MANILA — On a sunny afternoon last week, a crowd gathered outside the Supreme Court in Manila to honor a long-dead dictator.
They were fans of Ferdinand Marcos, the man who ruled the Philippines for two decades before being toppled by the “people power” revolution of 1986. He fled to the United States with his footwear-obsessed wife, Imelda, and a not insignificant portion of the country’s wealth.
Since his death in 1989, the Philippines has debated what to do with his remains. His embalmed corpse has been displayed since 1993 in a glass casket in his home province. Those assembled outside the court wanted to bury him at Manila’s National Heroes’ Cemetery.
Now, thanks to President Rodrigo Duterte, they got their wish.
On Friday, Marcos was interred in a private ceremony on military land, a striking symbol of the nostalgia for the kind of strongman politics that’s fueling the global rise of the populist right.
The move fulfilled a campaign promise made by Duterte, who has praised the former dictator and said the burial will “heal” the country. Millions of Filipinos disagree.
“Ferdinand Marcos was a thief, a murderer and a dictator,” said Vice President Leni Robredo in a statement issued Friday. “He is no hero.”
The debate over the ceremony shows a nation divided on the weight of its authoritarian past and what that means for the future.
For many Filipinos, the Marcos era was a horror that cannot and will not be forgotten.
Marcos was elected in 1965 and declared martial law in 1972, during his final term in office. The suspension of democracy brought extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances and torture.
Meanwhile, the Marcoses grew ridiculously, ostentatiously rich. They are believed to have made off with billions of dollars.
But in the three decades since Ferdinand and Imelda fled, leaving behind her infamous shoe collection, their clan has largely escaped punishment and, in recent years, has even returned to public life.
Imelda is a member of congress, daughter Imee is a governor, and son Ferdinand Jr., known as Bongbong, is an influential former senator who narrowly lost the race to be vice president in Duterte’s government.
Support for the family comes mostly from those young enough not to remember martial law and those who deny or play down what happened during Marcos’s rule.
In a Nov. 14 interview, Delfin Lorenzana, Duterte’s secretary of national defense, denied that Marcos was directly responsible for human rights violations. “During martial law, there were a lot of abuses that were committed, but I don’t think they were sanctioned by the president,” he said.
Rehabilitating the Marcos legacy serves two political purposes: It helps secure an alliance between the new president and a powerful political clan. It also plays to a longing for a national savior who can restore “discipline,” a sentiment that has fueled Duterte’s rise.
Duterte, once nicknamed “the death squad mayor,” swept to power last summer on a promise to “kill all” the country’s drug users and dealers and rid the country of crime.
His bold promises impressed Filipinos fed up with the corruption of the country’s ruling class. Thirty years after the “people power” revolution, about one quarter of people live in poverty — Duterte vowed to help by tackling social ills.
As president, Duterte has delivered the bloodshed he promised. Thousands of people identified as suspects have been killed, often after being named on “drug lists” compiled by neighborhood officials and the police.
Faced with criticism of his “drug war,” Duterte has lashed out at critics at home and abroad, using sexist language to shame a senator who challenged him, lecturing President Obama on colonialism, and directing profane gestures and comments toward the European Union.
Blasting American colonialism and calling for an “independent” foreign policy appeal to a rising nostalgic nationalism in the country that is becoming a potent political force.
The people gathered outside the court in Manila saw Duterte as Marcos’s heir and someone who would create an era of pride and stability, they said.
They insisted that Marcos seized power because he had to, that he had no choice. “If there were no problems, there would not have been martial law,” said Grace Koo, 52.
Koo said today’s drug problem justifies a similarly strong response. “It’s good that there’s lots of killing,” she said.
“There should be due process, but there’s millions of people [using drugs]. How long would that take?”
That is not far from what the president himself has said. Duterte recently said he may be forced to suspend the writ of habeas corpus to enable arrests without warrants, a plan critics called a precursor to martial law.
Some Marcos-loving supporters said that would be fine. “Martial law was the best time that happened in the Philippines,” said Artemio Lachica, a 74-year-old retired teacher.
Duterte will follow in Marcos’s footsteps, for the good of the nation, because he has no choice, he said.
“Duterte wants to duplicate what Marcos has done.”