From the Archives: What is left of Democracy in the Philippines?

Last of Two Series

On November 9, 1965, Ferdinand E. Marcos was elected as the sixth president of the Republic. He was formerly an LP, but upon learning that Macapagal would seek a second term, he joined the NP through the sponsorship of Speaker Jose Laurel Jr., and became its standard bearer. His vice-president was Fernando Lopez, also an NP. In his youth, the young Ferdinand was convicted of shooting down a man while the latter was brushing his teeth; but the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision largely on the strength of the dissenting opinion of Justice Jose P. Laurel Sr., the former president of the Second Philippine Republic when he was still in judiciary, before the Japanese Occupation. The first term of office of President Marcos was smooth, although some corruption in government could not be avoided. Democracy seemed to slowly be gaining momentum again. As Murray S. Stedman wrote in 1965 in the book, The Dynamics of Modern Government: “The democratic credo is a demanding ideal for both rulers and ruled, and it can be frustrating and annoying for the impatient and the certain.” This admonition, President Marcos would forget in the succeeding years.

On November 11, 1969, Marcos was re-elected, as well as his vice-president, Fernando Lopez by an overwhelming majority. Several NP candidates also wom: Tolentino, Diokno, Espina, Sumulong, Puyat, Tamano, and Padilla (LP, but NP guest candidate). Only Gerardo Roxas won among the LP candidates. So far Marcos was the only president of the republic to win a second term. But the news leaked out that it was the most corrupt ever.  On january 26, 1970 violent demonstrations began in protest. Students, laborers, and other concerned citizens joined the demonstrations, as well as the Communists and drifters of all types. (It must be remembered that Luis Taruc and his HUKBALAHAP Communist group had surrendered to the government, but in his stead. A new leader emerged and the movement became mostly military, under the so-called New People’s Army or NPA.) The demonstrations increased in violence. On November 10, 1970, a Constitutional Convention election was held, its aim was to change the Constitution in order to eradicate, or at least diminish, abuses and corruption in government. The Con-Con delegates met in Manila Hotel and recommended that a parliamentary form of government replace the presidential system that the Philippines had since 1946.  

Mr. Marcos was elected president of the Philippine Republic in 1965 and re-elected in 1969 for another four-year term, but not more. Immediately following his re-election, student demonstrations, citizen protests, labor strikes, and a resurgence of Communist movements arose partly because of suspected election frauds and partly because of the battle plans of the insurgents to ride on the waves of discontent then sweeping the country. One story is that disgruntled opposition politicians wanted to topple the administration of President Marcos with the assistance of the leftists. Another story is that Mr. Marcos knew this scheme all along through his intelligence agents and played the game his way by methodically aggravating the discontent through the use of police harshness and disruption of demonstrations so that the trouble may be brought to the fore and he could take advantage of the martial law provision of the 1935 Constitution.

Whatever may be the true story or version, the historical fact is that President Marcos declared martial rule by signing Proclamation No. 1081 on September 21, 1972. Art. VII, Sec. 10 (2) of the 1935 Constitution reads:

“The President shall be commander-in-chief of all armed forces of the Philippines and, whenever it becomes necessary, may call out such armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion, insurrection, or rebellion, or imminent danger thereof, when the public safety requires it, he may suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, or place the Philippines or any part thereof under Martial Law.”

There is nothing in the provision that says he could abolish Congress, but he also did it. In Proclamation No. 1081, one reads:

“NOW, THEREFORE, I FERDINAND E. MARCOS, President of the Philippines … do hereby place the entire Philippines as defined in Article 1, Section 1, of the Constitution under martial law, and in my capacity as their commander-in-chief do hereby command the armed forces of the Philippines, to maintain law and order throughout the Philippines prevent or suppress all forms of lawless violence as well as any act of insurrection or rebellion and to enforce obedience to all the laws and decrees, orders and regulations promulgated by me personally or upon my direction.”

Thus was stated clearly the one-man-rule of Mr. Marcos, and bluntly. It is likewise clear that with the imposition of martial law democracy was suspended. In particular, certain provisions of the Bill of Rights (Art. III of the 1935 Constitution) Sec. 1 (8):

“No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the Government for redress of grievances.”

