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ILOCOS NORTE, Philippines – In the December breeze before the Omicron surge, the capital Laoag City was all quiet, with little sign that its favorite son was preparing for the biggest election of his life. Only a couple of campaign posters were visible, and they were not even of the Marcoses but of President Rodrigo Duterte and his erstwhile presidential bet Bong Go.
A few blocks from the provincial capitol, the capiz windows of an old house was decorated with small but bright pink and green ribbons – a gutsy show of support for Vice President Leni Robredo and her running mate Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan.
Some residents said the ribbons were strategically placed in that house so that Robredo’s archrival for the presidential elections, their province’s former governor Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., would see it when his motorcade passed by that week. The motorcade was canceled, though, because of Typhoon Odette.
Zsa Zsa Raval, coordinator of the Ilocos Norte for Leni-Kiko volunteer group, does not pretend there are many of them here in Marcos country – or at least not yet, or not many to be so public about it.
“We are a tiny, tiny minority, as one journalist said in Ilocos Norte, but that tiny, tiny minority is a significant one because we’re here in Ilocos Norte,” Raval, a law graduate, told Rappler. “We will always be heard because we are in Ilocos Norte.”
The Ravals are a known opposition clan in Ilocos Norte. Zsa Zsa’s grandfather, lawyer Castor Raval, led a lonely opposition here against the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose martial law rule was marked by human rights abuses and rampant corruption.
But the most famous family to oppose the Marcoses today, and one with power and influence to match that of the dynasty, is the Fariñas clan.
“Noong gobernador si Bongbong, wala naman po siyang naibigay. Hindi naman po natin puwedeng ipagkaila na ang tatay nila maraming nagawa, pero ‘yung mga anak eh walang nagawa,” former Ilocos Norte governor and First District congressman Rodolfo “Rudy” Fariñas said in an interview with radio DZME on November 22, 2021.
(When Bongbong was governor, he did not give anything to the province. We can’t deny that their father had done a lot, but the children have done nothing.)
But the Fariñases had been laying low in the media lately.
In the local elections, however, they have declared an all-out war.
It’s Chevylle Fariñas, Rudy’s niece-in-law, running for Laoag City mayor against incumbent Michael Keon, a Marcos cousin. But Keon had been disowned by his family, who is now supporting his mortal enemy, Vicentito Lazo, also running for mayor.
Rudy’s son Carlos is running for vice mayor of Laoag.
The seat of Ria Fariñas, Rudy’s daughter, as First District representative is being challenged by political neophyte Sandro, eldest son of Marcos Jr.
And in a move seen to force Sandro to back down against Ria, the political veteran Rudy has come out of retirement and filed his candidacy for governor against reelectionist Matthew Manotoc, son of Senator Imee Marcos.
‘Greedy for power’
In the same radio interview in November, Rudy said the folks of Ilocos Norte would not have much choice of leaders because the Marcoses were running unopposed.
“Kaya ako tumatakbo ngayon kasi ang huling eleksiyon para sa gobernador ay 2010 pa dahil nung nag-reelect si Imee noong 2013, noong 2016 walang lumaban, natatakot mga tao eh. Noong 2019, wala na namang laban, kaya nitong 2022, kung hindi ako pumila, wala na namang laban, kaya ang tao hindi nakakapamili,” Rudy said.
(I’m running because our last election for governor was way back 2010 because when Imee was reelected in 2013, she was unopposed, in 2016, she was unopposed, because people were scared. In 2019, [Matthew] did not have opposition, so in 2022, had I not lined up, they would still be unopposed. People have no other choice.)
Ria, meanwhile, slammed Sandro’s aspirations for her seat.
“They now want to take the only position we’re serving in. I see that as being too greedy for power,” Ria told local news outlet Balitang Ilocos Online in September 2021, speaking in flawless Ilocano. Her supporters chastise Sandro for not speaking the language.
Ria had publicly supported Go’s presidential candidacy, but on November 30, after dramatic twists and turns, Go said he would withdraw.
On the same day, Sandro hit back at Ria. When asked if they were willing to reconcile with the Fariñases in light of Go’s withdrawal, Sandro said in Filipino: “You’re gonna make my father Plan B? It’s sad to be a backup plan. We’ve never been one to turn down support, but we’ve never been the kind of family that is just a backup.”
Rappler made repeated attempts to interview Ryan Remigio of Team Marcos for this story. Remigio, a local politician and staunch ally of the Marcoses in Ilocos Norte, initially said he would find a schedule but eventually stopped responding to our messages. Rappler also reached out to Marcos’ spokesperson Vic Rodriguez for a comment, but has yet to get a response.
