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  • Writer's pictureAydin Quach

Power And Revolution: Political Cyclicality In The Post-Colonial Philippines


“Perception is real, and the truth is not.[1]” These are the words Imelda Marcos used in the 2019 documentary The Kingmaker by Lauren Greenfield when asked about her thoughts on power and politics of the Philippines upon her return after the death of her husband, the President and dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Many scholars have pointed to the Marcos dictatorship, as well as the subsequent People Power Revolution and Marcos’ overthrow in 1986, to be exceptional examples in the political history of the archipelago, touting the non-violent end to a dictatorship to be an event that shows change and progress.[2] However, as Eva-Lotta Hedman and John Sidel have elucidated in their book, Philippine Politics and Society in the Twentieth Century, these events illuminate a larger, more systemic pattern in the greater tapestry of the post-independence Philippine democracy -- that being the gradual failure to integrate popular participation in elections with the existing political machine that is built upon an old oligarchy.[3] Moreover, Hedman and Sidel argue that this pattern can be seen in other political crises that the archipelago has had in its political history, specifically in the 1953, 1969, and 1986 presidential elections.[4] Perhaps, Imelda Marcos’ comment on perception and truth could be used to examine how the Marcos’ dictatorship can be seen as exceptional to outside historians and political analysts when in truth, it was the culmination of socio-economic factors, political corruption, and colonial institutions that simmered for years until exploding into protests and revolution. Public dissatisfaction leads to the rise of a political strongman that claims to be for the people and will rectify the wrongs of the previous administration, but slowly becomes part of the pre-existing political machine. This is the leads summarily allows for a cyclical pattern of a corrupt strongman in Philippine politics.

The pattern of the Philippines’ post-independence history, as Hedman and Sidel explain, can be explained as a cyclical pattern, rooted in the oligarchical structures and institutions that were set in place during the colonial occupation by the Americans.[5] It is important to note that early on in the American control of the Philippines, suffrage was entitled to those that could meet the stringent literacy, property, and language requirements.[6] The first national elections allowed voting for only 1.4 percent of the population, primarily wealthy businessmen, such as landowners and commercial business leaders who had existed during the Spanish regime in the Philippines.[7] Even when electoral participation relaxed requirements to vote, informal practices, such as ballot tampering, began to take hold. This cleared the way for a “political class” to form.[8] The political class of Filipinos only consisted of the wealthy, and it was their primary interest to keep it that way. This culture of ballot tampering, over many election cycles, became something that ingrained in the electoral system.[9] When universal suffrage came in 1946 with the independence of the Philippines from the United States of America, the ruling oligarchs were able to purchase votes to manipulate the ballot boxes in their favour, either through bribery, the promise of power, or brute force. This class rule and “natural oligarchy” recruited members to their parties from other wealthy families, solidifying a system of governance that does not represent the interests of the public and prevents elections from being vehicles of popular collective mobilization.

The primary goal of this oligarchy was twofold. The first was to preserve power as the policymakers in government. The second was to balance out and ensure the support of the Catholic Church and the U.S. government.[10] Since the objective to keep all blocs supportive of the government was the priority, the oligarchy was prone to homogeneity in political thought, with politicians differing from others by personality. In this act of self-preservation, the oligarchy was caught between the irreversibility of universal suffrage decreed by the American government's condition for independence and their need to win elections to push their agenda.[11] This inadvertently created a problem for the oligarchy with the rise of subaltern social groups that would continuously be a threat to political power. The only option to preserve power was to forge strong patronage bonds with other political families, as well as look to the Constitution provisions provided by the Americans upon independence.

While the 1935 Philippine Constitution had standard divisions of power between executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of government, the Philippine President was given powers that were greater than even those of the President of the United States.[12] In the event of rebellion or insurrection, the Philippine President was allowed to suspend the Constitution immediately. National emergencies could also warrant the President to assume extrajudicial powers. The Constitution also provided the President with power over matters relating to national finance and government budgeting appropriations.[13] The counter to this was the Philippine Congress, which was, in theory, supposed to hold the balance of power in government: chiefly in the realms of budget appropriations and government appointments. This, however, was null and void because the ruling elites would nominate themselves to run for congress seats, thereby consolidating control within the oligarchy.[14] Thus, the executive branch of government had some control over the legislative branch. In essence, if someone was to run against the ruling oligarchy’s ideals, they would be locked out of power.[15] This is what some analysts have described as a zero-sum game of politics in which there is little hope for opposition unless one of the power blocs of social influence begins to act against the oligarchy.

