Among other qualities he shared with almost every traditional politician ever spawned by the slimy swamp we call Philippine politics, Ferdinand Marcos was a segurista—someone who made absolutely sure that things would turn out as he wanted.
Marcos had demonstrated that trait many times in the course of his political life. But he did so most especially when he ran for a second term as President in 1969. “Overkill” was a term current at the time to refer to the nuclear capacity of the United States to destroy the world several times over. It came to describe among Filipinos Marcos’ campaign tactics during the elections held in November of that year.
His rival was pathetically weak and the surveys were predicting that he would handily win reelection. Marcos nevertheless used every means, whether fair or foul and legal or illegal, to make his victory certain.
Marcos was guaranteed a crucial bloc of votes by his control over the “solid North”. But he still cobbled together various alliances of convenience all over the country, bought off potential and actual opponents, and lured into his camp with promises of booty the usual party-switchers that infested the “two-party system.” His warlord allies in the provinces, meanwhile, used the usual combination of bribery, threats, intimidation and murder to bludgeon local opponents into submission, buy off the voters, and terrorize those who couldn’t be bought.
Marcos was also the first politician since 1946 to use the media systematically and on an unprecedented scale. He had a film made on his supposed war exploits and his romance with Imelda Romualdez. He flooded the Philippines with posters, flyers and billboards. He made sure he was always on TV, radio, and the newspapers both through advertising as well as by keeping a stable of corrupt media practitioners in his payroll. He used his not-so-secret weapon, his wife, to imbue himself with a celebrity persona to gain mass adulation and votes.
Most of all did he use his incumbency to transform the entire government into his own campaign machine. He used government funds and facilities to mount and pay for the deluge of propaganda material—which ranged from the obviously paid for to subtler forms like news reports in both print and TV slanted in his favor—that he inflicted on the entire country.
He also turned the entire bureaucracy, from department secretaries to clerks, into his campaigners, premising the re-appointments of the former and new appointments to lucrative posts on how well they had delivered the votes. And of course, he had the Commission on Elections, then headed by one of his most loyal lapdogs, to ensure that the votes would be properly counted in his favor come election day.
If all this sounds familiar, it is because these subterfuges have to this day remained standard weapons in the trapo arsenal, despite the 35 years that have passed since the campaign of 1969.
Marcos’ was the negative example that drove the Constitutional Commission to limit the election of Philippine Presidents to one six-year term. The destruction of the two-party system that he achieved by his own switch from the Liberal to the Nacionalista Party in 1965, and in 1969 his decimating opposition ranks, was also among the reasons why the 1987 Constitution is partial to a multi-party system.
Years later, the same lessons from, among others, the Marcos campaign, would convince Congress to ban political advertisements. It was also during Marcos’ watch that the Commission on Elections earned its continuing and present ill repute as a cabal of partisans.
But there was more to come. Three years after he was re-elected by a landslide—on September 21, 1972, a Thursday—Ferdinand Marcos secretly signed Proclamation 1081, which placed the entire Philippines under martial law. Proclamation 1081 was implemented the next day, a Friday, in the evening of which military teams fanned out from their bases all over the country, but specially in metro Manila, to arrest labor, peasant and student leaders, artists and intellectuals, academics, opposition leaders, editors, reporters and other journalists, and even a few gossip columnists, .
Previously, Marcos the segurista had encouraged the misplaced belief that he would declare martial law, if ever, in 1973, when his second and final term would end. Although hindsight later said it would have been too obviously a means to extend his term beyond 1973, Marcos and his military cohorts leaked to the opposition and the media Oplan Sagittarius, which specified 1973 as the year when martial law would be declared.
The leak encouraged among some sectors the belief that a declaration of martial law was no longer a viable Marcos option, and that, in any case, there was time enough to prevent a declaration through mass organizing and resistance. When he declared martial law in 1972, most of the oppositionists were caught off-guard, among them Ninoy Aquino, who had sworn in an interview that same year that Marcos would never catch him “with [his] pants down.”
Marcos’ deception worked. Although he and his military co-conspirators had believed his own lies and thought that there would be widespread resistance to martial law, including fighting in the streets, what followed was a period in which, as one detained journalist lamented, the people he had expected to fight for a free press were not in evidence.
Instead of heading for the barricades, the press freedom groupies and other middle class sectors adopted a wait and see attitude, which in itself revealed how flimsy Marcos’ immediate excuse for declaring martial law was. The excuse was the existence of a state of rebellion by the “Leftist-Rightist conspiracy” supposedly made up of “the oligarchy, ” opposition leaders, and the Communist Party of the Philippines.
His evidence for this outlandish claim was the number of demonstrations, pickets, strikes and other mass actions on a host of political, economic and social issues that had haunted his government from 1970 onwards, as well as the bombings and ambushes supposedly carried out by the then fledgling New People’s Army, but most of which turned out to be his government’s own doing. (The immediate “cause” of the declaration was an “ambush” on then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile. Enrile later admitted it had been staged. It was the military that machine-gunned his car. Of course he wasn’t in it at the time.)
Marcos’ declaration of martial law was the 1972 equivalent of George W. Bush’s 2003 attack on Iraq. Just like that attack, it was based not so much on faulty intelligence but on a prior decision to go ahead and do it and to fit the “evidence” to the act. Like Bush in Iraq, Marcos issued his declaration in the name of the Republic and democracy—although, unlike Bush, what Marcos attacked was democracy.
To be more precise, what Marcos attacked was the process of democratization evident in the awakening of vast sectors of the population to the need to transform Philippine society.
Marcos attacked the sectors leading this process as a necessary condition to his remaining in power. During both his terms, it had become clear to the students, workers, farmers, small businessmen, professionals, media people, nuns and priests, and others who made up the mass movement that Marcos was the quintessential expression of the political system that through corruption and the misuse of power was ruining the country.
The streets, factories and rice paddies where democracy was growing flesh, blood and bone were demanding an end not only to both, but to the system’s subservience to the foreign power—the United States—and to the foreign finance institutions to which Marcos was committed in both his foreign and economic policy.
At the same time, it had become abundantly clear that Marcos, his methods, his debt-driven policies, and his brutal suppression of dissent were not aberrations, but the natural children of a corrupt and violent political system.
By declaring martial law, Marcos assured the continuation through violence of the same system, though without its usual window-dressing in the form of a legislature, the guarantees of free speech, and elections. The end of the Marcos period in 1986 restored Congress, elections and free speech. The political system, and with it the corruption, elite dominance, and even the very same methods Marcos had used to such good effect to win and retain power, resurged with a vengeance.
Martial law was an attempt to arrest the democratization of power crucial to the remaking of Philippine society. The consequences of the Marcos policies of that period still haunt the country today in the form of the debt crisis, mass poverty, the monopoly of power by a few, and the constant threat of Right-wing coups and other forms of destabilization. But even more critically does martial law survive, 32 years after it ended, in the arrested development of Philippine democracy.