The pages of history are filled with episodes of initially optimistic “revolutions” that ended up replacing a bad status quo with one that was far worse. Beyond this, when foreign powers helped to provoke such revolutions – dangerous situations were made far more troublesome than they already were. There is perhaps no better example of a comparatively recent “revolution” that took things from bad to worse with the help of a foreign power, than the 1986 EDSA Revolution in The Philippines.
An American stab in the back
When he first became President of The Philippines in 1965, Ferdinand Marcos was a staunch ally of the United States. As such, The Philippines became an important logistical point in America’s military operations against Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia throughout the 1960s, up until 1975. Marcos remained steadfastly pro-Washington and most in Washington remained pro-Marcos…right up until the moment they turned their back.
By 1986, Marcos and his friend, US President Ronald Reagan were both very old and as such, seemed to lack a true strategic vision for managing the provocations which quickly unfolded that year in The Philippines. While today, The Philippine government is increasingly vigilant about foreign corporations using their media influence to meddle in the internal affairs of The Philippines, in 1986, Marcos fell victim to a ploy by American media and beyond that, a plot that had the clandestine support of US intelligence agencies that for lack of a better phrase had “gone rogue”. This devious scheming which frankly was an act of abuse against the ageing Marcos, was one that The Philippines has still not fully recovered from.
In true Hollywood style, after elements of the US government privately goaded him into doing so, Marcos found himself badgered into declaring a snap presidential election on American television. This election would ultimately seal his fate.
The truth of the matter was that as Marcos in his later years was developing an increasingly independent streak, many in the US had come to the conclusion that it would be advantageous for the US to fan the flames of genuine opposition to Marcos, in order to secure the loyalty of the “next regime” – one which due to inexperience and desperation for help in learning how to govern, would necessarily be far more indebted to Washington than was Marcos. In this sense, the US threw a match onto gunpowder in the hopes of replacing the strong and pro-US Marcos with a weak and pliable pro-US leader in The Philippines.
If Marcos’s own shortsightedness led him to call an election due to external pressures, it was America’s confidence in the fact that it could control Corazon Aquino and those around her more effectively than a strong minded but ageing Marcos, that ultimately led the US to turn their back on Marcos. Whilst Reagan himself was recorded as saying that fraud existed in the 1986 election on all sides, ultimately, the US did not reinforce Marcos (the official election winner) and help to calm the situation by promoting a negotiated political settlement. Instead, the US government and its corporate media became Aquino’s public cheerleaders and eventually told Marcos to run away from the country he had ruled for over 20 years.
In this sense, the US had learned from its mistakes in Iran in 1979, but Marcos did not learn from what the US self-evidently learned in Iran. During Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Carter White House was deeply divided about how to handle multi-factional uprisings against the country’s pro-US monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. After the White House sent the Shah numerous mixed message, the decision was made to let the Shah fall in the hopes that whatever regime came to power, would both be internally stable and retain good relations with America. While the Islamic Republic of Iran has generally remained internally stable since 1979, it has had anything but good relations with America. In September of 1980, the US and Iran cut all formal diplomatic relations and this remains the reality today.
In The Philippines during the 1980s, the anti-American sentiments held by many Iranians did not exist in any meaningful way, but apart from this, the initial strategic dynamics from the US perspective were not particularly different. The US had learned from their experience in Iran, that it was not always effective to rely on a single strong leader as the bedrock of an important geo-strategic alliance. However, the US also learned that by failing to arouse pro-US sentiments among Iran’s diverse anti-Shah opposition, the US allowed a new regime to take power that ultimately held stridently anti-American views.
As such, through the exposure of previously classified documents, it was revealed that long before 1986, the CIA was helping to groom the Yellow opposition to Marcos for an eventually takeover that would lead to the formation of a new regime that was far more pro-US than even Marcos.
In this sense, the US had learned their lesson well from Iran, but Marcos seemingly failed to anticipate the inevitable stab in the back that Iran’s last Shah felt in 1979. Since the fall of Marcos, many pro-US leaders have felt a similar stab in the back including:
Saddam Hussein (supported by the US from 1979-1990)
Manuel Noriega (supported by the US from 1983-1989)
Slobodan Milošević (hailed by the US as a peacemaker in 1995, but overthrown by NATO in 1999)
Muammar Gaddafi (turned to western partnerships in 2003 but was violently overthrown by pro-NATO terrorists in 2011)
These are just some examples of leaders who the US helped to overthrow in spite of previous cooperation or loyalty. In this sense, Marcos’s demise was not unique – it was business as usual for Washington.