Thus freedom of expression was curtailed, and with it the freedom to know the truth. In fact, the major dailies of pre-martial law days were ordered closed or confiscated, such as the Manila Times, the Manila Chronicle, Bulletin, the Philippine Herald, and the Evening News, and in their stead emerged the Times Journal which is oped by the family of the wife of the President, the Daily Express which is operated by the government indirectly, and the Daily Bulletin whose publisher is an aide of Mr. Marcos. Instead of freedom of the press, the policy was “freedom of the praise” for whatever Mr. Marcos and his wife did, and it still is. A number of people who dared to write against Mr. Marcos or his wife were dubbed “subversions” and sent to jail without trial, to be released after a few months or years of suffering. This happened in the first few years of martial law.

Immediately after the imposition of martial law, Mr. Marcos declared the formation of the so-called “New Society”, and announced that he will use martial law not only to establish peace and order, which was the main aim of the martial law provision in the 1935 Constitution, but also to administer all facets of government-economics, education, health, commerce, foreign relations, and whatnot. Those who accused Marcos of premeditation in carrying out his martial law plan point to his book which was published in 1971, a year before martial law and written even before that, entitled Today’s Revolution: Democracy, particularly to chapter six: “The New Society” where he poured out his ambition. In the introduction, Marcos wrote: “Drastic fundamental changes in our society are necessary. Revolution, then, is inevitable.” What kind of revolution? His, of course. And it was not democratic in whatever way one who is knowledgeable of true democracy would look at it. Later he would call it “constitutional authoritarianism”, which his critics would say is merely a hifalutin word of dictatorship.

The second term as president would have ended for Mr. Marcos in 1973. In that year, he called for a national referendum asking the people: “Do you approve of the new (1973) Constitution?” and concluded that the new Constitution was thus ratified even if the nation was under martial law. True, Marcos had issued an order temporarily suspending “the effects of Proclamation 1081 so that the people might debate “freely” on the question; but people began to question this by saying that there might be freedom of speech for that purpose, but not freedom after the speech. They were still afraid to criticize and express  themselves freely, and yet they were asked to ratify the Constitution. There were doubts regarding the validity of the supposed ratification even after Mr. Marcos proclaimed it triumphantly on January 17, 1973. Protests which were raised to the Supreme Court were dismissed by the Court, although not unanimously. The 1973 Constitution thus came into effect, to replace the 1935 Constitution.

The 1973 Constitution, however, had Transitory Provision (Art. XVII) for the creation of an interim National Assembly tailor-made to suit the incumbent president, President Marcos, whose term was supposed to end in 1973. Thus we read in Sec. 3. (1):

“The incumbent President of the Philippines shall initially convene the interim National Assembly and shall preside over its sessions until the interim Speaker shall have been elected. he shall continue to exercise his powers and prerogatives under the nineteen hundred and thirty-five Constitution and powers vested in the President and the Prime Minister under this Constitution until he calls upon the interim National Assembly to elect the interim President and the interim Prime Minister, who shall then exercise their respective powers vested by this Constitution.”

Because of his term of office according to the 1935 Constitution would end that year, without re-election, Mr. Marcos on July 6, 1973, asked for the people’s “mandate” to continue in office, and thus he “became” President and Prime Minister at the same time. This referendum (or plebiscite) was held also under martial law when the people did not have all their liberties. But he was happy for a while, believing that he had the mandate of the people. (See “Milestone of martial law”, Times Journal, January 18, 1981.) On September 22, 1974, Mr. Marcos signed a Presidential Decree making the barangay the smallest political unit of the body politics (instead of the barrio), like the cell in the Communist party system, for voting purposes, to be supervised by the government. Do the people like martial law to continue? Mr. Marcos called a referendum on February 28, 1975, and got “overwhelming” approval of his exercise of martial law powers.

On October 28, 1976, Mr. Marcos called upon the people for amendments to the 1973 Constitution, the most pernicious of which is Amendment 6: 

“Whenever in the judgment of the President (Prime Minister) there exists a grave emergency, or a threat of imminence thereof, or whenever the interim Batasang Pambansa, or the regularNational Assembly fails or it is unable to act adequately in any matters for any reason that in his judgment require immediate action, he may in order to meet the exigency issue the necessary decrees, orders or letters of instruction, which shall form part of the law of the land”.

