Victims of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos are trying to have his son, presidential frontrunner Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, disqualified from running in next year’s election.
The challenge, although mounted on a legal technicality related to a long-resolved tax case, has revived unresolved debates among Filipinos about how they remember his father’s regime, which jailed and killed thousands of people and plundered state assets.
“We do not want Bongbong Marcos or any member of his family to be back in power,” Bonifacio Ilagan, a playwright, torture survivor and co-organiser of the Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses and Martial Law (Carmma), which filed the disqualification case, told the Financial Times.
“A Marcos returning to the Malacañang [presidential palace] would completely turn our history upside down.”
Carmma has filed a petition with the country’s election commission aimed at barring Marcos Jr’s candidacy, based on his failure to file income tax returns between 1982 and 1985 when he served as a local official during his father’s rule.
Critics and supporters of the 64-year-old politician are now arguing over the extent to which he should be held accountable for his father’s crimes.
Marcos Jr is the favourite to win the May 2022 election, according to opinion polls, and his camp describes the disqualification petition — one of five filed against his candidacy — as “gutter politics”. His running mate will be the scion of another political dynasty: Sara Duterte, daughter of Rodrigo Duterte, one of whose first acts as president in 2016 was to give Marcos a hero’s burial in Manila.
According to an estimate by US historian Alfred McCoy, 3,257 people were killed extrajudicially in the decade that Marcos imposed martial law. Tens of thousands more were imprisoned or tortured, before the dictator and his family fled to Hawaii during the “People’s Power” uprising in 1986, when Bongbong was 28.
Ilagan, who is 70 now, still speaks vividly of the ordeals suffered in his youth.
A student activist at the University of the Philippines, Ilagan fled underground in 1971 and was arrested three years later and suffered “brutal” mistreatment.
These included, he said, the “San Juanico Bridge”, a torture in which prisoners were made to lie suspended between cots and punched in the stomach. Ilagan also said his jailers applied hot flatirons to the soles of his feet and at one point inserted a stick in his penis.
His younger sister Rizalina, another student activist, was abducted in 1977 by the military. She was part of a group of 10 taken in one of the era’s biggest forced disappearance cases, some of whose corpses were later found. Rizalina’s body was never discovered.
The younger Marcos was convicted by a regional court in 1995 of failing to pay income taxes and file tax returns between 1982 and 1985, when he was vice-governor, then governor of Ilocos Norte, the family’s home region in northern Luzon island.
Two years later, an appeal court acquitted him of one of the charges against him — non-payment of taxes — and removed a prison sentence imposed by the lower court. The same court upheld his conviction for failing to file returns, and Marcos Jr paid 67,137 pesos (now worth $1,300) for what his lawyer described as a “clerical omission”.
“There is no tax evasion case against presidential aspirant Bongbong Marcos nor a conviction for tax evasion as what the political propaganda of his detractors have pushed for, viciously and maliciously,” Victor Rodriguez, his spokesperson and chief of staff, told the Financial Times.
Philippine electoral law bars a candidate from running who has been sentenced to more than 18 months for a crime involving “moral turpitude” — a requirement that may render the petition against Marcos Jr moot as the court overturned his sentence.
In comments to the media, including an interview with the FT in 2018, Marcos Jr has played down his father’s dictatorship and claimed that no cases filed against his family were successful.
However, in 2018, a court found Imelda Marcos, the former first lady, guilty of seven counts of graft relating to illegal transfers of funds to Swiss foundations while she was serving in her husband’s government.
“Marcos was not his father, and the sins of the father should not be visited on the son,” said Carlos Conde, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “But he and his mother have been trying to deny accountability for all the cases in court.”
Apart from his political role, Marcos Jr was chair of Philcomsat, one of the companies sequestered by Corazon Aquino’s “People Power” government that took power after the dictator’s toppling as it probed allegations of “crony capitalism”.
When asked whether Marcos Jr played a role in his father’s dictatorship, Rodriguez said: “Marcos, Jr will not dignify with an answer . . . such a question because the Filipino people had long settled with their belief that the sins of the father, if there’s any, [are] not to be passed on to the children.”
However, Ilagan, the Carmma activist, described Marcos Jr as “very much part of the martial law dictatorship”.
“It’s really an uphill battle for us,” Ilagan said. “I have devoted more than half of my life to this struggle for Philippine democracy. For me, in the twilight of my life, I don’t think there is any turning back any more.”
Additional reporting by Guill Ramos in Manila