By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 24, 2006 4:15 AM
BATAC, Philippines -- Two decades after President Ferdinand Marcos was chased from power, he still draws the faithful and the curious to this farming town in the northernmost Philippines.
Displayed in an adobe mausoleum, his lavishly waxed corpse lies in a family tribute, bedecked in military medals and surrounded by faux flowers while Gregorian chants echo softly. Scores of schoolchildren visit nearly every day, filing past souvenir peddlers for a look at the deposed dictator whom residents of Ilocos Norte province fondly call "Apo," or the Old Man.
The "People Power" movement that forced Marcos into exile 20 years ago this week -- he died three years later in Hawaii -- did little to weaken the hold of his family on the province they have dominated for much of the last century.
But Marcos's overthrow ushered in a period of sustained political turmoil -- repeated coup attempts, a popular uprising that toppled another president, and continuing efforts to impeach the current president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Now, many Filipinos declare that East Asia's oldest democracy has failed.
Indeed, Arroyo declared a state of emergency today, saying she needed expanded authority because of a coup plot scheduled to coincide with the Marcos anniversary.
The blame for the country's problems of governance, Philippine analysts say, rests with the country's political system -- first put in place by the United States during four decades of colonial rule -- and the family dynasties it allowed to cement their power. Today, Philippine democracy is little more than a ruthless contest among rival clans with such names as Aquino, Arroyo and Marcos. Political parties are largely irrelevant, and most Filipinos are relegated to the role of spectators.
The cost to the economy has been tremendous. The perpetual political crisis has scared off investment, both domestic and foreign, while national leaders have often been too preoccupied with their own survival to pursue long-term strategies of development that could reverse the country's slide into poverty.
"The political system pieced together by the American colonial administration is incapable of performing the functions of a modern state," said Joel Rocamora of the Institute for Popular Democracy in Manila.
"In theory, it's American-style politics because we have a Xeroxed system," said Imee Marcos, the former president's daughter, a three-term member of Congress who personifies the dynastic system. "But democratic processes don't work the way they're meant to," she added. "It's ties of kinship and blood relations."
The United States wrested control of the Philippines from Spain in 1898 and soon created a national assembly modeled on the U.S. Congress, with representatives elected from single-member districts.
With suffrage initially limited to literate property owners, the new system allowed landed families in each district to monopolize local power. The clans used their access to public money, loans and patronage to consolidate their position. Political office became a family heirloom to be handed down.
Nor was it only in politics that U.S. colonial rulers sought to reinvent the Philippines in their own image. Hundreds of American educators streamed into the archipelago, setting up the public school system and establishing English as the language of instruction.
In later decades, Filipino filmmakers mimicked their American counterparts, producing movies about cowboys and Indians. Radio stations long played nothing but American music. Filipinos play basketball instead of soccer, rush home early from work to watch "American Idol" and are passionate about U.S.-style beauty pageants.
But even as the Philippines came increasingly to resemble the United States, the electoral system failed to deliver American success.
Today, about two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives are from dynastic families, according to a recent study by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.
Without parties that command loyalty from their members, politicians race to the side of popular leaders, then betray them at the sign of weakness. Moreover, ordinary Filipinos have little way to channel their interests through the electoral system. This explains why crowds repeatedly flood into the streets to demand change, as they did in ousting President Joseph Estrada five years ago.
Politics are frantic, with civic groups, research institutes and TV talk shows competing in a national shout-fest. But the ballast of a modern political system, a professional civil service, is lacking, and the feeble bureaucracy is easily buffeted by electoral turbulence.
"The lack of political institutions has made Philippine politics less stable than other countries," said Felipe Miranda, a pollster and political scientist at the University of the Philippines. "Disillusionment has come about because there has been a betrayal of democratic elections. The majority of people would say democracy has largely failed."
Imee Marcos works from an antique wood-paneled office in the family's colonial mansion in Batac. It was once the provincial office of her grandfather when he was a congressman; later it was her father's congressional office before he became president.
A small Marcos museum and the family-run mausoleum where he has lain for 13 years are just next door. "It's spooky," she admitted.
This was never meant to be Marcos's final resting place. His widow, Imelda, has long insisted that he be buried beside other presidents in the national cemetery. But a series of Philippine leaders have balked, and the dispute has divided even the Marcos family.
Imelda Marcos has thrown her support behind Arroyo in hopes of winning her assent for a state burial, while the Marcos children have actively pressed for her ouster. Now, Imee Marcos has suggested that it is time to break the stalemate by burying the Old Man in the province.
"He would be at home here," she said.
Across Ilocos Norte, schools and streets bear the Marcos name. So do the state university and the premier private hospital, both in honor of the late president's father, Mariano Marcos, a congressman and governor.
Ferdinand went to Congress in 1946, graduating to the Senate before becoming president. He held that office for two decades, the majority of them under martial law. He was chased out in 1986, accused of violating human rights and plundering the treasury to support a lavish lifestyle; the Marcoses' excesses were symbolized by Imelda's vast shoe collection. But Ilocanos prefer to remember the paved roads, pride and government jobs he brought to their province, where his children retain his mantle.
"Nobody dares to challenge them," said Antonio Casimiro, manager of the local radio station. "The thinking of the people in Ilocos Norte is Marcos, Marcos, Marcos."
The president's son, Ferdinand Jr., returned to the Philippines to become congressman in 1992. Six years later, he was elected governor of Ilocos Norte.
"I remember George Shultz in 1987 saying the Marcoses were history," he recounted in an interview, referring to the former U.S. secretary of state. "My father answered that history is not finished with us yet. His answer is coming true."
The People Power movement that expelled Marcos drew tens of thousands of demonstrators to Manila's Edsa Boulevard. But two decades later, many Filipinos primarily know this gritty thoroughfare as home to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.
By 8 a.m. every weekday, hundreds of people line up to register for jobs abroad, thronging the building's cavernous lobby and spilling down the front steps. The government estimates that 2,500 Filipinos leave the country every day for work overseas, and about 10 million are estimated to be working abroad.
There is no greater testament to the failure of Philippine democracy to provide for its people. In a country of 85 million, nearly 17 percent of all families now experience hunger, according to a recent survey by the Social Weather Station, a polling group.
"It's very hard to find work here. If you stay, you feel hungry," said Ronald Almerol, 32, a machine operator who had been waiting in line for more three hours to register for work in South Korea. "In this political crisis, the politicians don't want to stop fighting each other and find time to think about what they can do for the Philippine people."
Catherina Mente, 30, had long planned to register for a foreign job but said it took her several months to save up for the two-hour bus ride to the capital. She arrived at the agency only to find hundreds of others in line ahead of her.
"All the politicians are all selfish. They just care about enriching themselves," muttered Mente, who had put on blue eye shadow and lipstick for the occasion. "That's why we all have to go outside."
She suddenly looked away. A tear streaked her cheek.
"Here," she added, "we can barely survive."