Monday, February 23, 2015

Another Marcos Presidency in the Philippines?

                                                                    They’re Back!

Filipino politics are in their usual state of uproar, with the wheels coming off the presidency of Benigno S. Aquino. 

PNoy’s own uncle, Jose “Peping” Cojuangco Jr., has acknowledged that he is among those demanding that Aquino step down over the mishandling of a police raid in January that cost the lives of 44 elite policemen trying to capture a couple of Islamic rebels.  But nor is Aquino alone

Jejomar Binay, the vice president and the man to beat in the 2016 presidential elections, has been caught in the coils of a series of scandals involving inordinate wealth, including the latest in which, as national head of the Boy Scouts, he allegedly allowed the scouts to be shortchanged on a land deal.  Other prospective candidates are struggling to free themselves from the massive “Pork Barrel” scandal of 2013 in which dozens of senators and congressmen were found to be pocketing redevelopment funds aimed at improving infrastructure in their districts.

In the case of Aquino’s friend and putative successor Manuel A. Ramos, he has been sunk by ineptitude. One group of students, clerics and others want Jojo  Binay, Senate President Franklin Drilon, House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. and others all to step down for  “system and reform change.”

But there seems one politician who is handling affairs with aplomb – along with his family.  In a startling burst of forgetfulness, the Filipino electorate seems to have forgiven the Marcos clan for looting the country of as much as US$10 billion from the Philippine treasury. He is Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., chairman of the Senate Committee on Local Government and Autonomy, who has led hearings in connection with the massacre in Mamasapano in which the police died. Despite the fact that his family perpetrated the biggest scandal in Filipino history, the Marcoses seem to be doing just fine politically.

Bong Bong, as he is known, is the son of the former strongman Ferdinand Marcos, who led the country to ruin during his 21 years in office, ending with the People Power Revolution that brought 2 million Filipinos into the streets. The family was forced to flee to Hawaii.  The country has been on a slow recovery path since.

The successful passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the historic peace treaty negotiated by Aquino with the Moro Liberation Front, is largely dependent on how committed  Bong Bong is to sponsoring the legislation’s passage through the Congress. That, according to the country risk firm Pacific Strategies and Assessments, has propelled him into the limelight and raised his profile enough to be considered a vice presidential candidate to fill the vacuum being left by the imploding campaigns of several politicians.

Marcos suspended hearings into the Bangsamoro agreement after the Mamasapano tragedy. Amid hearings into whether or not Aquino had botched the raid himself, Marcos told reporters that the Bangsamoro pact was akin to being in a coma. 

“Comatose is a term that once might have described the Marcoses’ political prospects as they went into self-exile in Hawaii ,” according to a report by Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a Manila-based country risk firm. “Charged with graft, corruption and money laundering in Philippines and United States, the Marcoses saw their reputedly ill-gotten wealth and assets seized and their bank accounts frozen. Under the administration of President Corazon Aquino the Marcoses were classified as threats to national security and barred from returning to the country.”

In a sense, the fact that they are back is complicated by the fact that they have really never been gone. In 1990, Bong Bong’s mother, the former First Lady,  Imelda of the 3,000 pairs of shoes, was cleared in a New York courtroom on charges of having illegally transferring billions of dollars out of the Philippines and the family returned home and immediately jumped back into the political arena despite convincing evidence that they had stolen the country blind. 

In the intervening years the Marcoses have manage to protect both their economic and political capital, according to PSA.  Now, given Bong Bong’s position of leverage in the Senate, the Marcos name is moving up the political A-lists again. 

Their political resurrection began with Bong Bong’s election as  representative of the second district of Ilocos Norte Province after having previously represented that district from 1980-1983 when his father was still president. After one term in Congress, he was elected governor of Ilocos Norte in 1998, a position which he held for nine years. In 2007, he went back to Congress and in 2010 ran and won a seat in the Philippine Senate.