Looking at the 1949 presidential elections, we can see early signs of the colonial constitution and oligarchy sowing the seeds for public dissatisfaction forming within social groups and being spearheaded by the introduction of a new strongman, supported by one of the dominant blocs that wished to supplant the current oligarchy. This becomes a recurring trend in subsequent elections. The election of Elpidio Quirino in 1949 was widely seen as a success only due to electoral fraud and violence. This electoral manipulation and voter intimidation resulted in widespread dissatisfaction with the electoral process.[16] His policies in office served to increase the power of the executive branch further and supplant local elections entirely in specific critical locations in the archipelago. He suspended the elections of mayors in Manila, Cebu, and Iloilo, as well as merged the Constabulary with the Army to divert power away from provincial governors.[17] The most egregious of Quirino’s policies was the suspension of habeas corpus. This was done to suppress rebellious individuals detained and out of the limelight of the Philippine population.[18] Because of the culmination of these policies, Quirino was able to suppress voters, making popular collective mobilizations fundamentally fraudulent and redundant. As a result, we begin to see the rise in voters becoming disenfranchised by the electoral system and looking to other methods to voice their opinions and dissatisfaction.

Quirino’s desire for reelection in the 1953 elections found him face-to-face with the emergence of a transformist or radical movement that allowed for a reformist candidate Ramon Magsaysay to take advantage of growing dissatisfaction. Magsaysay had close links to the U.S. Government, which increasingly felt that Quirino was not operating in the best interests of the U.S.[19] He also had the support of the opposition political party and the oligarchs that were frightened by Quirino’s presidency, in particular, his consolidation of power for the President alone. Magsaysay’s promise to the people was simple: bring an end to corruption and to work in the interest of the people.[20] This, coupled with the public movement for free elections, led to Magsaysay defeating Quirino by a wide margin and becoming President in 1954. With the support of one of the dominant blocs, as well as the general population united in dissatisfaction against Quirino, Magsaysay was able to rise as the new strongman. His victory was lauded in American newspapers as a “U.S. victory” for his strong anti-communist stance as well as his plans to increase American business in the Philippines.[21] However, subsequent years saw him revert into the trends that Quirino had started. He increased the persecution against the Huks (a communist/socialist guerilla group) that Quirino had targeted, and made little to no progress on reforms in regards to government corruption.[22] The political machine that Magsaysay promised to change would not change after his death in a plane crash in 1957. Subsequent presidents underperformed and spread even more corruption across the Philippines until the rise of a new strongman; the charismatic Ferdinand Marcos was elected in 1966.

Much like the 1953 elections, the 1969 elections were held under a similar backdrop in which the current strongman in power was slowly becoming part of the corrupted political machine.[23] However, it differs because the U.S. and the business class could not effectively propagate a transformist movement against Marcos. Without these two groups, the public could not launch any form of movement to overthrow Marcos since he used a police force to silence people. Ferdinand Marcos was seeking reelection after a presidential term that saw the prerogatives of the executive branch in economic, political, and military affairs strengthening. Marcos’ policies to deploy military and police forces across the archipelago was “creeping militarism” to political opponents. This expanded to the outright terrorization of the Central Luzon region by 1967.[24] Destabilizing economic policies plunged the Philippines into an economic crisis while the Marcos family and their supporters plundered businesses and got incredibly wealthy. Disenfranchised with the farce that was the electoral system, a movement was started to boycott the 1969 elections. Student and grassroots groups created a clear message to the populace: “vote wisely -- don’t vote.[25]” This, coupled with the opposition leader, Sergio Osmena Jr being more or less just as corrupt as Marcos and with the U.S. being preoccupied with the Vietnam War, cleared the way for Marcos to win reelection.

