BATAC, Philippines — Imelda Marcos, the former first lady forever associated with diamonds and a huge shoe collection, put on a bright orange tunic and hit the campaign trail Friday in a bid to re-enter Philippine Congress – a remarkable feat for the widow of a dictator seeking to clear his sullied name.
The 80-year-old Marcos, her hair coifed back and elegant leather sandals on her feet, led journalists at daybreak to the mausoleum of Ferdinand Marcos in his northern Philippine stronghold, where she kissed his glass coffin as cameras snapped.
"This is one of our major injustices," she said, adding her victory would bring closer her dream of burying her husband in a heroes' cemetery in Manila. Such a move has been denied by successive governments since Marcos' death in U.S. exile in 1989, three years after his ouster in a "people power" revolt.
The Marcoses were accused of corruption, political repression and widespread human rights abuses during Ferdinand Marcos' 20-year iron-fisted rule.
After fleeing the presidential palace aboard U.S. choppers – and leaving behind stunning jewels and 1,220 pairs of shoes – Imelda Marcos and their three children were allowed to return to the Philippines in 1991.
Despite her reputation for extravagance, including shopping trips to the world's poshest boutiques and lavish beautification projects in a nation wracked by poverty, Imelda Marcos retained supporters and even won a congressional seat in 1995. She ran unsuccessfully for president in 1992 and again in 1998.
"My ambition is to serve without end and to love without end," Marcos said at a news conference in a hotel discotheque before her long convoy hit the road under a broiling sun.
Afflicted with diabetes and glaucoma, Imelda parried a question about her age.
"It's true I'm 80 years old, but I can run and be a grandmother who can love and embrace the people more than a mother can," Marcos said, drawing applause from friends.
She went to church and then rode on a flatbed campaign truck festooned with balloons and posters as thousands cheered her along the way. She was flanked by her daughter Imee, who is running for governor in Ilocos Norte, a tobacco-growing region about 250 miles (400 kilometers) north of Manila.
Her son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., is seeking a Senate seat.
The matriarch of the powerful clan is one of tens of thousands of candidates seeking 18,000 posts from town councilor to president in the May 10 elections. There are more than 50 million registered voters.
Presidential and senatorial candidates have been campaigning for more than a month. Police say political violence, which often goes hand-in-hand with festive campaigning, has already claimed close to 80 lives, including 57 people massacred Nov. 23 in an election caravan in the southern Philippines.
Also among the celebrity candidates is boxing star Manny Pacquiao, who is seeking a congressional seat in his southern province after his 2007 bid fell short. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who has been threatened with criminal charges by critics when her turbulent term ends in June, is another candidate for the 287-seat lower chamber amid speculation she may be seeking to become the House of Representatives speaker.
Many Filipinos were incensed by Marcos and her unashamed opulence, but others, especially the generation born after 1986 with no memory of her husband's martial law, view her as a celebrity.
Despite some 900 civil and criminal cases she has faced in Philippine courts since 1991 – cases ranging from embezzlement and corruption to tax evasion – she has emerged relatively unscathed and never served prison time. All but a handful of the cases have been dismissed for lack of evidence and a few convictions were overturned on appeal.
Marcos is running for a congressional seat in Ilocos Norte under her husband's political party, the New Society Movement, which has weakened considerably since his death. In Ilocos Norte, a laid-back province of 390,000 where the late strongman built a network of fine roads, an international airport and seaports, the Marcoses are adored.
"This is Marcos country, no ifs or buts," said village guard Elmer Macuco, who waited to see Imelda in one of the 21 towns she planned to tour Friday.
"She helps us and entertains us and has put us in history," Macuco said.
Clearing the family name remains an obsession, Marcos said.
Until that happens, she said, "I cannot rest."