Thirty years ago, the Philippines was a very different country.
President Ferdinand Marcos had been in power for almost two decades when Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. (the father of the current president) was assassinated in 1983. It was a watershed tragedy that triggered almost daily demonstrations against the regime, woke up the formerly complacent middle class, unified and strengthened the political opposition, chased away capital investments and left the already brittle economy in shambles. To top it all, the strongman was ailing and the sycophants around him were not only restless but squabbling, many of them jockeying to consolidate their positions, the better to succeed him, if something fateful actually happened.
In an attempt to consolidate his power and silence the increasingly thunderous “parliament of the streets,” Marcos gave in to the pressure of the U.S. government to call for a snap election on February 7, 1986. It was the biggest mistake of his life.
Here is a recounting of the exciting, turbulent days of February 1986, which climaxed with the “People Power Revolution” and the fall of the dictatorship. I cull these recollections from my old notes and the stories I wrote as a freelance journalist then.
As was his wont, Ferdinand Marcos timed the bombshell to create maximum psychological impact. The Philippine President then was beleaguered on all sides and the pressure on his leadership was tremendous. US officials, for one, had been pressing him to set in motion the mechanism for a peaceful transition to a successor government. Closer to home, the younger officers of the military – a major pillar of his government – were becoming bolder in publicizing their gripes.
The news reached Manila at the ungodly hour of 1:30 a.m. and created major chaos. Newspaper presses had to be stopped to accommodate the new, all-important headline. Leaders of both the opposition and the regime’s KBL party were roused from sleep, jolted into disbelief.
“The guy has gone crazy,” a ranking KBL leader despaired, recalling the almost unanimous objection of the party to a snap election. Though speculations had been rife for the past year, the announcement still stunned politicians into confusion.
Corazon Aquino was awakened in her Quezon City home by a long-distance call from a relative in the US. She had taken a pill for an allergy and was sleeping soundly. A few minutes later an American TV crew came knocking on her door, hoping to scoop everyone else with her reaction. But she was just as taken aback as everyone else, and it took weeks before she agreed to face any member of the press for an interview. One thing for sure – her life would never be the same again.
Imelda Marcos, who was abroad at the time, was reportedly just as surprised. Publicly, she insisted that she had known her husband’s plans all along and that the decision was not a result of American pressure. But her close associates noted how upset she was about the announcement.
Ferdinand Marcos was never a gambler where his personal fortunes were at stake. Though he took pains to create the impression that his victories always represented the spontaneous, unbridled clamor of the majority, he always made sure that full institutional support – laws, rules, logistics – were harnessed to guarantee the results he wanted.
The snap election was no different. What clinched his decision was the certainty that the KBL still controlled all 65 cities and 90 percent of all municipalities and barangay councils. As then-labor minister Blas Ople recalled, “If he waited for 1987, some of those electoral areas might go over to the opposition. So why not have a presidential election now when the chances for victory are better?”
By Marcos’ calculation, the idea was foolproof. In his 20-year reign, all government institutions, including the Commission on Elections, were led by persons he could depend on. As chief executive with dictatorial powers, he could bend rules with impunity, and his patronage had made most of the media and the military beholden to him. Indeed, hardly any aspect of the electoral process was not under his control, however indirectly. Or so it seemed.
But Marcos also knew that unless he took drastic measures to reverse the erosion of his supporters’ confidence in his ability to govern effectively, more troubles would be forthcoming. A particularly potent lobby was the US government. US policy had directly and publicly made known that comprehensive reforms by Marcos’ government and tangible guarantees were indispensable to ensure continued aid to the regime, and on Washington’s part, access and unhampered use of the US military facilities.
High Stakes Poker
The US-Marcos game of high stakes poker was played unrelentingly in the remaining months of 1985. A constant stream of high US government officials visited the Philippine president to express in various degrees continuing American concern about his government’s stability and the security of American interests.
Marcos, for his part, was playing the game in his time-tested, proven way – by making a public show of minor concessions here and there while not too subtly reminding his visitors of the strategic importance of the US military bases in the country. The changes to which he agreed were merely cosmetic, intended to ease the pressure on his leadership rather than to effect genuine reforms.
What was not apparent to the public, however, was the escalating tension the stalemate posed on both sides, prompting President Ronald Reagan (a personal friend of Marcos) to send his personal emissary Sen. Paul Laxalt to the Philippines. Laxalt communicated to Marcos Reagan’s growing concern over the general political instability, the economic decline and the growing Communist insurgency. Marcos responded with a 200-page document that detailed reforms that he had purportedly instituted. In a New York Times story upon his return to the US, Laxalt conceded that Marcos’ “isolation also affected his perception of his political strength within the country…we briefly discussed the idea of a snap presidential election earlier than the one planned for 1987…he didn’t entertain it very seriously. He said there was no need for it, since he already had the support of the people.”
Despite what he told Laxalt, however, Marcos was already preparing a strategy that would consolidate US support for his government and defeat the opposition: a snap election to take place within 60 days after his announcement. The timing was deliberate. He figured the fractious opposition forces would not manage to unify behind a single candidate, and the US would be forced to support him because he had the guns, goons and gold as well as the law in his hands. This despite the fact that the State Department and the US Embassy in Manila had shifted to a “ Marcos has to go” strategy, as opposed to the earlier stance of “ [Marcos is] part-of-the-problem, part-of-the-solution.”
