The Anti-Marcos Struggle (review)

David Wurfel (reviewer)
The Anti-Marcos Struggle: Personalistic Rule and Democratic Transition in the Philippines. By Mark R. Thompson. New Haven (Connecticut): Yale University Press. 1996. xiii, 258 pp. (Tables.) US$32.50, cloth. ISBN 0-300-06243-5. Reviewed in Pacific Affairs (Summer 1996), 291-2.

THE AUTHOR has produced a carefully researched and well-written book that must be read by all students of Philippine politics and of democratic transitions. His book covers much the same ground as certain chapters of this reviewer’s Filipino Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), but in more detail, incorporating new material, and with frequent comparative references to Nicaragua, Haiti, Cuba and El Salvador that help put the Philippines in context.

Nevertheless, even with detailed coverage — which, despite the title, extends through the Aquino administration — there are some gaps. Thompson starts with an appropriate key question: “One must ask why the democrats, not their armed rivals, won the race to topple the dictatorship” (p. 2), but there is inadequate coverage of the rivals, the Left and the military. There is no reference to the now voluminous literature on the Left’s tactical errors in 1985-86, though it impinges directly on a central theme of the book. And though the book treats the united front tactic at length, its two major vehicles, the Nationalist Alliance and BAYAN, the settings in which Communists and elite oppositionists met- at least temporarily- are barely mentioned.

Two themes in the book which provide new data and valuable new interpretations are the elite opposition’s willingness to use violence, and to seek alliances with the Communist party. Coverage of the early 1980s is most thorough.

Unfortunately, however, there are both exaggerations and inconsistencies. To say that “in most pre-martial law presidential elections the opposition made preparations for rebellion in case the polls were rigged or the incumbent refused to stand down after defeat” (p. 25) would seem to mix together mere discussion of possibilities with serious planning. Another exaggeration, “the traditional opposition was determined to employ violence against the Marcos regime after the 1978 election” (p. 82), leads to an inconsistency when Thompson correctly points out that “The LAFM [Light a Fire Movement, the major expression of this strategy] was an elite group with a narrow social base.

Olaguer’s close business associates, a handful of Aquino’s followers, a few financiers, and two clergymen with links to Cardinal Sin were the entire organization.” This does not constitute “the traditional opposition.” More unfortunately, exaggeration sometimes leads to error. According to Thompson, in 1976 “in Manila, former Senator Jovito Salonga was reported to be discussing a coup plan with both Ramos and Enrile” (p. 83), a report which Senator Salonga flatly denies.

On the question of united front, Thompson states that “of the five major opposition factions, only the one led by Jovito Salonga considered a united front with the radicals its chief [italics provided] strategy” (p.113). In chapter 6 Thompson provides no support for that evaluation; Senator Salonga insists that it is inaccurate.

A major contribution of this book is the utilization, following Linz, of the concept of “sultanism” in an analysis of the Marcos regime. But how is it to be distinguished from the more common term, patrimonialism? The definition (pp. 50-51) does not explain. Surely one common element is the absence of autonomous institutions. Yet can we dismiss the significance of electoral institutions or the professionalized military in explaining the overthrow of Marcos? The following of Ramos within the military was, at least in part, based on his reputation as a professional soldier, a West Point graduate; many of his followers wanted to see the establishment of an autonomous military, free of sultanistic patronage. Thompson himself made the point repeatedly, and quite correctly, that the commitment to free elections in the Philippines was so strong that Marcos’ attempt to undermine that institution – temporarily successful – was a cause of his downfall.

So perhaps some slight modification of the analysis might be appropriate, possibly using a qualified term, “neo-patrimonialism” or “neo-sultanism.” Autonomous institutions were, of course, severely weakened by Marcos, but he was not able to put them all to death. It would seem that even if autonomous institutions are not functioning at a given time, ifa society’s commitment to their restoration were strong enough, a fully sultanistic system would not exist. Thompson speaks often of the power of Filipino moral outrage at corruption and fraud to affect electoral outcomes. Sultanism would not seem complete when major elements of the political culture stand resolutely opposed to regime practice.

Categories Philippines, General politics