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Marcos loyalty strong before Philippines elections

Despite grave allegations of human rights abuses during Ferdinand Marcos' reign, his family remains pillar of local politics.

Former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, who is running for a congressional seat, waves to her supporters during their first day of campaigning at Batac town, Ilocos Norte province, north of Manila, March 26, 2010. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

MANILA, Philippines — It’s been 26 years since Dictator Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown, but in many ways his family never left town.

Drive down the street in the former president’s home province of Ilocos Norte, about 250 miles north of Manila, and colorful campaign posters broadcast the Marcos name.

Despite the allegations of corruption and extreme human rights abuses during the 20 years of Marcos’ reign, his family has had an unquestioned hold over local politics in Ilocos since they returned from exile in 1991. Veteran local politicians have frequently stepped aside to ensure victory for a Marcos on the ballot.

Marcos political support stems from a fierce loyalty people have in this remote region for the late dictator, and now, with elections May 10, the Marcoses could move even further center stage. Former first lady Imelda and daughter Imee are running for the local positions in congress and as governor. Marcos’ only son, Ferdinand Jr., currently a congressman, is campaigning for a nationally elected senate seat.

Known for her 3,000 pairs of shoes and her lavish, jet-setting lifestyle, Imelda became a symbol of extravagance during her husband's reign. According to the former first lady, all the years in the public eye have taught her a lesson that will help her serve.

“Democracy is not a leveling ideology. God does not make us all the same. Democracy is maximizing the potential of every human being to his wholeness, fulfillment, dignity,” she said in a recent interview at her apartment in Makati, dressed in an aqua and black caftan with the same coiffed hairdo as always.

Imelda Marcos at home in her Makati apartment. (Sunshine de Leon/GlobalPost)

Known for her 3,000 pairs of shoes, Imelda became a symbol of extravagance during her husband's reign. (Sunshine de Leon/GlobalPost)

These are sweeping words, but it was a pointed political play that ultimately drew Imelda back into the political fray. At 80 years old, Imelda says the thought of a comeback was far from her mind, but a slight to her family name forced her to take a stand. The Marcos family had promised Senator Manny Villar — a presidential candidate of the same party as Ferdinand Jr. — voter support in Ilocos. When the current Ilocos governor was said to have questioned that support, Imelda took it as a personal affront.

“It’s not fair for those you promise to be supported and then suddenly your flock is not there with you,” she said, adding that she ran in order to “ensure that political integrity and truth will prevail.”

People in other areas of the Philippines may remember the dark shadows of the Marcos years, but “Ilocanos,” or those who share the same language of this northernmost part of the country, still speak of him as a hero.

Ilocos businessman and Marcos loyalist Toby Bassi said he believes in Marcos’ integrity. “No amount of vilification could negate the fact that he did a lot for the poor. So the masses are just returning the favor,” he said. “Ilocanos are very clannish. Once you have gained their respect, they go through all the pains to really protect you and be supportive.”

Congressman Mariano Nelupta Jr., a former Marcos ally who is now running against Imelda, said Ilocanos were only exposed to the good side of the Marcos regime. “People may not be aware of what happened in Manila. … Here in Ilocos Norte nothing happened,” he said. “Most of my life I was a fanatic to the Marcoses. I didn’t believe the rumors — only recently have I seen proof and started to believe.”

Political scientist Alex Magno, of the University of the Philippines, explains the Marcos family’s hold on the region. “It’s out of love,” he said. “When [Marcos] was president he was a generous patron for the Ilocos region. The region had full employment. Their infrastructure is among the best in the country. So the Marcos myth persists there.”

Some voters rationalize their support by saying that things aren't comparatively better today. “Compared to the current administration, he was really not that bad. And he did a lot of wonderful things. ... People remember this and it balances out,” said Ilocos business owner Sammy Blass.

Manila-based Dodie Santos took part in the Edsa People Power movement that forced Marcos out of power, but said a lack of economic progress since that time has softened his views. “During Marcos, our economy was so good but unfortunately look at us today. Even Vietnam is overtaking us,” he said.

Paulynn Paredes Sican, a journalist, said nostalgia for the stability of the Marcos era is misguided. “These people just look at the bigger picture — that martial law seemed a quieter more stable time. They don’t bother to know about the methods he used to get what he wanted.”