Ferdinand Marcos declaring martial law on September 23, 1972 (Presidential Museum and Library)
Ferdinand Marcos declaring martial law on September 23, 1972 (Presidential Museum and Library)

Forty-nine years ago this month, on September 21, 1972, then President Ferdinand Marcos, whose second four-year term under the 1936 Philippine Constitution was ending in 1973, signed Presidential Proclamation 1081 placing the entire country under martial law. By doing so he extended his time in office indefinitely, and made himself dictator of this rumored “show window of democracy in Asia.”

The military implemented PP 1081 on the 23rd, with the arrest of independent journalists; academics; artists and writers; labor, student and farmer leaders; and members of the political opposition. Congress, newspapers and broadcast stations were  shut down, and international flights and passports cancelled.   

In the next few days and weeks, as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), Marcos issued one general order after another to tighten his grip on power, and, as the country’s sole lawmaker, presidential decrees that had the force of law. Already president for seven years, Marcos was to remain in power for 14 more until he was overthrown in 1986 by the civilian-military mutiny known as the EDSA 1 People Power “Revolution.”

The arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings;  the economic decline;  the surge  in the numbers of the poor and hungry; and the centralized looting of the public treasury that went on during those 14 years  were bad enough. But what was even  worse was the further damage that the Marcos kleptocracy did to the country’s political culture from which it has yet to recover. 

The political culture of violence and corruption is the creation of a ruling elite whose monopoly over public power is assured through the dominance of a few families in Philippine governance. Himself no stranger to political violence, Marcos was an astute student and practitioner of traditional Philippine politics who made himself president by skillfully manipulating the electoral system that that culture nourished. In full awareness of the fact that keeping his name in the public mind was crucial,  he had begun spending millions in political advertising when he was campaigning for a seat in the House of Representatives and later, in the Senate. When he ran for President in 1965, he also financed the making of a film to assure his election to that office and put even more corrupt journalists in his payroll while at the same cobbling together alliances with local warlords.  

The electoral system generated and sustained by a corrupt political culture was severely flawed.  But it was nevertheless based on periodic, law-mandated elections, during which, so the fiction went, the citizenry chose on whom it would delegate its sovereign powers of self-government. Marcos changed all that by demonstrating that the laws — and the very Constitution itself, which mandated that his two four-year terms as President would end in 1973 and could no longer be renewed —were only as good as the willingness of those in power to observe them.  That is the one lesson that over the last five decades this country’s political dynasties have taken to heart: it is evident in their  use and observance  only of those laws that suit their interests, and their ignoring those that do not. They zealously implement the laws protecting their property rights but violate with impunity the Constitutionally-protected rights to  free expression and freedom of assembly, for example.

Absent from Marcos’ declared reasons for the declaration of martial rule — to curb a so-called “leftist-rightist” conspiracy, and to “save the Republic and reform society” — was the real reason behind it: his determination to remain in power beyond 1973 and to be president for life. 

He did manage to last for 13 more years beyond the end of his second term, and would have achieved the second aim had EDSA 1 not happened. But he nevertheless left behind him a politicized police and military establishment whose support has since then been crucial to every regime and every aspirant for the presidency. 

That the military and the militarized police forces have become power brokers was the implicit reminder to the nation  of the coup attempts that military units led by Marcos-era officers launched during the Corazon Aquino presidency. They failed to oust Mrs. Aquino and to install their political patron in her place, but they nevertheless made their point clear each time they tried to overthrow the first Aquino administration: no president can rest easy without their support, and woe to those who lose it. Mrs. Aquino herself survived because she was supported by the Ramos wing of the military, but part of the same dark legacy of the martial law period is  the demise of the democratic principle of civilian supremacy.

The presidency of former AFP Chief of Staff and Defense Secretary Fidel Ramos (who was also chief of the dreaded, now defunct Philippine Constabulary) that succeeded Mrs. Aquino’s was free from coup threats because Ramos was one of the military’s own. But concerns over  military support has been a sub-theme in the political calculations of every regime since then.

The military’s withdrawal of support from former President Joseph Estrada was crucial to his removal from office in 2001. The Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime had to contend with at least one attempted military coup, as a result of which Mrs. Arroyo was tempted  to declare martial law in response to supposed attempts to overthrow her. The late President Benigno Aquino III, who succeeded her in 2010 had no problems with the military among other reasons because he continued its “ modernization” and at its urging signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States.

The military and the supposedly civilian but actually militarized police have been most empowered during the incumbency of President Rodrigo Duterte. In 2017 Mr. Duterte declared that to prevent what he said was a brewing  coup attempt, he would appoint former military personnel to his cabinet to “complete (his) junta” so that “they (the military) would be in charge” and would have no reason to oust him. 

Mr. Duterte in effect launched his own coup, and has since kept his word about completing his junta. The upper levels of his administration, from defense to local governments to social welfare, are dominated by retired military and police officers. His is the most militarized regime on record, surpassing even that of Ferdinand Marcos, whose leading officials even during the martial law period were civilians with appropriate backgrounds and expertise in  education, labor, agriculture and other areas.

In addition to the dominance of the coercive military mindset in  policy-making, one of the most obvious consequences of Mr. Duterte’s appointing officials on no other basis than their military backgrounds is many a top bureaucrat’s inability to competently do the tasks assigned their agencies. It has led to the gross incompetencies that have made the Philippines number one in  the tally of COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia, which has in turn made economic recovery difficult if not impossible.

The inevitable conclusion is that this dark legacy of the Marcos dictatorship to Philippine politics and governance has become a matter of life or death for the millions of Filipinos who have lost their jobs and are under threat from the  pandemic. The martial law episode ended 35 years ago but still casts a long shadow on the lives of the Filipino people. That reality has thrust upon future administrations the responsibility of restoring civilian supremacy in government, and of choosing competent and honest officials so as to put some order and sanity in the way this country is governed.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from the Presidential Museum and Library.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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