We must remember that for a while he formed an interim National Assembly but dismissed it because its members were not completely under his control; it was merely a dry-run, to see how

A legislative body would work. Curfew was lifted in 1977.

On April 7, 1978, elections for Parliament (theBatasang Pambansa) were held. This became necessary in view of the coming negotiations with the United States on the US military and naval bases – Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base. In fact US Vice-President Walter Mondale visited the Philippines on May 2 to 4 to confer with Marcos. The Americans would not have wanted to negotiate with him alone without the support of a “more stable” legislature, but on a proper nation to nation basis. On January 8, 1979, Foreign Affairs Minister Carlos P. Romulo and US Army Ambassador Richard Murphy signed the agreements regarding the presence of the US bases in the Philippines. In 1980, local elections for provincial governors and mayors were held. The Kilusang Bagong Lipunanor KBL had become a political party, the majority party under Mr. Marcos. The Nacionalista Party won the only NP governorship in the country, in the province of Batangas with Joey Laurel, the grandson of former President Jose Laurel Sr., as governor. On January 17, 1981, before the visit of Pope John Paul II, martial law was lifted when Mr. Marcos signed Proclamation No. 2045.

Mr. Marcos announced to the people that now many of the liberties suppressed during the martial law period were restored. Did this mean that when the people went into the exercise of voting in the referenda, plebiscites and elections held under martial law they didn’t really have sufficient liberties to validly exercise their rights? Where did that leave Mr. Marcos? Was the 1973 Constitution then validly ratified in spite of the Supreme Court’s pronouncement that there seemed not to be. In the first place, the US president is elected by an electoral college, the vice-president is appointed by him, and the senators of the United States were elected by the different states to represent them in Congress; whereas the Philippine president was elected at large, and likewise the vice-president and senators. This meant tremendous expenditures on the part of the candidates themselves and their political parties, amounting to hundreds of millions of pesos, and more often than not they would try by all means of corruption to get back their “investments” when they won, and this was done by robbing the public coffers or pork barrels. In the second place, the United States as a whole is a federal state whereas the Philippines is a unitary state; the various individual states of the US could not be manipulated easily by the man in Washington for they had some measure of autonomy, which the provinces in the Philippines did not have this important to note when considering the expenditures of tax money and their abuses by the men in Manila. One interested in knowing better than the American presidential system might want to read the little book, “Choosing the President” published by The League of Women Voters (US, 1976). 

Great Britain, or the United Kingdom, is a unitary state. It is composed traditionally of the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Wales; in 1920, Northern Ireland was Included, and the other neighbouring territories are crown dependencies. (Read “British Constitution and Government” written by F.J. Wright, published by Macdonald and Evans, UK, 1976.) France, too is a unitary state; in France, the president is head of state and the prime minister the head of government in the sense that he directs the operations of the government (Title III, Art. 21 of the French Constitution). In England, the monarch is the head of state, influential but not as powerful in government as the French president, and the prime minister is the head of government more powerful than his french counterpart. The term “government” in the British parliamentary system refers to the prime minister and his cabinet who are also members of Parliament, unlike the French parliamentary system in which the members of the cabinet are not members of Parliament. British Parliament consists of two Houses-the House of Commons and the House of Lords. What is important to note for the purpose of comparing British Parliament with that proposed by the Philippine Constitutional Convention is the House of Commons. Anyway, the Philippine Parliament has only one House or National Assembly. 

The proposal was, as in the British system, to have the election of the Philippine Parliament or National Assembly (the Batasang Pambansa today is merely interim, even if it supposed to have practically the powers of the intended regular Parliament) by constituents. In Great Britain, elections for Parliament (not including the House of Lords whose members are not elected) are simply. When an election is called, two candidates, one each from the ruling and opposition parties, with an additional one or two from other factions, present themselves to the constituency to which they belong, consisting of about a few thousand qualified voters and the one who gets the majority vote wins. Not much fanfare, not much expenses, and the voters know who their candidates are. The winners from all the constituencies become members of the House of Commons, the party that has the most members in Parliament become the ruling party and it chooses the prime-minister, and that’s it. The constituencies would correspond to districts in the Philippines, which on the average would consist of about 200 thousand Filipino voters, not 25 million (present count) if the election were at large. But by means of his amendments to the 1873 Philippine Constitution, Mr. Marcos was able to change the format of the Philippine parliamentary system to one that is beyond recognition as either parliamentary or presidential, for it is neither the one nor the other. Even the voting by constituency, or district, has been changed to voting by region for members of Parliament (the Batasan), which may embrace several provinces in fact, and thus the possibility of corruption and overspending has been brought back. In fact, the 1978 elections for the interim Parliament showed that one could not hope to win if one did not have money to burn, either his or the people’s. Perhaps that is what Marcos would call “normalization”.

