The lure of authoritarian rule

At one of the medical missions organized by my brother Bishop Pablo David for the Aeta and indigent folks of a remote barrio in Bataan, I saw in a graphic way the different stages in which social order in our society is stuck. Young and middle-aged people jostled against one another to have their names listed at the registration desk.  Their inability to fall in line, wait for their turn, and observe simple rules defined their general behavior. At the outermost lane, a handful of senior citizens watched indifferently as they stayed in the lane reserved for them.  Quietly huddled in a corner, away from the bedlam, were about a dozen Aetas, kept close to one another by their leader, a woman, who spoke for the whole group.

Thirty-nine years ago, Ferdinand Marcos pointed precisely to the prevailing disorder and lack of discipline in Philippine society to justify the imposition of martial law.  Proclamation 1081 highlighted the alleged existence of a Left-Right conspiracy of “communists and oligarchs” against the Republic in order to establish the legal ground for emergency rule.  But, it wasn’t this that moved a large segment of the Filipino public to view the inception of authoritarian rule in a positive light so much as the sense that the nation had lost its way and needed a strongman to lead it back to the right path.

The draconian measures that Marcos ordered under martial rule had the instant effect of creating a sense of predictability and safety in the streets.  The imposition of a curfew curtailed all night life.  It brought families back together for evening meals.  The ban on all kinds of weapons and military visibility everywhere reduced crime overnight. Government offices became more attentive to the public. The police showed a renewed devotion to their tasks and vigorously went after dealers and peddlers of illicit drugs.  Of course, the nation lived in fear, but people gradually accepted restrictions in their daily life as a condition for the order and calm that replaced the rallies and bombings of the preceding period.

The regime popularized the mantra of discipline as a prerequisite to development. This went hand in hand with the enhancement of national pride through programs aimed at inculcating an appreciation of the country’s official history.  Buildings meant to showcase Filipino culture and talent were constructed one after the other, with the objective of projecting the return of the Filipino nation to the world stage.

In this, Marcos was echoing trends that had already taken root in most of Asia—in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea.  In September 1972, the Philippines stood alone as a dysfunctional democracy in a region that was witnessing the success of a model of repressive developmentalism enforced by dictators and technocrats.

Marcos was particularly impressed by South Korea’s Park Chunghee, a stern leader who led an ascetic life. Taking his cue from Park’s strategic program to nurture a Korean national bourgeoisie under the wings of a strong state, Marcos chose close associates like Eduardo Cojuangco, Roberto Benedicto and Herminio Disini and gave them special treatment.  In South Korea they were known as the “chaebol”—state-sponsored business groups that spearheaded Korean industrialization.  In the Philippines, they earned the disdainful label “crony capitalists.”

Marcos’ experiment ended in failure.  Unlike Lee Kuan Yew and Park Chunghee, who managed to preserve the image of a clean and willful leader, Marcos went down in history as the corrupt head of an insatiable kleptocracy made up of cronies, generals and kinsmen.  His “New Society” was buffeted by the phenomenal increase in the price of imported petroleum products and the decline in the prices of sugar and coconut oil, the country’s primary exports.  Rising interest rates in financial markets abroad and massive defaults by developing countries made it difficult for the regime to service its growing indebtedness.  Marcos’ own health faltered, creating uncertainty about his political successor.

I think it is simplistic to view martial law as having been driven merely by one man’s selfish attempt to install himself as president for life.  The motive was certainly there.  But it does not explain why intelligent and sensible individuals like the historian and educator Onofre D. Corpuz, the economist Gerardo Sicat, the financial expert Cesar Virata, the intelligence analyst Alejandro Melchor, and many other technocrats like them, joined his Cabinet.  They could indeed have been seduced by power, but it is also likely that they believed in the experiment’s promise and potential.

At the core of this belief might have been the perception that Philippine society had been held back too long by a feudal class that kept a fatal grip on the country’s political and economic life.  That class had been the main cause of the country’s backwardness and the people’s poverty. Its old way of ruling no longer commanded the loyalty of the young generation. This generation however had not fully internalized the rules of a modern society.  The expectation was that authoritarian rule would not only end feudalism, it would also forestall chaos in the transition to modernity.

Such has been the promise of authoritarianism.  Its appeal to reformers remains so long as the many fail to see any good reason to fall in line, wait for their turn, respect the rights of others, and refrain from demanding undue exemption from the rules.