Imelda is presently serving her second term as his replacement in the lower house while his sister Maria Imelda or Imee is also on her second term as governor of Ilocos Norte.

“The failure of government lawyers to secure decisive convictions in the hundreds of cases filed against the Marcoses, their purported cronies, and cousins from the Romualdez clan has undeniably contributed to the dynasty’s reestablishment, albeit limited at first in their local strongholds of Ilocos Norte and Leyte provinces,” PSA said.

Bong Bong’s  successful bid to the nationally elected Senate in 2010 “has undeniably paved the way for a return of the Marcoses to the national and popular consciousness. Admittedly, this has coincided with the changing demographics of Philippine voters, the majority who only know about the plundering and human rights abuses of the Martial Law years from what they read in history books.”

The PSA report, available only to subscribers, says that groups who call themselves “Marcos loyalists” have in the last couple of years launched social media and information campaigns to revise the prevailing historical rendering of the Martial Law years. The propaganda campaign pits the supposed infrastructural, peace and order, and economic accomplishments of the authoritarian regime against the traffic jams, infrastructural inadequacies, and continuing security issues that have beleaguered the incumbent administration.

Thus, PSA reports,  groups have called for Marcos to make a run for the presidency when Aquino steps down in 2016. At 57 years, Marcos is poised to make a strong, if not a decent bid for the presidency, or at least enough to stake a claim for political vengeance.

Why does he matter?

“As chair of the committee responsible for sponsoring and advancing the Bangsamoro Basic Law in the Senate, Bong Bong Marcos has the opportunity of frustrating the Aquino administration’s already disintegrating peace agenda.”

In recent interviews, PSA said,  Marcos has indicated that deliberations on the proposed legislation under his committee will not resume until officials involved in the planning and execution of the Maguindanao operation are held accountable.  The rest of the PSA report is here:

It is however unlikely that he will do so deliberately or with the intent of pouncing against the administration of the Marcoses’ political rival. Since his election to the Senate, Marcos’ political moves have remained calculated – avoiding issues and statements that would draw attention to past antagonisms. While he has not demonstrated the oratorical eloquence of his father, Senator Marcos has consistently presented himself in public in a calm, rational, and good-humored manner. With a number of cases still pending against his family, Senator Marcos’ temperament is judiciously composed.

Bong Bong’s membership and leadership in the Nacionalista Party that is in a coalition with the Liberal Party-led Aquino administration is also likely to shape his political strategy. In 2012, voting differently from his mother, Marcos supported the Aquino government’s Reproductive Health legislation. Marcos, however, opposed the Aquino endorsed “sin tax” legislation that raised excise taxes for tobacco and alcohol commodities – an expected move to protect the interests of reputed former Marcos cronies operating in the tobacco and alcohol industry.

In 2014, Imelda Marcos reportedly indicated her desire to see Bong Bong installed as the next president. His party mate Senator Alan Peter Cayetano had also signified his intention to run. But between Marcos’ consensual and deliberative approach and Cayetano’s penchant for media sensationalism, campaign experts and analysts say voters will be more receptive towards Senator Marcos. Between him and Cayetano, Marcos is also more likely to cooperate with the administration in rehabilitating plans for a peaceful resolution with Muslim insurgents.

What to look for

PSA sources close to the Marcoses say the dynasty is ready and has started mobilizing their remaining political and economic capital for Bong Bong Marcos’s future plans.

Nonetheless, whether or not Marcos runs in 2016 for the presidency or as some sources say more likely for the vice presidency indicates how the family through Senator Marcos, Governor Imee, and Congresswoman Imelda as well as the Romualdezes of Leyte will continue to utilize the country’s political institutions and processes to, at the very least, demonstrate their enduring influence.

How the Aquino administration will exploit the interests of the Marcoses to advance the government’s goals in Mindanao will most likely involve political trade-offs. What is clear, however, is the opportunity now affords the Senator a bargaining chip inside and outside his political party to negotiate a Marcos comeback.

Asia Sentinel

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