What is left of democracy in the Philippines today? What is democracy in the first place? Jean Jacques Rousseau in his book “The Social Contract” (1762) wrote:

“If there was a nation of gods, it would be governed democratically. So perfect a government is insuited to men.”

But surely he was wrong. It is precisely because men are not gods, although a few think they are, that the best form of government, imperfect through it be for men are not perfect, is democracy. Society is dynamic, ever changing, and no government has the monopoly of brains to believe that it alone can govern and know what is best for all. In fact there are in most instances more and better talent outside than inside the government. In a nation are businessmen, lawyers, physicians, engineers, scientists, teachers, professors, architects, bankers, clerks, chauffeurs, clergymen, market vendors, nuns, mechanics, and jack-of-all-trade. Not all of them are included to run the nation or make laws, most of them are busy doing other things, not necessarily better things. Hence they elect those who will make laws for them or run the affairs of state. By means of elections they vote for those whom they believe to be competent enough to do those things, even make laws to limit their freedom for the good of all in a democracy. By electing their lawmakers and administrators of government, the people – the voters – “create” the government not to become their master but to serve the nation, as trustees of power. And by electing their representatives in the running of the nation, the people expect them to rule for the benefit of the country and not for their own selfish interests. That is democracy.

To ensure that democratic principles are followed, some mechanisms are needed. There must be the existence and recognition fo checks and balances either in the government structure itself or in opposition parties, preferable in both; periodic elections, including the limitation of terms of incumbents, for no government has the right to hold power forever. The allegiance of the military must be to the constitution of the land and the State, not necessarily to the government-for the State is the people and governments come and go. The control of the military by individuals or groups often lead to the downfall of democracy, for power can then be used against the civilians. Dictators are made that way, the classic example of course was Adolf Hitler. Indeed, true democracy is constitutional government not arbitrary rule.

As a way of life, democracy teaches that man has an inherent dignity as a human being however weak or poor he may be, a dignity based on his nature and not on any title or status that society may give him, for which the highest form is to have lived an honest life. Because man is by nature a free being capable of knowledge and progress, he must be treated as a responsible man and not as blind follower; he must have the freedom to seek the truth, to express himself, and to participate in the shaping of his own destiny within the nation. Because all men are by nature the same-human beings-they must all be equal under the law, but not regimented, and must be given equal opportunities to life and progress in society; this perhaps is what equality should mean, and not that we should treat the industrious as equal to the lazy, or the talented to the retarded. Because men are not infallible and no man can claim that the human knowledge he has absolute truth, there is need for consensus or the rule of the majority in order to get things done, provided no injustice is committed against the minority, precisely because the rule oft the majority does not impose absolute truth. Because no progress is achieved without criticism or opposing views, the voice or voices of the opposition must be heard and free debate encouraged. These, perhaps, as the irreducible elements of the concept of democracy. Government forms may differ, and some governments are not democratic. There is British government, American government, French government, Philippine government-but there is sonly democracy, and a government either is or is not democratic. There is no substitute for democracy.

What is left of democracy in the Philippines? When the people are not told the truth because the media are controlled, in spite of some brave souls who dare to squeeze in the truth every now and then, and the majority are fed with misinformation or knowledge of only one side of the coin, so to speak, there is no true democracy. When the people really cannot effectively express opposing views and the incumbent government is bent on perpetuating itself in power by means of political trickery if not on military power, then there is no democracy in the land. True the ruler may yet be benevolent but the best that can be said is that he is perhaps a benevolent “dictator” but, with all the powers, a dictator nonetheless.

Salvador Roxas Gonzales, M.A., M.Sc. (Cantab.)

By Salvador Roxas Gonzales, M.A., M.Sc. (Cantab.)

Leave a Reply