Unlike his bid for reelection in 1969, Marcos’ attempt to seek a third term in 1986 would not prove successful -- it would prove to be his undoing. In this instance, the transformist movement would not be suppressed. Even after abolishing Congress and tearing away at civil liberties with martial law enacted in 1972, not many doubted that Marcos would script a new election to push forward the image of his legitimacy to stay within the good graces of the American government, who was still providing support for his regime.[26] With the Armed Forces of the Philippines in his direct control, Marcos’ third term was almost secured. However, his “crony capitalism” had alienated many in the oligarchy and business class of the Philippines as wealth was being accumulated by the Marcos family and no one else.[27] He had also turned the support of the Catholic Church against him as his promise to lift martial law during a papal visit in 1981 proved to be a farce and did nothing to accommodate the demands for representation in government.[28] The Catholic groups in the Philippines also saw the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. as the final straw in what was already a morally contentious regime. The mobilization of these three dominant blocs was able to combine with the already mounting anger of the public into what we now know as the People Power Revolution, which led to the eventual overthrow of the Marcos regime and cleared the way for Corazon. C. Aquino, the wife of Benigno Aquino Jr to ascend to the presidency.

A transformist movement supported by one of the dominant blocs in Philippine society has always served as the backdrop for the political happenings in the archipelago. This is the truth behind the perception of the Marcos regime being exceptional. This cyclicality of a strongman becoming President after disturbing the balance of the oligarchy and the blocs exist to this very day. When the President’s authoritarian and patrimonial tendencies begin to encroach on the oligarchy and the processes of capital accumulation in the Philippines, the blocs will mobilize to push a new leader into power. The rise of current President Rodrigo Duterte reflects this reality. Rising to the presidential office as an anti-establishment, pro-business politician, he has shown fascist tendencies in his consolidation of power as well as in his extrajudicial killings.[29] Duterte himself is an ardent supporter of the late Ferdinand Marcos’ policies and gave Marcos a hero’s funeral not too long after his ascension to office. It also comes with little surprise to many analysts that Duterte’s 2016 election campaign was funded by the Marcos family.[30] With mass protests and dissatisfaction coming from many younger voters, perhaps things are aligning for revolution to begin again. Perhaps once again, the Philippines will return to tension and revolution.

[1] The Kingmaker, Showtime Documentary Films (Evergreen Pictures, 2019), https://www.sho.com/titles/3476729/the-kingmaker. [2] Eva-Lotta E. Hedman and John Thayer. Sidel, Philippine Politics and Society in the Twentieth Century: Colonial Legacies, Post-Colonial Trajectories (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 13-32, 14. [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid., 15. [5] Ibid., 18. [6] Lawrence Griswold, “Southeast Asia and Democracy,” World Affairs 116, no. 4 (1953): pp. 101-103, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20668805, 101. [7]Eva-Lotta E. Hedman and John Thayer. Sidel, Philippine Politics, 18. [8] Lawrence Griswold, “Southeast Asia and Democracy,” 102. [9] Martin Meadows, “An Interpretation of Philippine Politics,” India Quarterly 17, no. 1 (1961): pp. 30-43, http://www.jstor.org/stable/45073341, 35. [10] Dennis Merrill, “Shaping Third World Development: U.S. Foreign Aid and Supervision in the Philippines, 1948—1953,” The Journal of American-East Asian Relations 2, no. 2 (1993): pp. 137-159, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23612744, 142. [11] Ibid., 144. [12] Ibid. [13] Ibid. 145. [14] Ibid. [15] Eva-Lotta E. Hedman and John Thayer. Sidel, Philippine Politics, 21. [16] Ibid. [17] Ibid. [18] Ibid., 22. [19] Russell H. Fifield, “The Challenge to Magsaysay,” Foreign Affairs 33, no. 1 (1954): pp. 149-154, https://doi.org/10.2307/20031082, 151. [20] Nick Cullather, “America's Boy? Ramon Magsaysay and the Illusion of Influence,” Pacific Historical Review 62, no. 3 (1993): pp. 305-338, https://doi.org/10.2307/3640933, 309. [21] Ibid. [22] Ibid., 312. [23] Eva-Lotta E. Hedman and John Thayer. Sidel, Philippine Politics, 23. [24] Ibid. [25] Ibid. [26] Ibid., 25. [27] Ibid. [28] Ibid., 26. [29] Walden Bello, “The Spider Spins His Web: Rodrigo Duterte's Ascent to Power,” Philippine Sociological Review 65 (2017): pp. 19-47, http://www.jstor.org/stable/45014308, 20. [30] Ibid., 23.


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