Philippines Election: Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Is Bound for Presidency

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MANILA — Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of the former Philippines dictator, appeared sure to win the country’s presidential election on Monday, with a commanding vote margin that heralded a remarkable revival for a family once forced into exile, but that also raised profound questions about the future of Southeast Asia’s oldest democracy.

The Marcos family was driven from office in 1986 by the “People Power” uprising, with millions of Filipinos uniting to decry deadly abuses and rampant corruption that siphoned billions of dollars from the treasury into the family’s personal bankroll.

But five years later, the younger Mr. Marcos and his mother were back in the Philippines. He began working to rehabilitate his family’s name and chart his own rise to political influence, winning key leadership roles at the state level before entering national politics as a senator in 2010.

On Monday, those efforts paid off, with Mr. Marcos on a path to win the biggest margin of victory in a presidential race in the Philippines since Corazon Aquino was elected in the wake of the ouster of Mr. Marcos’s father.

Early Tuesday, preliminary returns with more than 90 percent of the vote counted showed Mr. Marcos with 28.8 million votes, more than double that of his closest rival, Leni Robredo, the vice president.

Mr. Marcos, 64, won the support of millions of voters who have grown disillusioned with their country’s brand of democracy and its failure to address the basic needs of its citizens. Poverty is widespread, inequality has widened and corruption remains rampant.

His opponents fear that as president, Mr. Marcos will only deepen the culture of impunity enshrined by the departing leader, Rodrigo Duterte, who worked to aid a Marcos comeback during his years in power.

Mr. Marcos has said he would try to shield Mr. Duterte from international court proceedings. And many expect Mr. Marcos to try to dismantle investigations and prosecutions that remain against his family.

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Pollsters said the support for Mr. Marcos, who is widely known by his boyhood nickname, Bongbong, directly correlated with Mr. Duterte’s base. Mr. Marcos’s supporters see in him a glimmer of Mr. Duterte, whose strongman rule remains largely popular in the Philippines.

Many of them backed Mr. Marcos because Sara Duterte, Mr. Duterte’s daughter, ran for vice president on his ticket. She appeared set to clinch the vice presidency, with nearly 29 million votes, more than triple that of Senator Francis Pangilinan, who ranked No. 2 and ran in support of Ms. Robredo.

But by the time polls closed at 7 p.m., accounts of alarming irregularities had been reported across the country: malfunctioning voting machines, insufficient backup machines, complaints that voters had been left off registration rolls, and that their ballots had been tampered with.

Still, Mr. Marcos’s lead was so strong early Tuesday that his victory appeared nearly inevitable. Official counting begins Tuesday and is expected to go for a few days.

Early Tuesday, Ms. Robredo stopped short of conceding defeat but acknowledged a “feeling of real dismay among our ranks.”

“We have not failed,” she assured her supporters, speaking from her hometown in the Bicol Region. “We are just starting. An avenue has opened and it will not shut down. A movement was born and it will not die at the close of counting.”

But a victory for Mr. Marcos is likely to lead to further erosion of democracy in the Philippines, where institutions have been obliterated or weakened under Mr. Duterte. His promise to shield Mr. Duterte from an investigation by the International Criminal Court for a violent drug war that has claimed thousands of lives has many fearing that impunity for the powerful will only deepen.

“Personally, I’m devastated,” said Sol Iglesias, an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman. “This is a dashing of the hopes that there will be a U-turn away from the backsliding toward authoritarian rule that was begun by President Duterte.”

Late Monday night, spontaneous celebrations erupted outside Mr. Marcos’s campaign headquarters, where huge crowds of Filipinos had gathered in peaceful protest against his father more than three decades ago. Supporters sang a martial law anthem, waved the Philippines flag and chanted: “Bongbong, Sara!”

Credit…Jes Aznar for The New York Times

“This ends our 36-year suffering since 1986,” said Jean Diaz, a 66-year-old supporter. “I am beyond happy. This is what we’ve been waiting for.”

In a speech to his supporters on Monday night, with the official vote counting ahead, Mr. Marcos urged patience.

“It’s not over yet,” he said. “Let us keep watch over our votes. And if I do get lucky, I am hoping for your unending help and trust.”

Mr. Marcos has repeatedly said he would not apologize for the legacy of his father, who died in exile in Hawaii in 1989, and he has campaigned for years to recast the Marcos dictatorship as an era of development.

But Mr. Marcos’s name remains tarnished among many Filipinos. Many of them see the family as a symbol of greed and excess, accused by the government of looting as much as $10 billion from the treasury. The “People Power” revolt was seen as a model for many other countries with fledgling democracy movements.

“It’s extremely disappointing to see where we are at this stage in the game,” said Cleo Anne A. Calimbahin, an associate professor of political science at the De La Salle University-Manila.

Mr. Marcos will face a range of challenges when he begins presiding over a divided country. He has campaigned on a platform of unity, promising Filipinos that he would “help them rise again.” But many of his policy proposals remain thin and he has shunned most of the news media and avoided nearly all debates.

Credit…Jes Aznar for The New York Times

On Ms. Robredo’s side, hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young, campaigned door to door for her, seeing in her a leader who could bring about change.

Ultimately, they struggled against a powerful political family that was adept at building alliances and avoiding any semblance of accountability.

After the Marcoses returned in 1991, they continued building their fief in the northern province of Ilocos Norte, the family’s stronghold. Imelda Marcos, Mr. Marcos’s 92-year-old mother, twice ran unsuccessfully for president.

Mr. Marcos served as vice governor, governor and congressman in Ilocos Norte. In 2010, he entered the national political scene when he was elected senator. He ran for the vice presidency in 2016 and lost narrowly to Ms. Robredo by just over 260,000 votes.

Mr. Marcos drew much of his support from the young, who say they enjoy watching his YouTube videos portraying him as a cool parent in game-show segments with his family. A survey has shown that 7 out of 10 Filipinos aged 18 to 24 want him to be president. The country’s school textbooks gloss over the atrocities of the Marcos era.

“I think he can solve everything,” said Chereen Nicole Rivera, a 21-year-old student who was celebrating Mr. Marcos’s win. “The money stolen was not by him, but by his dad. He should not be judged by the sins of his dad.”

Critics fear that Mr. Marcos will press the courts to overturn the criminal convictions against himself and his mother, and the outstanding cases against his family. Mr. Marcos was sentenced to up to three years in prison in 1995 for tax-related issues, but his sentence was overturned on appeal two years later, even though his conviction remains 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.

Separately, the government is still demanding that the Marcoses pay an estate tax of at least $3.9 billion, which Mr. Marcos has dismissed as “fake news.”

Mr. Duterte, an ally of the Marcoses, had paved the way for a full rehabilitation of the Marcos name. In 2016, he allowed 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 made the surprise announcement that she would run for vice president instead of president that Mr. Marcos gained his large lead in the polls.

The alliance of the Marcoses and the Dutertes “has effectively formed a dynasty cartel,” said Aries Arugay, a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

“The Philippines is heading more and more toward an electoral autocracy,” he said, a system that could elect “another Duterte, another Marcos for decades and decades to come.”

Jason Gutierrez and Camille Elemia contributed reporting.

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