Imelda Marcos, the former Philippine first lady and the stuff of shoemakers’ dreams, has a new vocation. The Philippine parliament, their faces straighter than a Manolo Blahnik seam, has named Marcos – the biggest of the big spenders – the country’s champion of the poor, appointing her chair of a key committee tasked with halving poverty by 2015.
The story of the spendthrift queen’s unlikely renaissance already ran like a Filipino joke that doesn’t translate. Her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, was one of the great crooks of the 20th century: he looted up to $30bn of the country’s money during his 20-year dictatorship – recalled un-fondly as the Marcos Kleptocracy – leaving the Philippines in a lasting economic funk. “We practically own everything in the Philippines,” Imelda once famously quipped to the Manila press. When exile and humiliation followed, it seemed little more than the Marcoses deserved.
Twenty years have passed and, with the late Ferdinand now occupying a glass display case in the town of Batac, the rehabilitated Imelda, after escaping a string of embezzlement charges, has marshalled an astonishing political comeback. In May, at the age of 80, she won election to Congress, just as her son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr (also known as Bongbong), secured a Senate seat and her daughter, Imee, became governor of their home province of Ilocos Norte.
Are Filipino memories really so short? “We Filipinos are a very forgiving, forgetting people,” admits Carlos Conde, a journalist who covers the Philippines for the New York Times. “We forget very easily. To people outside, putting Imelda in charge of tackling poverty might be a bitterly ironic thing. But I covered her election campaign, and I clearly saw that people still like the Marcoses – they revere them.” Only in the Philippines, where political families rule parts of the country like it was private property, would the resurrection of someone so notorious have been possible. “Some people might think that it’s a mockery of the poverty issue,” says Conde. “But only a few activists will actually complain. The attitude of the poor is: ‘We don’t care where the help comes from, as long as it comes.’”
Imelda’s main responsibility as chair of the country’s UN Development Goals committee will be to halve poverty by 2015. But her more realistic political objective is a long-held ambition to see Ferdinand moved from his glass box in Batac to the national heroes’ cemetery in Manila, which she sees as his rightful resting place. For the living Marcoses, too, there could soon be a return to greatness. “Bongbong Marcos is very charming, charismatic and politically savvy,” says Conde of the newly elected senator. “The family is expecting him to run for president and I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins.”