Philippine senator denies being Marcos' love child

Philippine senator denies being Marcos' love child

It is a rumour that has dogged Senator Grace Poe all her life. Is she the illegitimate child of the strongman Ferdinand Marcos?

When very few outside her family and circle of friends knew about her, the rumour was just a whisper, fodder for juicy celebrity gossip.

Now that she may become the Philippines' next president, her rivals are dredging up her past - and the mystery that shrouds it - to question her eligibility to run for president.

The accepted narrative is that Ms Poe, still in swaddling clothes, was abandoned in 1968 inside a church at a prosperous province south of the capital Manila. A nanny found her. But with five other children to raise, the poor woman brought the child to a wealthy spinster, the daughter of a local sugar baron, who then took the child. When this foster mother left for the United States, the six-year-old Grace was left under the care of Mr Fernando Poe Jr, a matinee idol, and his equally well-known celebrity wife, Mrs Jesusa Sonora-Poe.

The gossip that refuses to die, on the other hand, is that Grace is Marcos' love child with Mrs Poe's younger sister, Ms Rosemarie Sonora, who was a teenage actress when she had a rumoured affair with the dictator. To avoid a scandal, Marcos, who was then very much married to Imelda, a svelte but tenacious former beauty queen, asked the childless Poe couple to adopt Grace.

For most of her life, she lived away from the klieg lights that were constantly on her celebrity parents.

In her junior year in college, she left for the US, where she got married, had three children and quietly lived the life of a working mother.

When her father decided to run for president in 2003, Ms Poe returned to the Philippines to help in his campaign.

Her father lost by a slim margin to Mrs Gloria Arroyo. He died the following year and Ms Poe decided to return to the Philippines for good to pursue allegations of widespread election fraud against Mrs Arroyo.

When he became president in 2010, Mr Benigno Aquino, a political opponent of Mrs Arroyo, turned to Ms Poe to head the movie censors board.

But it was not till she decided to run for senator under Mr Aquino's party that her political career took off.

She had initially wanted to run under her married name Grace Llamanzares, but when her poll numbers barely registered a bump, she conceded to using her father's last name.

The "Poe" name became her ticket to political superstardom. She topped the senatorial race in 2013 with over 20 million votes.

Now that her political capital has soared to greater heights, Ms Poe has had to squarely address the rumour about her past.

In interviews, she denies that Marcos is her biological father.

"That is not really true," she has said.

But it is political dirt that will not go away easily, especially as Ms Poe's poll numbers continue to surge, while those of her main rival for the presidency, Vice-President Jejomar Binay, are inching down.

The latest survey taken in April showed that Ms Poe's voter rating had soared from 21 per cent to 31 per cent, while that of Mr Binay slid from 37 per cent to 36 per cent.

Those numbers have provoked a lot of mudslinging, mostly coming from Mr Binay's camp.

Representative Toby Tiangco, an ally of the vice-president, said Ms Poe, who spent much of her adult years in the US, lacked the minimum 10-year residency requirement that would allow her to run for president.

He later apologised after a bevy of legal experts proved him wrong.

Then, one of Mr Binay's lawyers suggested that as a "foundling", Ms Poe is technically "stateless" and may not even be Filipino.

That totally backfired on Mr Binay.

In a nation where maudlin telenovelas can still shape public opinion - and Ms Poe's colourful life had been adapted as an episode in a top-rating drama series - she has deftly managed to turn mud into mud pie.

Appealing to the strong affinity Filipinos have with underdogs, Ms Poe said: "Are they saying that a child abandoned by her parents and plucked out of a church cannot aspire to greatness and does not deserve the same opportunities every one else has?"

The response to her has been overwhelmingly sympathetic.

"Picking on Senator Grace Poe is doing more harm to them than any good they thought they'd get," local celebrity Bianca Gonzales tweeted to her more than 4 million followers.

And in a comical twist, Mr Binay has had to say that he has nothing against foundlings because he himself was adopted.

Ms Poe has also dealt with the mudslinging with characteristic humour.

She often tells interviewers that Marcos' son, fellow senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, has taken to calling her "sis", and she has been calling him "bro" whenever they meet.

rdancel@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 7, 2015.
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