So sure was he of the wisdom of the snap election that Marcos chose to ignore the objections of his family, his Cabinet and his KBL party mates, who, except for Ople, believed that the snap election was an unnecessary and dangerous gamble. Ople understood his boss’ dilemma: “He [Marcos] couldn’t say that he was beleaguered and encircled, that he was losing the support of Washington and the international community, and that he needed a breakthrough to reestablish his ability to govern. He was never that frank with us but we knew why.”
Laxalt was correct, however, in perceiving Marcos’ isolation from his people. Aging and ailing, he hardly left Malacañang Palace, relying only on his cordon sanitaire to keep him in touch with the outside world. And that world was no longer what he knew or wanted it to be.
Since the Aquino assassination in 1983 and the subsequent near-collapse of the economy, widespread frustration and anger had clawed their way into the national soul. For three years, government institutions in Metro Manila and the provinces had borne the brunt of the escalating “parliament of the streets” and the “burgeoning” insurgency.
Perhaps it was overconfidence, or he was completely misinformed, but Marcos, from his Tower of Babel, completely missed the point of all the protest actions against his regime. With his announcement of the snap election and his invitation to US observers to come over and watch the election proceedings, he was making the costliest mistake of his life.
On the first week of November 1985, Ferdinand Marcos began the countdown to his political comeuppance.
After a decade of being practically decimated by martial rule, the legal opposition (as opposed to the underground left) was able to flex its muscles again after the Aquino assassination. Like a genie out of the bottle, the opposition was no longer the pathetic and ineffectual group that US officials and Marcos himself thought it to be. Powered by the people’s anger, an unexpected number of oppositionists won in the 1984 Batasang Pambansa (parliament) elections, most notably in Metro Manila, the bailiwick of Imelda Marcos. All it needed was a pivotal, unifying force to propel it to victory.
The week before the Marcos announcement, Cory Aquino was asked publicly if she would run for president. She might, she matter-of-factly answered, if Marcos were to call a snap election and if a million citizens were to sign a draft for her. Privately, however, she never believed that Marcos would allow an election anyway, making the issue of her candidacy academic.
When Marcos called her bluff, Cory was forced to seriously consider battling him in the polls, an unpalatable option for someone who, though to politics born and bred, had chosen to remain in the background as a homemaker.
In the weeks following the announcement, Cory eluded the press and was in constant consultation with family, friends, priests and employees at the family-owned Hacienda Luisita. As was her usual refuge when she was troubled, she went on a day-long religious retreat. Though her decision to run would be founded on spiritual guidance and popular clamor, Cory was pragmatic enough to know that she still had to make compromises if the opposition ticket were to be united against Marcos’ formidable machinery. And the biggest problem confronting a united opposition ticket was Salvador H. Laurel.
A former senator and the president of the UNIDO opposition party, Doy Laurel had announced his intention to run for the presidency in a rally in July 1985. Despite his early announcement, none of the other opposition leaders and groups supported him, mainly because he was tainted by his earlier association with Marcos (during martial law he was a member of Marcos’ party) and the perception that he was a power-hungry player not much different from the dictator.
In fact, because he was in the US when Marcos announced the snap election, he was not able to assert himself when the other opposition groups were deliberating. In a matter of days, the other opposition parties – the PDP-Laban and the Liberal Party under former Senator Jovito Salonga – endorsed Cory Aquino. Everyone knew, however, that the Doy Laurel issue had to be resolved diplomatically; if he continued to pursue the presidency, the fractured opposition would not have a chance against the entrenched Marcos machinery.
To ease the tension, a UNIDO-led National Unification Committee was convened, chaired by retired Supreme Court Justice Cecilia Muñoz-Palma. In one crucial meeting covered by the media and attended by leading UNIDO assemblymen, Laurel, in a moment of pique, yelled at the respected justice. His behavior scandalized a matriarchal nation. If Cory Aquino was entertaining the idea of becoming Laurel’s running mate, the Palma incident erased any lingering hesitance she may have had. From then on, it was the presidency no less for the famous widow.
Laurel, on his part, continued to pursue his plan to run. As the day of the deadline for filing certificates of candidacy came, both he and Cory Aquino filed as presidential contenders. Unknown to the public, the intense backroom negotiations between the Aquino camp and the Laurel family was still continuing. Doy Laurel had earlier presented a list of demands for him to agree to step down to the vice presidency, demands that would make him virtual head of state while Cory Aquino would be a mere figurehead. The arrangement was obviously not acceptable to the latter. Finally, after some nail-biting push and pull between the two groups, Jaime Cardinal Sin, Manila’s flamboyant church leader, was called upon to intercede. As midnight of deadline day approached, Cory Aquino and Doy Laurel returned to the COMELEC to file as president and vice president respectively, under the UNIDO banner (one of Laurel’s demands).
The opposition forces breathed a sigh of relief; the Marcos camp, hopeful that Laurel would remain intransigent and split the opposition, was stunned. The snap election was no longer the child’s play that Marcos was banking on. With Cory Aquino’s entry into the fray, the political exercise assumed the proportion of a crusade “against the forces of light and darkness, of good and evil.” It was this moral dimension that the Marcos strategists dreaded the most. As one KBL assemblyman revealed, “We were hoping Doy would be it because the fight would then be fair game. But how do you attack a woman who is also a victim?”
Next week: The explosive election aftermath
This article is an excerpt from the chapter I wrote entitled “The Fall of the Regime,” in Dictatorship and Revolution: Roots of People’s Power (Metro Manila: Conspectus Foundation Inc., 1988)
Video: Marcos announcing the snap elections