This coming week, the nation marks the 35th anniversary of the Edsa People Power Revolution that overthrew the Marcos dictatorship and installed Cory Aquino to the presidency. This dramatic political event led to the writing of a new constitution that the Filipino people ratified in a nationwide plebiscite on Feb. 2, 1987, barely a year after Edsa.
Though the current government of President Duterte is hardly recognizable as a caretaker of the Edsa legacy, the nation is, technically speaking, still operating under the 1987 Constitution. The key provisions of this Charter—notably the Bill of Rights, the checks on executive power, and the robust emphasis on social justice and popular empowerment—are as relevant today as they were 35 years ago. They constitute our last defense against the routinization of authoritarian rule.
When Marcos proclaimed martial law over the entire country in 1972, it became immediately clear that this was not a temporary measure. He had meant it from the start as the inauguration of a new political regime, with him at the helm, and with no expiration date. The intent was to enforce a mode of governance that had become an indispensable tool in Third World countries for achieving national unity and economic progress.
At the end of almost 14 years of one-man rule, abetted by a rubber-stamp legislature and an accommodating judiciary, and backed up at every point by a compliant military, Marcos, however, had very little to show by way of accomplishments. The country was buried in foreign debt, the economy was in ruins, and the communist insurgency he had vowed to extirpate had grown exponentially as it fed on mounting urban and rural discontent. The one question that concerned us on that fateful day in August 1983, when former senator Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, was not whether the regime had reached its end, but what the end would be like. Would it be violent and bloody? Would the military seize power? Would the armed communist movement, which had gained tremendous influence during martial law, make a bid to capture state power? Would foreign powers intervene? No one knew at that point.
But one thing was clear in our minds: The answers to these questions lay in the political. What could happen next was no longer a legal matter, for we were fighting an illegal regime that had hijacked the legal system. Everything depended rather on what the Filipino people were prepared to do to direct the flux of unfolding events. It was this open-endedness that was both exciting and frightening.
The prelude, the precipitating events to the Feb. 22-25 Edsa revolution, came in the form of the Feb. 7 snap election that Marcos abruptly called as a way of settling doubts on the continued legitimacy of his presidency. This was his arrogant reply to the daily protests that were mounted against him.
Convinced that this was going to be no more than a “demonstration election” that Marcos would tightly control, many of us urged a boycott as the only principled response possible. But, in calling for a boycott, I think we did not foresee the complex dynamics that this exercise could potentially unleash.
We did not know what the people would actually do to make their voices heard and to protect the ballot, or how they would react to brazen attempts to distort their will through electoral fraud. In retrospect, I now believe that those memorable four days at Edsa would not have been possible without the vigorous commitment in popular participation that Cory’s presidential campaign was able to elicit among freedom-loving Filipinos.
True to form, Marcos merely ignored the widespread public outcry against his regime’s crude attempts to manipulate the count and show that he had won the snap election. The Comelec proclaimed him the winner with 53.62 percent of the votes, as against Corazon Aquino’s 46.10 percent. In the Comelec tally, Marcos was shown as garnering 1.5 million more votes than Cory.
The election watchdog Namfrel, which had run its own unofficial count, showed Cory leading by more than half a million votes over Marcos. But, cutting short the brewing dispute over which count to believe, the Batasan went on to officially proclaim Marcos the victor in the election. The ailing dictator hurriedly took his oath as president in the morning of Feb. 25th. By then, events had taken a totally different turn. Cory was sworn in as president on the same day, not by virtue of the elections but by the force of people power.
The legitimation of the new government, which rested on something as ephemeral as people power, received its greatest boost from the international recognition that other nations promptly conferred upon the Cory presidency. Having canceled the 1973 Marcos constitution, Cory proceeded to rule by decree, keeping together a revolutionary government that was besieged from all directions. The most severe of the challenges she faced were the successive military coups that were staged even after the 1987 Constitution was already in place.
The stabilization of state power, following a political upheaval, is always a nation’s most fundamental challenge. That Cory managed to put in place the institutional mechanisms of political succession, and promptly hand over power to her elected successor, is no mean achievement for a government that came to power via a revolution.
The survival of the 1987 Constitution to this day is a testament to the enduring legacy of the February 1986 Edsa Revolution.