If Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. becomes president, our country’s brittle institutions would be subjected to their most difficult test. Would they dare to rule against his interest in the many unresolved cases that have been filed against members of his family? Or would the Marcos scion’s election to the nation’s highest office be interpreted as a popular mandate that tacitly absolves them of all past liabilities?
Because we think of ourselves as a democracy, we assume that the legal system is separate from the political system, and that no one is above the law. We also believe that the judiciary is independent from the other branches of government, and that the various agencies of government enjoy autonomy from executive power.
But we are only too aware that our democratic system has not reached the level of maturity that we often note, with envy, in other countries. A case in point: In 1995, Sweden’s then Deputy Prime Minister Mona Sahlin was prosecuted for charging private expenses (like a bar of Toblerone chocolate) to her official credit card. She was subsequently acquitted. But years later, she was found guilty of tax evasion for failing to declare income earned from her writing and speaking engagements.
Compare this to the Priority Development Assistance Fund scandal involving convicted plunderer Janet Lim Napoles. Only a couple of cases were actually filed against the legislators who, in partnership with Napoles, monetized portions of their pork barrel allocations for their personal use. Three senators landed in jail but, under a new president, all were later declared innocent and released. Only their underlings have remained in jail.
In 2005, New Zealand’s then Prime Minister Helen Clark’s motorcade was on its way to the airport when it was flagged down by the police for speeding and dangerous driving. The drivers were found guilty and fined, and PM Clark, who was a passenger in one of the three cars, was taken to task for allowing the speeding to happen. Such effrontery (for that’s how our politicians and police would have perceived it) would never happen here.
It took President Noynoy Aquino, at his inaugural speech in 2010, to remind the Filipino people that elected public officials were not entitled to break the law. His “no more wang-wang” policy was emblematic of his belief that in a democracy, the people are the real boss. But under a new president, we quickly went back to the same ingrained habits.
We have allowed political privilege to undercut the state so often that rule of law doesn’t really mean much. We have become so accustomed to treating the powerful differently, conferring upon them an unspoken right to certain exemptions, that we are no longer surprised when they behave arrogantly. This entitlement is not written in our laws. It is rather deeply embedded in our feudalistic culture, forever constraining the system of modern law enforcement, and preventing our institutions from functioning effectively.
If Marcos Jr. wins in the May 2022 presidential election, as the opinion polls project, it is fair to ask what will happen to the cases against the Marcoses that have remained unresolved. These have hardly moved over the last three decades largely because of clever legal maneuvering by their highly-paid lawyers.
I quote from a recent Business World column (BW, 3/17/22) by former Bangko Sentral deputy governor Diwa C. Guinigundo: “Some 942 items of real property worth P29.1 billion are still under court litigation. We are also running after 914 items of personal properties like corporations, aircraft, and paintings worth P96.9 billion. All in, P125.98 billion is 2.5% of our annual budget.”
And then there is the matter of unsettled estate tax liabilities, now amounting to P203.81 billion. Guinigundo continues: “Marcos Jr. and his spokesman’s reasoning that the tax obligation could not be settled all these years because the amount is yet to be settled between the BIR and the Presidential Commission on Good Government, does not hold water.” Citing a source from the BIR, he says that “as early as 1997, the judgment on the tax case had become final and executory.”
It is good to know that the BIR has not forgotten. BIR Commissioner Caesar R. Dulay confirms that as recently as Dec. 2 last year, they sent a demand letter to the Marcos heirs concerning their still unpaid tax liabilities. If Ferdinand Marcos Jr. can repeatedly ignore the BIR as executor of the Marcos estate, do we expect him to be more law-abiding when he becomes president?
In highly unequal societies like ours, the scales of justice have generally tipped in favor of those who are in possession of political and economic power. The Marcoses are not known to be modest in their use of power. More than the redemption of the family name, we can assume that it is the resolution of these pending cases under more favorable circumstances that is at the root of Marcos Jr.’s bid for the presidency.
Alongside these cases—all involving huge amounts of money and property—are the longstanding claims of the Marcoses to portions of the wealth of Marcos Sr.’s former cronies. If Marcos Jr. becomes president, there would be no need for the family to resort to expensive and prolonged litigation to get back what they believe is theirs.
Yet the irony of it all—and this may be what is fueling Marcos Jr.’s support among the poor and oppressed in our society—is that the prospective return of a Marcos to Malacañang is being depicted, telenovela style, as a redemption for past humiliation, and a vicarious balm for the pains of popular discontent.