What Marcos should have done
Karl Aguilar has written a masterful piece about how the events of 1986 could have been used to restore the never fully implemented parliamentary democracy that Marcos himself ushered in when he ratified the 1973 Constitution of The Philippines. Instead, as Aguilar details, Aquino moved to grab as much power as she could, even though she must have known that her total lack of political experience was going to be a national liability if she were to rule as a strong president as opposed to a ceremonial one that merely oversaw the functions of a strong elected parliament.
But even before Aquino had a chance to take power, Marcos could have and should have taken the time to call a parliamentary rather than a presidential election. This would have also required a rolling back of the 1976, 1981 and 1984 amendments to the 1973 Constitution – amendments which weakened the parliamentary system mandated in the original, un-amended text. Given that Marcos still had the influence to roll back these flawed amendments even as late as 1986, there was nothing stopping him from doing so, other than his own poor decision to call for a totally unnecessary and counterproductive presidential election.
The fact of the matter is that genuine parliamentary elections based on the original letter of the 1973 Constitution, could have been organised far more effectively than the presidential election which ultimately took place in 1986. By calling for fresh elections in a full parliamentary system (e.g. that which was clearly laid out in an un-amended 1973 constitution), Marcos would have ensured the implementation and operational viability of vastly more democratic institutions than anything which could have possibly resulted from fresh presidential elections. Furthermore, if he had called for fresh parliamentary elections, Marcos could have skilfully called the bluff of his international critics who said that his period in power was insufficiently democratic.
Had Marcos agreed to allow for a free and fair parliamentary election, even if the Yellows won (something far from guaranteed in the first place), it would not have been a landslide victory and as such, a revived pro-Marcos/Nationalist opposition could have held the new government to account and likely prevented it from passing any legislation that would have changed the overall character of the country. In other words, had Marcos allowed parliament to take power after fresh elections, the 1987 constitution would have never been written and The Philippines would have been spared decades of hardship.
This would have not only allowed a younger and less “controversial” figure to lead the Nationalist side of Philippine politics, but it would have necessarily reduced Marcos’s Presidential powers to that of a ceremonial leader. Beyond this, a promise from Marcos to resign “sooner rather than later” would likewise have helped to calm tensions whilst also helping to indicate the fact that The Philippines was capable of a peaceful transition of power at both a parliamentary and ceremonial level. As Marcos died in 1989, he would not have stayed in power much beyond 1986 in any case.
There are two main lessons that Filipinos in 2019 should derive from the events in 1986. First of all and most importantly, parliamentary transitions of power are vastly more stable than presidential transitions of power (peaceful or otherwise). This is the case because the composition of parliament reflects the percentage of support for each political faction in the country where by contrast, a victorious president can take full power as head of both the state and of government, even if he or she only secured 51% of the national vote. Inversely, a weak parliamentary majority can be regularly held to account by a strong opposition and over time, slim parliamentary majorities tend to evaporate, thus forcing snap elections in which both sides try to attain a stronger democratic mandate for government.
Secondly, the fact that Marcos was stabbed in the back by an American superpower he had been strongly allied to, exposes the weakness of relying on an always strategic United States. History shows that whenever the US sees a strategic advantage, it takes one. All concepts of loyalty, responsibility or even a commitment to international law go out the window when American leaders think they can gain more from turning against a former ally. As such, whenever the US sees an opportunity to fan the flames of revolution to their own advantage, they will do so. The US sleep-walked into the Iranian Revolution based on this disloyal mentality but by 1986 – they had learned from their shortcomings in Iran and consequently got everything they wanted in The Philippines. The US helped to deposed a leader who had been nothing but a friend and brought in a new regime that was too weak and too intellectually compromised to say no to Washington.
While President Rodrigo Duterte has said no to Washington on many occasions, the fact that the 1987 Constitution of Cory Aquino has deprived The Philippines of strong parliamentary governance, is a continued testament to how on this day in 1986, The Philippines took a big step backwards, even though the path forward actually existed based on the very 1973 Constitution that Marcos should have done a better job to support.