The radical beginnings of Edsa people power

On Feb. 25, 1986, the fourth day of people power at Edsa, Cory Aquino took her oath of office as the country’s new president in a brief ceremony held at Club Filipino.

Earlier in the day, at a morning ceremony at Malacañang Palace, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. also took his oath for the same office.

On that day, therefore, the Philippines had two presidents: Marcos who claimed re-election by virtue of the declaration of the Batasan (the legislative assembly at that time) that he was the winner in the “snap” presidential election, and Cory, who claimed that she had won that election but was cheated in the count.

Her mandate to assume the presidency, Cory said, emanated from “a direct exercise of the power of the Filipino people of the Philippines assisted by units of the New Armed Forces.” (This is taken from the three clauses that formed the main premises of the Provisional or Freedom Constitution.)

Marcos took his oath before then Chief Justice Ramon Aquino, whom he had appointed to the position just a few months before. Cory took hers before then Supreme Court associate justice Claudio Teehankee, whom she named chief justice a year later to succeed Justice Aquino.

By the early evening of Feb. 25, the Edsa crowd exploded in sustained applause and celebration upon hearing that Marcos and his family had hastily fled Malacañang on helicopters provided by the United States. At that point, no one knew exactly where they were headed. But, the following day, the news confirmed what people had only heard as rumors—that the Marcos entourage had been flown to Guam en route to Hawaii.

The departure of the ailing autocrat who had ruled the country for 21 years, 14 of these as dictator, effectively removed the last remaining obstacle to the formation of a new democratic government under Cory Aquino. What shape the new government would take, however, was far from certain. Cory found herself torn between those who saw the need for rapid consolidation and political normalization, and those who subscribed to the necessity of overhauling the bankrupt legal and political order despite the risks.

Cory clearly felt that, in the end, she had no choice but to cancel the 1973 Constitution, and, with it, the existing governmental organs that drew their legitimacy from it. This meant, among other things, that she would ignore the old Batasan’s offer to change its certification of Marcos as re-elected president with one that would give her the legal mandate to assume office as duly elected president. Rather than preserve this rubber-stamp parliament, she dismantled it.

With the powers vested in her by the Freedom Constitution, she then proceeded to reorganize the Supreme Court and replace the elected incumbent local government officials with her appointees. Perhaps most significant of all, as the first acts of her presidency, she created two presidential bodies that urgently sought to address the twin evils of ill-gotten wealth and human rights atrocities—the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) and the Presidential Commission on Human Rights (PCHR).

To head these agencies, she appointed two progressive former senators of unquestioned integrity and credibility. Jovito R. Salonga led the PCGG’s pathbreaking efforts to “recover ill-gotten properties amassed by the leaders and supporters of the previous regime and protect the interest of the people through orders of sequestration or freezing of assets or accounts” (Proclamation No. 3). Jose W. Diokno, in turn, was given the supremely difficult assignment of investigating human rights violations committed during the Marcos regime and promoting a culture of respect for civil and political rights.

No new order is ever created in a vacuum. It is always, to some extent, constituted with some elements from the old regime. Nowhere perhaps was this more evident than in the complications that attended the conduct of the work of the PCGG and the PCHR. They had to undertake the urgent task of pursuing justice in the midst of growing calls for national reconciliation and unity.

Cory’s administration was accused of being vengeful and lacking in magnanimity, and selective in its pursuit of stolen wealth. Not a few of the military officers who took part in the events that eventually led to the downfall of Marcos were tagged as responsible for many human rights violations committed during the dark years of martial law.

All these contradictions came to a head in the first major military coup mounted against the Edsa government in 1987. That event, a frontal assault on Cory’s right to rule, revealed the seriousness of the split in the ranks of the country’s security forces.

While civilian supremacy prevailed in the end, the cracks in the military mirrored the fragility of the new regime. The promulgation and ratification of the new 1987 Constitution lent Cory’s administration the stability that a provisional charter could not give her. But it also spelled the end of any hope for radical reform, and, worse, the gradual return to the comforting habits of the old order.