By Rosemarie Francisco
BATAC, Philippines (Reuters) - The Philippines' Imelda Marcos has a dream - to restore her family to what she sees as its rightful place in Manila's Malacanang presidential palace.
But standing in the way is President Benigno Aquino, the scion of another Philippine presidential dynasty, who is determined to bury the Marcos myth once and for all.
The authoritarian and corruption-ridden rule of Imelda's husband Ferdinand Marcos was ended by a mass revolt almost three decades ago. The widespread hatred of the family has now ebbed, however, and a burgeoning presidential run by their son means the Malacanang palace is well within his sights.
"I am proud of him and I will be prouder still if he will be like his father, a great president," the 83-year-old Imelda said of Ferdinand Jr, a senator known by his nickname Bongbong.
She was speaking as she hit the campaign trail in the Marcos's stomping ground of Ilocos Norte province ahead of congressional elections on Monday. Wearing a pink gown with her signature butterfly sleeves as she danced and sang with voters, Imelda displayed the undimmed pulling power that has paved the way for her family's unlikely political comeback.
With Imelda a congresswoman, her daughter a provincial governor and Bongbong a popular senator, the Marcos brand is stronger than at any time since the 1986 People Power revolution ended what critics call a kleptocratic "conjugal dictatorship".
But Aquino is an implacable foe, the son and namesake of Marcos's political rival whose assassination at Manila airport in 1983 ignited the revolt that inspired the world. His mother Cory Aquino was the icon of the People Power revolution and replaced Marcos as president, ruling from 1986 to 1992.
Aquino is backing his own preferred candidate for 2016 to continue his efforts to stamp out corruption that remains endemic in the Southeast Asian nation. By law, Aquino, voted to power in 2010 just months after his mother died, can serve only one six-year term.
He has fast-tracked a bill compensating thousands of victims of torture, harassment, and forced disappearances during Marcos's regime that had been languishing for more than a decade. The law, signed by Aquino in February, paves the way for payments to victims financed by around $600 million from Marcos's Swiss bank accounts recovered by the government.
ONE-TENTH OF WEALTH
The government has recovered just under a tenth of the wealth that the Marcos family and their associates are accused of plundering, estimated in 1987 to be worth $10 billion.
Imelda has been charged with civil and criminal crimes, but never been jailed despite evidence of massive wealth accumulated during her husband's 1965-1986 rule, most famously in the form of her huge collection of designer shoes.
With case documents poorly prepared, some witnesses already ill or dead, and vital evidence and documents lost, Manila's quest to recover the Marcos's massive wealth has faltered.
Aquino has also embarked on a public education mission, fearing that Filipinos' collective memory of the traumatic Marcos years is fading. Nearly two-thirds of the country's voters by 2016 will have been born after Marcos's fall, with no knowledge of the martial law period from 1972 onward when he jailed political opponents and cracked down on dissidents.
The government has created a martial law memorial commission to revise history books and discuss the dark days of martial law. It will also set up a library to house archives of human rights violations during the Marcos years. The commission plans to name thousands of trees at the Atimonan mountain national park south of Manila after at least 10,000 martial law victims who were tortured, went missing, or killed.
"They (the Marcoses) would like to be a force by 2016, that's why they are building their machinery quietly," said Loretta Ann Rosales, chairperson of the state-run Commission on Human Rights, who was imprisoned under martial law.
"That's something that we should guard against, definitely."
Since they returned to the country one by one in the 1990s, the Marcoses have slowly rebuilt their political clout as voters begin to re-embrace the Marcos name in a country whose politics remain dominated by patronage politics and elite families.
The 55-year-old Bongbong, who speaks in a baritone that is strikingly similar to his father's voice, received over 13 million votes to win his Senate seat in 2010, giving him a solid platform for a presidential run.
DON'T UNDERESTIMATE HIM
While he is not seen as having excelled as a senator, his mother's pulling power and the prospect of strong financial backing from Aquino's rivals could make him a serious contender.
"It's difficult to underestimate him from the point of view of our traditional politics," said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms.
He would be up against two strong candidates. Vice President Jejomar Binay has been preparing a run for the past two years and has a strong following among poor Filipinos.
The other is former senator Manuel "Mar" Roxas, one of the leaders of the ruling Liberal Party of Aquino, who is seen as the president's preferred candidate. He stepped aside in 2010 to allow Aquino to become standard bearer of their party.
Poverty remains rampant in the Philippines, but under Aquino the country has become an investor darling thanks to strong growth and his anti-graft drive. Marcos's period coincided with the beginning of the Philippines' long economic decline.
Imelda, known as the "iron butterfly" for her tough yet ostentatious style, still exudes the charm that has won her an adoring following among many poor Filipinos despite her image abroad as a cartoon figure of corruption-fuelled excess.
"I have been so misunderstood, and all because I wanted the best for my country," said Imelda, who is almost certain to win a second term in Congress on Monday.
For about 10 hours straight on a recent day of campaigning, Imelda went town to town in her district. As she visited poor young and middle-aged mothers in health clinics she had built nearly a year ago, Imelda quietly slipped a neatly folded 1,000 peso ($25) bill into one woman's hand, despite a ban on campaign cash donations by politicians.
But even among the family's supporters, there are doubts about Bongbong's chances for the presidency.
"Not yet, it is not yet his time, not now," said Lorna Valdez, a retired medical technician and resident of Paoay town in Ilocos Norte, adding that Imelda's excesses as first lady undoubtedly damaged the family.
($1 = 40.845 Philippine pesos)
(Additional reporting by Manny Mogato, Luis Miclat, Aljan Quilates, Dan Canlas and Sarah Torres in Manila; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Raju Gopalakrishnan)
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