Sins of the father: President Marcos the younger faces court over stolen billions

Ferdinand Marcos Jnr, affectionately known as Bongbong, is treading carefully. Elected president of the Philippines in a landslide victory in May, the son of the late dictator and notorious kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos is facing the nation’s Sandiganbayan graft court in a case concerning the giant stash of assets stolen by his father. Earlier this month, Marcos Jnr’s lawyer rested his case in one stage of the long-winded and tangled attempt to recoup some of the nation’s stolen wealth. Marcos Jnr’s sisters and his mother, the shoe-loving former first lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos, now 93, will apparently have the opportunity to present their evidence in the weeks to come.

The first Ferdinand Marcos ruled the Philippines between 1965 and 1986, imposing martial law in 1972, amassing many billions of dollars for himself and his family while much of the nation lived in grinding poverty. The Marcoses flaunted their wealth, buying an array of luxury houses and properties, a huge cache of jewels, and dozens of Old Masters, including a Goya, two Monets, a Pissaro and a couple of Braques, not to mention untold pairs of shoes. Finally deposed in 1986, Marcos and his family, including Bongbong, fled to Hawaii. Their stolen wealth was secreted in bank accounts all over the world where, it’s assumed, much of it remains.

Taking over following Marcos’s ouster, the new Philippines president Corazon Aquino quickly established the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) to claw back some of the lost funds. The Commission’s primary goal, according to its mandate, is simple: “To continue the search for the Marcos’s ill-gotten wealth.”

It has become a peculiarly delicate task, considering Marcos Jnr, 64, is now the nation’s president after using some of his family’s massive cache of resources to finance an election campaign long on social media and revisionist history and short on substance. Junior, or Bongbong, dodged debate and difficult interviews during the recent campaign and regularly harked back to the “golden past”, inviting nostalgia for his father’s presidency.His ensuing political victory was notable, considering he failed an Oxford University politics course twice and the economics course once.

The Commission is looking at a rocky road ahead. To abolish it entirely would require the Philippines Congress to pass a law, which might be politically difficult, but the Commission’s wings can be clipped in other ways, particularly by limiting its budget. Its mission could also be changed.

Department of Justice secretary Jose Crispin Remulla said in a speech in Manila last month that he wanted to expand the Commission’s remit beyond the Marcos wealth.

“I don’t think we need to spend the next hundred years running after the Marcoses,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be that way, might as well make good of something that’s there already, so shift the mandate to something more useful for the country and more urgent.”

According to the independent news site Rappler, co-founded by Nobel prize winner Maria Ressa, by the end of 2020, the Philippines had recovered 174.2 billion Philippines pesos, or A$4.41 billion and last year the Commission was still chasing P125.9 billion, A$3.19 billion from the Marcos family.

Bongbong succeeded the controversial Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines top job; he recruited Duterte’s daughter to stand as vice-president, and she won as well. The Marcos dynasty scion now has a term of six years to prove the sceptics wrong, and start to fix the Philippines’ many problems, including appalling poverty, jails groaning with prisoners and political oppression.

Meanwhile, in the decades to come there are more Marcoses waiting in the wings. Bongbong has three sons. The eldest, 28-year-old Ferdinand Marcos III, affectionately known as Sandro, was elected to Congress this year.