Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos
Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos

Although popularly elected at first, Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, transformed the Philippines into a police state during the early 1970s. With the financial and political backing of the United States, which valued their strong anticommunist policies, the Marcoses ruled for 15 years before being forced from power by popular protest in mid-1986.

Ferdinand Marcos was born in Llocos Norte Province at the northwestern tip of Luzon, a rice- and tobacco-growing region. His father was a politician and educator, his mother a teacher from a prominent local family.

Marcos was a brilliant law student in the 1930s; he successfully convinced the Philippine Supreme Court to drop a murder conviction against him for shooting a political rival of his father. During World War II, Marcos fought in the Battle of Bataan and claimed to have led a guerrilla unit, the Maharlikas, against Japan. Many critics doubted the veracity of his claims.

In 1949 Marcos won a seat in the Philippine House of Representatives. In 1954, he married Imelda Romualdez, a well-connected former beauty queen. He became a senator in 1959 and served as president of the senate from 1963 to 1965. He was elected president of the Philippines in 1965.

During his first term, Marcos championed a number of large-scale development projects that earned him the support of both elites and peasants. He built roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals.

young imelda
young imelda
Politically, such programs fared far better than the land reform agenda that Marcos had made a key part of his campaign. Much of the money for these projects came from the United States, which was eager for the support of Asian nations in its struggle against communism.

Marcos won a second term in 1969. Soon after, the situation within the country deteriorated; economic stagnation, crime, and political instability came to characterize national life. A communist insurgency erupted in the countryside.

With the instability as pretext, and, as later accounts would reveal, actually engineering much of it, Marcos began arrogating more powers to himself. In September 1972 he instituted martial law and would rule by decree for much of the next decade and a half.

During this period Marcos proclaimed the beginning of a New Society, which would cast away the personal and political values of colonialism in favor of modern values. But even as Marcos and his supporters called for self-sacrifice they began to pocket enormous sums of money from the public till.

Marcos broke up many of the business conglomerates run by some of the country’s leading families and handed these profitable enterprises to his own family members and loyal supporters. He also nationalized industries and created monopolies to enrich himself and his supporters.

Marcos ended martial law in January 1981 with Proclamation 2045. Although he appeared to loosen his grip on power, the New Republic proved to be little more than a repackaged version of the corrupt and repressive New Society. Because of a boycott by the main opposition parties, Marcos won a large victory in the June 1981 presidential election.

However, years of corruption began to affect the economy as its national debt climbed to $25 billion by early 1985. Marcos’s health also begin to fail. Because he suffered from what was believed to be kidney disease, his wife Imelda took on more responsibilities, including meeting foreign dignitaries. The United States also began to withdraw its support of Marcos.

The assassination of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., the main opposition leader, in August 1983 ignited a people’s movement that would result in the exile of the Marcoses three years later. Aquino and his wife, Corazon, had been long-term rivals of Marcos.

It is widely believed that had martial law not been declared, Aquino would have won the 1972 presidential election. Although a high-level commission blamed Marcos loyalists for the killing, the government ignored its findings. Aquino’s murder and the subsequent cover-up became the rallying point for a diverse group of opponents.

Ferdinand Marcos in glass coffin
Ferdinand Marcos in glass coffin
Still confident of his popularity, in November 1985 Marcos called a “snap” election for February 1986, 16 months before the end of his term. After the Marcos-controlled National Assembly declared him the victor, Catholic Primate of the Philippines Cardinal Jaime Sin, Minister of Defense Juan Ponce Enrile, and Lieutenant General Fidel V. Ramos rallied around the legitimate winner, Aquino’s widow Corazon Cojuango Aquino.

The People Power Movement forced Marcos out of office on the day of his inauguration. He fled in a U.S. Air Force plane with his family and closest supporters and eventually settled in Honolulu, Hawaii.

In ensuing months details emerged about how he had used his office to accumulate vast amounts of wealth. Filipino officials estimated that Marcos and his wife and supporters stole between $5 and $10 billion. The great symbol of this corruption amid poverty became Imelda Marcos’s collection of shoes, handbags, and formal gowns, which numbered in the thousands.

Ferdinand Marcos died on September 28, 1989, in Hawaii. Imelda Marcos returned to the Philippines in 1992, served in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2001, and lost two bids for the presidency.