Winning at all cost
And then there’s the Marcoses’ recalcitrant cousin Keon, son of the late Elizabeth Marcos Keon, sister of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
The mother-and-son Keon had been governors here. Elizabeth ruled Ilocos Norte from 1971, a year before her brother declared Martial Law in the Philippines, up to 1983, when she fell ill and Marcos Jr., who was her vice governor, had to take her place.
For his mayoral reelection bid in 2022, Michael Keon lost his clan’s support, which is solidly behind his rival, Lazo. Keon had recent public run-ins with his nephew, Governor Matthew Manotoc, skipping ceremonies with him and making public his frustrations with the family.
In one press conference, Keon said he did not want to run for mayor in 2019 anyway, but was told through intermediaries that Imee had supposedly chosen him to take back Laoag City from the Fariñases and return it to the family. (Keon had defeated Chevylle Fariñas.)
This was after Rudy’s 2018 House investigation into irregularities in Ilocos Norte’s tobacco funds – an embarrassment to Imee, who was governor at the time, but which didn’t stop her from winning a seat in the Senate in 2019. (READ: Ilocos Norte’s tobacco funds go to Imee Marcos’ pet projects and Red flags in Imee’s Ilocos Norte and P66.45M tobacco fund use)
This side drama notwithstanding, Keon is still supporting Marcos Jr.’s presidential bid and is not closing his doors to reconciliation.
Laoag City Bishop Renato Mayugba, who’s been with the diocese for nine years, said more shifts in alliances should be expected as the elections draw near.
Calling the political landscape in the Philippines “immature,” Mayugba said the Marcos family spat was not a surprise “because politics is conditioned by the desire to be elected, even within families, and the overriding concern is to win at all cost.”
Will the family squabble have any effect on Marcos Jr.’s presidential bid here?
“There is no fixed [situation.] The battle is ongoing,” Mayugba told Rappler.
Dissent like never before
Perhaps the most felt shift in Ilocos Norte is how vocal and public the dissenters, no matter how few of them for now, have become.
Manuel Aurelio, a former prosecutor and councilor and now the dean of the Northwestern University College of Law, told Rappler he would vote for Vice President Leni Robredo, Marcos’ rival for the presidency.
“I will vote for her because she has the experience of governance, she is the vice president, and she has proven legally that she is really the vice president. I believe in her integrity, moral courage even in the midst of adversity. And I believe in her sincerity,” Aurelio said.
Is he not scared to say that? Aurelio said, “When you believe in what you’re saying, you’re honest about it, and you’re backed by what is true, you are not afraid of anything.”
The growth of the Ilocos Norte for Leni-Kiko volunteers was slow, until a group of more than a hundred alumni from the state-run Mariano Marcos State University, named after the late dictator’s father, got in touch, and helped expand their network.
Now, their group counts among its members people belonging or related to the old clans of Ilocos Norte, like the Aurelios and Bingle Nicolas-Custodio of the Nicolas family, but it would still have to take a lot of convincing for many to be more vocal.
“Being against the Marcoses here in Ilocos Norte, it’s hard to do so. You will have a lot of bashers,” Raval told Rappler.
Although her family was always allied with the Liberal Party, Raval said the 2022 elections called for more aggressive moves.
“There’s been so much historical revisionism. I see a lot of people talking about how great the Marcoses are, so I said, this is wrong, these people don’t know what they’re talking about,” Raval said.
“But I felt so alone, even before the filing of candidacies, but I was still actively sharing posts of the truth about the Marcos regime,” she added.
In 2016, Marcos had beaten Robredo for vice president in Ilocos Norte by a landslide – 298,786 vs 3,704. The same lopsided numbers favored Marcos in the rest of the Ilocos Region. The rest of the north was pretty much solid for Marcos in 2016, when he won all provinces here except Batanes.
“It’s hard to convince die-hard loyalists or apologists or fanatics to vote for Leni – even if you throw facts and evidence at them, they won’t listen. So our goal is to convince and enlighten the undecided voters,” especially the young new voters, Raval said.
When critics lambast his father and their family, Marcos Jr. becomes a relatable underdog, said Chavit Singson, Ilocos Sur political kingpin and mayor of Narvacan, an ally of the Marcoses.
“The constant tirades against his father? People are sick of that by now,” Singson told Rappler in Filipino, repeating the defense of Marcos that the sins of the father are not the sins of the son.
“There’s an effect of sympathy,” said Singson, who added that Marcos Jr.’s mellow nature compared to the dictator is also a boost to his appeal.
That’s why some believe that a Marcos Jr. rule won’t be as bad as Martial Law.
