Forty-one years after Ferdinand Marcos imposed authoritarian rule on the Filipino nation, we tell ourselves with all conviction that never again should we permit this to happen. But, the first step toward preventing the nightmare of dictatorial rule from becoming a reality is by understanding the conditions of its possibility.
Martial law was not the deed of one person. It was carried out with the willingness and cooperation of many others, even as it preyed on the readiness of our people to believe that their leaders know best what the country needs. Many of Marcos’ associates continue to think that the turn to authoritarianism was correct, and would have succeeded in achieving its objectives had it not been derailed by unforeseen events in the global economy and the ambition and short-term interests of a few.
Some of the key people who helped carry out martial law—like former President Fidel V. Ramos who was head of the Philippine Constabulary at the time and Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile who was the martial law administrator—later turned against Marcos. But, not one of them will likely say today that Marcos had fooled them into supporting the authoritarian option. We can only assume that they too believed that martial law was the solution to the country’s problems at that time. In this, they are probably not alone.
It is this mindset we must try to comprehend. What social conditions give rise to it? What forms does it take? What kind of motivations does it feed upon? Clearly, it is not enough to explain martial law as the product of the outsized ambition of one dictator. We need to ask how he managed to get so many thinking persons to suspend their disbelief and assist him in the realization of his ambition. We have to know how he could cow an entire population into submitting to dictatorial restrictions in their daily lives, and into welcoming this as a necessary stage in the nation’s development.
These questions become all the more pressing in light of the fact that, by the time he declared martial law in 1972, Marcos was no longer the same popular figure that he was when he was first elected president in 1965. It is true that in 1969, he became the first president of the republic ever to be reelected. But, by the time his second term was coming to an end, he had lost much of the public support that made him an unchallenged figure in Philippine politics. The public and the mass media were deeply suspicious of his every move, believing that he was bent on prolonging his stay in office.
Opposition politicians knew he was planning something along the lines of emergency powers, but obviously they did not think it would be anything as permanent and as drastic as the so-called “New Society.” After arresting key opposition lawmakers like Benigno Aquino Jr. and Jose W. Diokno, Marcos promptly padlocked Congress. He also shut down all newspapers, and television and radio stations that had been critical of his regime. He hijacked an ongoing Constitutional Convention that was then wrapping up its work, and proceeded to draft a Constitution that would legalize indefinite one-man rule. None of these triggered a revolution.
The swiftness by which the arrests and the closure of the mass media were accomplished, coupled with the strict imposition of a curfew, struck such a deep fear in the hearts of ordinary people that all they could think of during those years was how to stay out of trouble with the military. Those who had the means went abroad. It was depressing to see how the people’s initial fear was quickly replaced by the positive acceptance of a political order that openly used coercion and violence to produce a climate of peace and security.
It was clear that Marcos and his henchmen had read Philippine society very well. They knew that its democratic institutions benefited only a small segment of the nation, and that the majority would not miss a critical free press or a recalcitrant Congress all that much. Marcos projected himself as someone who knew what he was doing. He not only had the whole military behind him, but, as important, he also commanded the loyalty of some of the country’s best minds and technocrats. Many members of the Marcos Cabinet, graduates of the University of the Philippines, argued persuasively that Marcos was on a mission to reform Philippine society and create the conditions necessary to make democracy function in a meaningful way.
It was strange to hear the progressive language of the Left appropriated by the ideologues of the New Society. The regime styled itself as antifeudal, propoor, modern, and nationalist. It highlighted the importance of a national culture and paved the way for many initiatives in the field of cultural development. This attracted not a few progressive intellectuals and writers to work for the government. Some of them would later claim that they were doing so as part of their work for the underground. Indeed, there is nothing in the world that cannot be made to look good by mere redescription.
The will to authoritarianism is alive in all societies that seek an easy way out of the complexities of modern politics in the simplistic rationality of command leadership. It is particularly strong in countries where the vast majority of citizens, because of poverty and ignorance, are uninvolved in politics except as passive recipients of command and patronage. To the extent our society is deeply stratified into the few who are very rich and powerful and the vast masses who are very poor, we remain vulnerable to the allure of authoritarianism.
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