Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 23 September 2015


On Sept. 21, 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and ruled as dictator through presidential decrees. He was elected president in 1965 and re-elected in 1969.

On Jan. 17, 1981, he lifted martial law and replaced it with a parliamentary government with the Batasang Pambansa (or a unicameral National Assembly) to pass laws. When he declared a snap presidential election in 1986 to gain a national vote of confidence under this setup, Mrs. Corazon Aquino was able to challenge him.

As the votes were being counted, the EDSA People Power uprising forced Marcos into political exile and brought Mrs. Aquino to the presidency.

The quotes below are excerpts that I reprint fully from my recent book, Cesar Virata: Life and Times Through Four Decades of Philippine Economic History, University of the Philippines Press, 2014, pp. 352-354. (Note: Cesar Virata became prime minister only after the lifting of martial law.)

For ease of reading, I revise these quotes by breaking the paragraphs into shorter ones and introducing short headers to guide the discourse.

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Martial law changed the institutional framework of political contests. The formal opposition that used to be lodged in the Congress and the Senate was considerably weakened with the abolition of both chambers. Much of the opposition had therefore gone underground or undercurrent. New political factors complicated the framework of government.

Election. When Marcos took hold of the nation’s political agenda from 1965 to the 1970s, he was in the prime of health. As a political leader, he guided the nation through dangerous times and had managed to make sound decisions that helped to control the nation’s destiny.

Towards the second half of the 1970s, three factors made his control of events more difficult. Some was due to political mistakes he made. His failing health might have been a cause of these mistakes.

As he began to assess his mortality, he had to deal with the problem of succession. The most important mistake was that he felt he could postpone addressing this problem or micromanage its course.

Succession issue: a dictator’s primary mistake. If there was any single decision that caused the proceeding years to become more politically turbulent, it was his choice regarding the succession issue to Philippine leadership.

As a leader he had to look beyond his lifetime. And his decision was very shortsighted. The exercise of dictatorial powers is a potent and seductive drug.

The succession issue blinded him to that corner of decision-making where self-interest – the need to perpetuate power – came into conflict with the needs of the nation. It was essential for the country to have a succession process that was orderly, transparent, and politically stabilizing.

Thus, he hesitated to allow for a transparent and reasonably fair succession process. This was to prove to be Marcos’s fatal weakness in controlling the government.

The ambiguity of his moves in the succession process were evident in his failure to clearly identify a second person in command of the government, who could take over in the event of his death or incapacity.

The transitional nature of the political system according to the 1973 Constitution was left undefined in view of the martial law government. This constitution adopted a British-style parliamentary system.

But as martial law progressed and Marcos contemplated a return to normalcy, he veered toward revising this suspended provision toward the French model of a presidential-parliamentary system. Under such a set-up, a strong executive would be in charge of the government, which was also run under parliamentary lines.

Interim national assembly is elected. In 1978, Marcos created the unicameral interim Batasang Pambansa, a legislative assembly that assisted in the making of laws. The members were selected on the basis of regional representation during a national election.

Marcos resurrected many of the old politicians who chose to join him in the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan – the New Society movement that displaced the traditional political parties. The interim Batasang Pambansa, although nationally elected through the various regional groupings of the country, included a few appointed members who were mainly the technocrats he decided would continue to hold their positions in the Cabinet.

He had hoped that through the regional choices of the members, the parliament would be able to rise above the usual local concerns and take on wider socio-economic and political viewpoints in creating policies.

The perception the law-making body projected, however, was of a rubber stamp assembly under a one-man rule. The Cabinet continued to be mainly composed of technocrats. But the head of the government was still Marcos as president and prime minister.

Although the interim Batasang Pambansa had a senior officer, the Speaker, it was clear Marcos remained in control of the nebulous succession issue. In short, this process simply delayed the process of creating a clear line of political succession.

He was biding for time to build up a true successor, but he was not looking at any of his political lieutenants. It was clear from the steps he took by the middle of the 1970s that he was waiting for Mrs. Marcos to grow in political stature and influence. This situation favored the promotion of a political future for Mrs. Marcos, who would at this time rise to political prominence when she was appointed governor of Metropolitan Manila.

The Marcos children were too young during that time to take on administrative responsibilities and there was no question it would take years before they themselves could assume a political mantle.

Changing political equation. Two other factors were important in changing the political equation that would redefine the allocation of resources within the economy.

The first of these was the armed rebellion in Mindanao and the growing challenge of the communist NPA (New People’s Army). These two forces would become major distractions. Political, military and even foreign policy issues would be complicated by the recurrent problems arising from the insurgency.

Finally, there was a growing consolidation of the anti-Marcos opposition. Stemming from the traditional source of opposition to the government, the major actors were exiled from the country and began building a constituency in the United States. This opposition tried its best to build around the Philippine community in America and undercut the support that the US government provided to Marcos.

Prominent among this group were politicians and opponents who went on political exile, including Benigno Aquino Jr. and Eugenio Lopez. Through its actions, it could be seen the major concern of this group was a restoration of democracy.