against accusations of greed and corruption and downplaying the legacy of his father’s brutal rule. During his presidential campaign, he has portrayed himself as a unifier, while false narratives online reimagine his father’s regime as a “golden era” in the nation’s history.
Now, as patriarch of the Marcos dynasty, Marcos is expected to be the first person to win the presidential election in the Philippines by a majority in more than three decades.
The race is being cast as a competition between those who remember the past and those who are accused of trying to distort it, the last chapter in a brazen attempt to absolve the Marcoses of wrongdoing and quash 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 for jailing his critics — may have presaged a Marcos family comeback.
“It will determine not just our future but 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 as much as $10 billion from the government before fleeing to Hawaii in 1986, when the peaceful “People Power” protests toppled the Marcos regime. The family returned to the country shortly after the death of the elder Marcos in 1989.
Despite the exile, the Marcos name never truly left the political establishment.
Marcos, known by his boyhood nickname, “Bongbong,” served as vice governor, governor and congressman in Ilocos Norte, the family stronghold, for most of the period between the 1980s and 2010. That year, he entered the national political scene when he was elected senator. Imelda Marcos, his 92-year-old mother, ran for president twice and lost in the 1990s.
Rehabilitating the family name has been a recurring theme. Over the decades, the Marcoses have sought to target young voters with no memory of martial law or the torture and killing of political prisoners. Fifty-six percent of the voting population in the Philippines is aged between 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 bid for violating rules on spam and manipulation. The influential Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines said in a statement that it was appalled by the “historical revisionism” in the election, and “the attempt to delete or destroy our collective memory through the seeding of lies and false narratives.”
Marcos’ spokesman, Vic Rodriguez, said there was “no certainty” that the Twitter accounts belonged to his supporters.
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 that falsely accused his election rival, Leni Robredo, who is vice president, of cheating in the 2016 vice-presidential race. (The president and vice president are elected separately in the Philippines.)
Several groups have sought to disqualify Marcos’ candidacy, pointing to a 1995 tax evasion conviction and the $3.9 billion in estate taxes that his family still owes the government. Marcos, 64, has brushed off the attacks as “fake news,” and refused to participate in nearly all presidential debates.
Instead, Marcos has used social media to reach a captive audience online, reviewing viral TikTok dances and agreeing to makeovers.
At a rally in Las Piñas, Ella Mae Alipao, 15, said that she got most of her news about Marcos from TikTok and Facebook, and that she did not “believe much in books.” After Marcos’ father was ousted, Alipao said, “the Filipinos found out how good he was; that’s when they realized that they should have made him president for a longer time.”
Marcos has made similar comments: “I’m not going to vindicate my father’s name because his name doesn’t need vindication,” he said in 1995. “I am so confident 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 radical 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 the father’s body to be moved to the Philippines’ equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery, despite protests. And it was not until Sara Duterte, Duterte’s daughter, made the surprise announcement that she would run for vice president instead of president that Marcos gained his large lead in the polls.
In recent weeks, the opposition has been working furiously to counter the false narratives online about the Marcoses. Sergio Osmena III, a former political prisoner, senator and a grandson of the fourth president of the Philippines, said he had hired 10,000 volunteers to wage a counteroffensive against the Marcos campaign by releasing videos on the economic devastation and human rights violations of the Marcos years.
“It’s probably too late,” he said.
The Marcoses have been remarkably adept at avoiding jail time. 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 her unexplained wealth. She posted bail, and the Supreme Court is still reviewing her appeal.
The government has recovered just $3.3 billion of the estimated $10 billion that the Marcoses are accused of stealing, but $2.4 billion in assets are still under litigation, with various groups tussling over them. Should Marcos win the presidency, many fear those proceedings, along with the $3.9 billion in estate taxes, will be swept away, cementing the false idea that the Marcoses are innocent.
Among some young voters, that view has already taken hold. “If he is 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. Garcia said that he believed the cases against Marcos’ family were meant “to destroy his reputation,” and that he had “never heard” of the People Power protests.
Even those with intimate memories of the country’s struggle for democracy may feel it is time to move on.
Benjamin Abalos Jr., Marcos’ campaign manager, led protests against the Marcos regime as a student council officer of the Ateneo Law School. He said he never talked about those days with his candidate. “Whatever justice was achieved in those 36 years, I think that’s already enough,” he said. “Perhaps now it’s about moving forward.”
Such attitudes could signal that a full rehabilitation of the Marcos name may soon be complete. The family now includes a governor, a senator, a mayor and a possible 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 seized on his alliance with Sara Duterte to present himself as a unifier who is ready to lead, but his political track record is mostly thin.
While in his six years in the Senate he helped pass laws on protecting older people and expanding emergency relief to children, nearly 70% of the 52 laws he pushed for were on designating holidays and festivals, renaming highways and reapportioning provinces and cities, a review by The New York Times found.
An investigation in 2015 found that his résumé on the Senate website had been embellished to include a bachelor of arts from the University of Oxford. The university later said he did not complete his degree, but obtained instead a special diploma in social studies. Marcos has denied misrepresenting his education.
Though Marcos is seen as the front-runner in the May 9 election, rallies for Robredo, the vice president, have drawn hundreds of thousands of young supporters in recent weeks. Hecklers have shouted “magnanakaw,” or “thief,” at Marcos’ motorcade, and the petitions to disqualify his candidacy are still under appeal, though experts say they are unlikely to succeed.
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” said Ressa, the journalist, recalling a quote from the author Milan Kundera. She described the election as a “microcosm of a global battle for facts.”
“If facts don’t win,” she said, “we’ll have a whole new history.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.