MARCOS, Philippines – Twenty-seven years after her dictator husband was ousted by a public revolt, Imelda Marcos has emerged as the Philippines' ultimate political survivor: She was back on the campaign trail this week, dazzling voters with her bouffant hairstyle, oversized jewelry and big talk in a bid to keep her seat in Congress.
She is widely expected to win in Monday's congressional polls. Approaching 84, Ferdinand Marcos' widow, who once astounded the world with a mammoth shoe collection amassed amid nationwide poverty, is nearing the final chapter of her tumultuous political life. Never showing any remorse for her past, she has against all odds succeeded in orchestrating the rebirth of a political dynasty tainted by allegations of corruption and abuse during her husband's rule.
"I'm running for re-election," the puffy-faced Marcos, clad in her trademark party gown, diamond and pearls, proclaimed before hundreds of villagers in Paoay town in northern Ilocos Norte province.
Despite her reputation for extravagance, including expensive shopping trips and lavish beautification projects in a nation where a third of about 94 million live on $1 a day, Marcos twice ran unsuccessfully for president and won seats in the House following her return from exile.
She is currently campaigning for a second of a maximum three terms to represent Ilocos Norte, a vote-rich agricultural region where many are fiercely loyal to the late dictator because of the money he poured into development.
After lingering until midnight at the town fiesta, Marcos barnstormed farming villages the following morning in the sweltering summer heat, showing off several "mothering centers" she had built to provide health services and livelihood training to poor villagers.
She cradled newborn babies before a tangle of photographers and cameramen in the centers, each displaying a painting of a young Imelda embracing a child at the entrance. "We care and love you all," reads a sign at the door.
Although she said she still brimmed with energy, a crew of nurses trailed her to check her blood sugar levels. Bodyguards stood close by when she alighted from her van or the stairs. Talks with journalists strayed into the legacy she will leave behind, and she mentioned that she had decided what her epitaph would read: "Here lies love."
Marcos said she would not step down as long as she had energy.
"If God will bless me with good health, as long as I'm alive and I'm strong, I'm going to give it all to the Filipino people," she said.
When she eventually bows out of politics, her children will carry on. Her eldest daughter, Imee, a former member of Congress, is seeking re-election as governor of Ilocos Norte, her campaign posters pasted side by side with her mother's.
The Marcoses are among the most prominent of at least 250 political dynasties or families that have monopolized power across the Philippines. Such dynasties are prohibited under the 1987 constitution, but Congress — long controlled by members of powerful clans targeted by the constitutional ban — has failed to pass the law needed to define and enforce the provision.
The current president, Benigno Aquino III, is part of one such dynasty.
Critics worry that a single family's stranglehold on different levels of government could stymie checks against abuses, including corruption. A widely cited example is the 2009 massacre of 58 people, including 32 media workers, in an ambush blamed on rivalry between two powerful clans in southern Maguindanao province.
But Imelda Marcos argued that candidates, whether coming from one family or not, could only rise to power if they were given a mandate by voters.
"If some families have a record of great service ... let it be," she said. "In the end, it's up to the people."
Political analyst Ramon Casiple said that powerful clans have been known to resort to electoral fraud, intimidation, patronage and bribery to preserve their hold on power.
One of the Ilocos Norte towns visited by Imelda is called Marcos, named after the late dictator's father, who served as a congressman in the 1920s. Mayor Salvador Pillos said that residents were forever grateful to him for building sturdy roads and other pet projects.
"We love the Marcoses," Pillos said.
The dictator's son, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Jr., won a seat in the upper chamber in 2010, the highest nationally elected post the family has captured since the 1986 uprising. That has raised the possibility the young Marcos may run for president — something he has not ruled out. His mother said it would be up to destiny, but acknowledged that she savored the thought.
"I know my son and I'm proud of him and I would be prouder still if he will be like his father — a great president," she said.
Marie Hilao-Enriquez of SELDA, a group of former political prisoners under Marcos' dictatorship, said the prospect of another Marcos rising to the presidency was alarming but possible. She said it was crucial to educate young Filipinos, who never saw the atrocities committed after Ferdinand Marcos placed the Philippines under martial law in 1972.
In Ilocos Norte's Batac town, the Marcoses have opened public galleries filled with mementoes and pictures showcasing the late president's achievements. There is no mention of the 1986 uprising.
In one of galleries, called the World Peace Center, streamers bearing the images of Imelda Marcos and her son adorn the driveway leading to the entrance. Inside, walls and tables are crammed with portraits of the Marcos couple meeting world leaders, including Fidel Castro, Mao Tse-Tung and Moammar Gadhafi.
Above the door hangs a sign that might as well pertain to the Marcoses' stunning political longevity: "Paradise Regained Unto Infinity."