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Notorious dictator Ferdinand Marcos' son poised to win Philippines presidential election

Son and namesake of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. campaigns for president
Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of the late Philippine dictator, delivers a speech during a campaign rally in San Fernando, Pampanga province, Philippines, April 29, 2022. ELOISA LOPEZ/REUTERS

Manila — In 1986, the Philippines ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos after 21 years of his authoritarian rule. His reign was brought to an end by a four-day peaceful mass-uprising. The world watched in amazement as the extremes of the dictator and his family's opulent lifestyle were revealed. 

Now his son is poised to usher the family right back into the nation's highest office when Filipinos head to the polls on Monday.

"In the 1980s, as children were dying of hunger, Marcos decides to give four buildings to his wife Imelda in New York," said Ruben Carranza, former commissioner of the Presidential Commission on Good Governance, the agency tasked with finding and reclaiming Marcos' ill-gotten wealth for the people of the Philippines.

The economy went into recession during Marcos' final years. Foreign debt ballooned to more than $26 billion from less than $1 billion in 1965. The Marcos family is estimated to have robbed the country of somewhere between $5 billion and $10 billion during his time in control.

President Ferdinand Marcos talks to journalists during his campaign in his northern home province of Ilocos Norte, Laoag
President Ferdinand Marcos talks to journalists during his campaign in his northern home province of Ilocos Norte, Laoag, Philippines, in this December 17, 1985 file photo. Willie Vicoy/REUTERS

"At least $3 billion-worth of assets have been recovered, so it is a realistic estimate," Carranza told CBS News.

For years, these were considered established facts. But Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the former dictator's son who goes by his childhood nickname of "Bongbong," is now leading in pre-election polls. Analysts say Sara Duterte, the daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte and the mayor of Davao City, is helping shore up support for Marcos Jr. by joining him on the ticket as his pick for vice president.

Marcos Jr.'s critics have sought to highlight his lack of any political track-record, or a detailed platform, but he also seems to be riding a wave of nostalgia that has swept across the Philippine electorate. A disillusioned segment of society looks back on the Marcos years as a golden era for the country.

"My mother would always be mindful of the time, because there was a curfew," Geraldine Co, who was born during a period of Martial Law across the Philippines, told CBS News. "I remember how disciplined people were."

Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. (front L, in red), presidential candidate and son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and his Vice-Presidential candidate Sara Duterte (front R, in Green), daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte, raise their hands during a campaign rally in Bocaue town, Bulacan province, Philippines, February 8, 2022. TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty

Co acknowledged the corruption under Marcos Jr.'s father, but said she considers it par for the course. She said she'd been inspired by the younger Marcos' message of unity — and turned off by what she perceives as negative campaigning by current Vice President Leni Robredo, Marcos Jr.'s main rival.

"When she challenged Bongbong to a debate, she wanted to talk about Marcos-related issues and not platforms," Co said, echoing sentiments from an op-ed written by a pro-Marcos blogger.

Marcos Jr. has benefited heavily from campaigning via social media. An analysis by Philippine broadcaster ABS-CBN News showed posts about the Marcoses had garnered more than 700 million interactions on Facebook since 2016. Marcos content has also gained mounting traction on YouTube and TikTok.

"Prior to losing [his bid for] the vice-presidency in 2016, the strategy of Marcos Jr. was to distance himself from his father. It didn't work, so now he's whitewashing that legacy for him to use," communications professor and digital media researcher Fatima Gaw told CBS News.

One of the more outlandish examples of the efforts to obscure the true origins of Marcos Sr.'s wealth, and even to use that wealth as an incentive for voters in this election, is the gold bar story: The Marcos family's backers have for years spread a rumor that the late president was paid for legal services he provided to a royal Filipino clan in hundreds of tons of gold bars. Now a rumor has spread — and is believed by many of his backers — that Marcos Jr. plans to distribute all that gold to people across the country if he's voted in.

While Marcos Jr. himself does not criticize Robredo, his supporters have targeted her with hateful, sometimes deceitful content. There's been considerably more push back in recent days, but it's likely come too late to make a difference in the Monday election.

"There's fact-checks from journalists, but whoever believes that fact-check content are more likely Robredo supporters already," said Gaw.

Philippine Vice President and opposition presidential candidate Leni Robredo speaks to workers during a Labour Day event in Manila on May 1, 2022. MARIA TAN/AFP/Getty

Robredo, who has no qualms about openly calling Marcos Jr. a liar and a thief, has gained considerable ground since she announced her run. Her rallies have attracted huge crowds and her army of campaign volunteers, including Denise Lopez, have been doing the rounds at markets, transit terminals and within communities.

Lopez has been reprinting and selling her pro-Robredo artwork on bags to fund her campaign activities. Last weekend, she spoke to motorcycle taxi drivers in the capital.

"Turns out they had just received help from Robredo. They were very open to listening to what we had to say," she told CBS News.

Campaign volunteer Denise Lopez (left) is seen in a selfie with Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo at a political rally. Denise Lopez

But despite her growing support, Robredo is undoubtedly fighting an uphill battle.

"We're talking about more than 60 million voters, so even the biggest rallies are still a fraction of the total voters. Grand rallies may be an indication of a surge, or maybe not," political analyst Richard Heydarian told CBS News.

One thing most analysts agree on is that another Marcos presidency could mean that whatever remains of the family's ill-gotten wealth, remains with the family.

"He will not immediately abolish the Presidential Commission on Good Government," predicted Carranza, the former PCGG commissioner. "He can even try to use it as a cover for clawing back ill-gotten wealth already recovered by the government."

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