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Ferdinand Marcos Jr. leads the race to succeed Philippine President Duterte

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The son and namesake of the late Philippine dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, leads in the race to become the next president. His popularity comes three decades after his family returned from exile in Hawaii. As NPR's Julie McCarthy reports, a victory in the May election would mark a stunning restoration of power.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The Marcos comeback falls on the 50th anniversary of the late President Ferdinand Marcos imposing martial law on the Philippines. In a televised address, he told the nation...

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PRESIDENT FERDINAND MARCOS SR: I, as your duly elected president of the Republic, use this power embodied in the Constitution.

MCCARTHY: He said martial law would protect democracy.

JOSEPH SCALICE: Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was an extraordinary man - capable, brilliant, cunning, utterly rapacious.

MCCARTHY: Historian Joseph Scalice says the 14-year long dictatorship saw the arrest of 70,000 people, the deaths of nearly 4,000 and the cessation of free speech.

SCALICE: This was the essence of martial law.

MCCARTHY: By early 1986, the army was in mutiny. And millions of Filipinos were in the streets.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER: Good morning. Early today, the Reagan administration called for the government of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos to step down. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Today is Monday, February 24.

MCCARTHY: The next day, Marcos fled into exile. The Philippine democracy movement had triumphed.

(CHEERING)

MCCARTHY: Imelda Marcos later recalled stuffing diamonds into diapers in their rushed retreat. Marked as a kleptocrat, Marcos Sr. died in Hawaii in 1989. The Philippine government has recovered more than $3.4 billion from the couple's ill-gotten wealth. It's still collecting. The former first lady, fabled for her shoes, has long wanted her disgraced family returned to the seat of power and sounded wistful speaking for the 2019 documentary "The Kingmaker."

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IMELDA MARCOS: I miss the clout of being first lady, wherein you can do so much.

MCCARTHY: Imelda, now 92, wants her only son to be president. If polls are correct, she could get her wish.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr.

MCCARTHY: 64-year-old Ferdinand Marcos Jr., popularly known as Bongbong, is half of a potent, dynastic duo. The other half, Sara Duterte, daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte, is running for vice president. Marcos sums up their campaign message.

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BONGBONG MARCOS: (Non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Unity in crisis. Critics call the platform vague, but moreover insist there's nothing unifying in Marcos Jr. launching his campaign with the anthem of his father's dictatorship, with lyrics about a new life and a new society.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAGONG LIPUNAN")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Today, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. promotes his father's 20-year rule as visionary and philanthropic. Historian Scalice says the Marcos family mythmaking glorifies a period of tyranny and corruption, in which Marcos Jr. was fully vested.

SCALICE: A brutal dictatorship is being rehabilitated and brought back into Philippine life.

MCCARTHY: Investigative journalist Gemma Mendoza says a network of anonymously managed social media accounts and online influencers are circulating conspiracy laced narratives that whitewash Marcos' family misdeeds and malign the mainstream media for hiding the glories of the Marcos era.

GEMMA MENDOZA: That's very worrisome for democracy, for press freedom, because the press is bearing the brunt of this.

MCCARTHY: None of the one-dozen online influencers we reached out to agreed to talk, nor did the Marcos campaign respond to requests for comment. Historian Manuel Quezon says the Philippines is part of a global trend whereby extreme views find favor with voters while fueling anti-democratic impulses. He says it's been a boon to the Marcoses.

MANUEL QUEZON: I mean, think QAnon but Philippine style.

MCCARTHY: Economist and professor Solita Monsod says Marcos doesn't have the discipline to be president. She says, as congressmen and Senator, Marcos achieved no distinction and is noncommittal on presidential debates.

SOLITA MONSOD: It is so clear he doesn't have the capacity. He does not have the desire. His mother wants him to be president. And by God, he's going to be president if it kills the Philippines.

MCCARTHY: But analyst Richard Heydarian says the same democracy movement that toppled the father is now benefiting the son. Heydarian says three decades of administrations have failed to close the gap between the rich and poor or curb corruption. Many Filipinos, he says, are disillusioned and nostalgic.

RICHARD HEYDARIAN: And they're the ones who are trying to convince their children, their grandchildren, that, hey; if we go back to the Marcos era, those were the golden days, right? Those were the days of strength and innocence and statesmanship.

(CROSSTALK)

MCCARTHY: Jeffrey Zorilla (ph), 39, says his parents have warm memories of Marcos Sr. We caught up with him at this Manila fish market, one of several stops that found more Filipinos than not preferring Marcos in the presidential race.

JEFFREY ZORILLA: (Non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Bring back the life we had before when the peso was strong. Marcos did that, Zorilla says. As for martial law, his parents told him it instilled discipline, not killing. The election in U.S.-allied Philippines is also geopolitical, with the US-China rivalry front and center. China's vast claim to most of the South China Sea unnerves its smaller neighbors, including the Philippines. By wide margins, Filipinos say they distrust China. Yet, Marcos has said he's prepared to embrace Beijing. Scalice says the business community backing Marcos wants him leaning towards China.

SCALICE: They are concerned that if they are too close to the military maneuvers of Washington or diplomatic statements of Washington that they will alienate China. And they will lose their economic opportunities.

MCCARTHY: Scalice calls it an untenable balancing act. Whether Marcos Jr. will be the one who must weigh it up will depend on his rivals, and whether they can mobilize against the brand he's offering.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "BALABARISTAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.