“No [I don’t believe that]. When he declared that he’s running for the presidency, he said that I will make this country great again, it’s already enough [indication] that he will follow the footsteps of his father, which is scary,” said Raval.
For the Alliance Against the Resurgence of Tyranny (ART), a group of artists campaigning against Marcos and his running mate Sara Duterte, these are all just “a kind of counter propaganda.”
“That’s another lie by the Marcoses. How can Marcos be the underdog when he’s got – you can see – paid members of the motorcade, paid human beings. Just because he says he’s an underdog doesn’t mean he is,” said Professor Edru Abraham, an Ilocano educator.
Marcos is the runaway leader in the latest Pulse Asia survey, rating at 53%, with Robredo far behind at 20%.
For lawyer Grace Marie Lopez of ART, they really don’t have any choice but to sustain criticism.
“There are more risks if we stop doing it. We keep on doing this because our aim is to educate, to enlighten our spheres of influence as much as possible,” said Lopez.
“What choice do we have?” said Abraham, “Of course they will interpret that differently in their alternate reality. If we can do it with love, let’s do it with love, but if we have to do it with anger, so be it.”
It took many years to rebrand the Marcos image, reaching its peak during the internet era as Facebook, Youtube, and now TikTok became filled with false information praising the dictatorship. The rebranding culminated in one clever election messaging for Bongbong – that of a unifier.
In a recently released TV ad, Marcos stands in the middle of split images showing social divides, and says: “Wala po akong panahong makipag-away, manira, o ngumawngaw. Wala rin akong panahon na magyabang o mangako lamang. Lahat tayo ay kasama para Bangon Bayan Muli.” (I do not have time to fight, to smear, or to engage in word wars. I also do not have time to be arrogant or just to make promises. We’re all together in making our country rise again.)
The winner mystique
The Marcoses have built their power so strongly that they command a solid loyal base.
Take a look, for example, at Kilusang Bagong Lipunan or KBL, the party founded by the late dictator, but a party that is always sidelined by the Marcos children.
Marcos Jr., for a long time, was with Nacionalista Party, then switched to the young Partido Federal ng Pilipinas (PFP) for the 2022 elections when there was KBL reorganizing and ready to campaign for him for president.
“We’re not disappointed. Our basic [mindset] is, if you give love, you don’t expect anything in return,” Ilocano businessman Mong Ocampo, KBL’s executive vice president, told Rappler.
It’s also about the Marcos’ potential to win. His numbers are so outstanding that it’s Singson’s pitch to mayors as he tries to rally them behind Marcos through the League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP), of which he is the national president.
Denying that LMP is being used to campaign for Marcos, Singson said it’s a consultation process with a nudge toward the candidate most likely to win – meaning, Marcos.
“I ask them, who should we go for? I ask them, well, who will win?” Singson said.
To Singson, Marcos Jr. is so sure to win, he doesn’t even need a public endorsement from President Rodrigo Duterte. Even the popular president’s comment that Marcos is “a weak leader” did little to the numbers of the dictator’s son.
“Of course, President Duterte’s endorsement is very important, but if he endorses somebody else, that would at best just help the opposition. It will affect Marcos somehow, but this is his time,” said Singson.
Can the Fariñases shatter the mystique?
The conviction of Marcos’ supporters in Ilocos Norte is matched only by the conviction of Fariñas’ supporters, some of them crediting the progress of the province to Rudy, their governor of 10 years post-EDSA.
The Fariñases have a reputation of being accessible to the ordinary folks, even in far-flung communities, compared to the Marcoses who don’t speak Ilocano.
“For me, it’s really the Fariñases who can help,” Benny Aguinaldo, a Pagudpud tribal chieftain, told Rappler in the Ilocano.
“The Marcoses’ only charisma is from their father,” added Aguinaldo, who is part of the progressive Alyansa Dagiti Mannalon Iti Ilocos Norte, which in English means Alliance of Farmers in Ilocos Norte. The alliance has been red-tagged in recent years and is looking for change in the province.
That is why there is a hint of confidence in Ria’s voice when she said over Balitang Ilocos Online in September that, although mayors joined Sandro’s announcement of candidacy, “we have the support of the barangay captains.”
All of these make the 2022 elections very crucial for the Marcoses, not just for Bongbong’s presidential run, but for their hold of Ilocos Norte as well.
With a growing opposition in the home turf, a loss – local or national – may just break the long-preserved mystique of Marcos the undefeated.
For Raval, it’s important that Marcos Jr. loses the presidency.
“It’s scary [if he wins]. What will happen? There will be cronyism, authoritarianism, historical revisionism, corruption – that’s really scary,” she said.
In this province, though, that remains a minority view. – with reports from John Michael Mugas/Rappler.com