Friday, April 9, 2010

The Once and Future Queen

A report on Imelda Marcos was aired on the BBC on March 26 which honestly assessed her continuing role, at the age of 80, in the politics of her husband Ferdinand's far northern Philippine province of Ilocos Norte. Though she showed plenty of public contrition at the death of Ferdinand's nemesis, Cory Aquino, from cancer last year, she has since returned to her old unapologetic self.

She is running, if that is the word, for a seat in the lower Philippine Congress, vacated by her son, Ferdinand Jr., who is running for an upper house Senate seat. Typical of such provincial politics, one family has been in power for forty years. Imelda's daughter is running for governor of the province only because Imelda was not as prodigious a baby-maker as her poor Filipina sisters.

When they filmed the body of Ferdinand, now lying, like Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chih Minh, in an air-tight, climate-controlled glass case, Imelda could not restrain herself from planting a gooey kiss on the glass next to the dead man's face. It was the closest she will get, this side of perdition, to her martyred spouse. She then muttered, "this is one of our major injustices," leaving it to the observer to guess exactly what the "injustice" was. The glass case? Marcos himself? His death from multiple organ failure in Hawaii?

But Imelda's presence on the political scene proves how power is passed around by the ruling elite like a private toy, and how a powerful family may endure public disgrace for a short time* but are never very far from a position of power.

In the BBC report, a Filipino trike driver was asked for his thoughts on the Marcos's chances in the May election. With a scarcely concealed smirk, he said that it might be "good for the people" if all of them won. Of course, he did not say whom he was for, even if he knows too well the election is practically an unnecessary formality. Like everything else in his life, everything seems to have been decided upon before he was born, and long before he even heard of such things as elections or having a vote or more arcane conceptions like freedom or free will.

Some things never change, and more than twenty-three years after the People Power genie was let out of his bottle, and just as quickly put back in, some Filipinos might have been surprised by the prevailing tone of the piece, which was derisive - the view that most foreign observers take of a system that only serves a tiny minority. Before coming to the Philippines, nearly everyone would respond to the question: who committed plunder? with pirates. After coming here, they would have to include former president Joseph Estrada, who was convicted of that very charge, which is a capital offense, and summarily pardoned by the sitting president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Apparently unperturbed by his conviction, Joseph Estrada is running for president again, and is currently running third in the polls.

*Andal Ampatuan, the patriarch and governor of Maguindanao province, was recently cleared of charges of "rebellion" brought by the Philippine government for his involvement in the November massacre of 57 men, women, and journalists.

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