The Philippines' precarious democracy: coping with foreign and domestic pressures under Aquino

By David Wurfel, University of Windsor.
in International Journal (Toronto), XLIV:4 (Summer 1989), pp 674-697.

The media hype focussed on the Philippines in 1986 has now faded. But many of the factors which produced the drama of the ‘People Power “revolution”1 remain, making for considerable uncertainty about the prospects for political democracy in the coming decade. Although the international context in which the Philippines must now operate seems on balance somewhat more favourable to the stability of democratic institutions than that which existed when they were first threatened in the early 1970s, the domestic context is even less so. A review of the domestic scene demands our initial attention.

After three years of decline in the gross national product (GNP), with an expanding insurgency and an increasingly corrupt president, the Philippines in 1985 was frequently called the ‘sick man of Asia.’ An impending succession crisis had led to the assassination of the leading figure in the opposition, Senator Benigno Aquino, in 1983, which dissipated what was left of the regime’s legitimacy. President Ferdinand Marcos, in an ill-fated attempt to recapture some of that legitimacy, bent the constitution and called an early presidential election for 7 February 1986. Much to his amazement the opposition united at the last minute around Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, the widow of his long-time foe.

Mrs Aquino campaigned with increasing success as the ‘very opposite’ of Mr Marcos. In anticipation of Marcos-orchestrated fraud, the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), staffed by activists mobilized largely by the Roman Catholic Church and with the help of American money – both public and private, covert and overt – prepared to watch the polls and to undertake their own count. But Marcos was so desperate for a ‘win’ that his minions beat up poll watchers and grabbed ballot boxes even in front of hundreds of foreign journalists and a prestigious American observer team. Thus, though ,the legislature he controlled officially declared him the ‘winner,’ neither the Filipino opposition nor commentators around the world accepted the decision as valid. Mrs Aquino quickly launched a civil disobedience campaign which was designed to drive Marcos out of office.

Meanwhile, there was considerable unrest in the armed forces. The chief of staff, Fabian Ver, had been accused of plotting to kill Senator Aquino, but had been acquitted and returned to command. He was deeply enmeshed in the corruption of the Marcos regime. Grouped around the defence minister, Juan Ponce Enrile, was an increasing number of younger officers (the Reform the Armed Forces Movement or RAM) calling publicly for reform and secretly planning a coup which centred on the seizure of the presidential palace. In fact, they had set a date for late January 1986 but were apparently persuaded to wait until after the elections. (They were in close consultation with military attachés at the United States embassy, the archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin, and Mrs Aquino’s advisers.2)

But on 22 February their plot was discovered. Fearing imminent arrest, Enrile, joined by the vice chief of staff, Fidel Ramos, took a few hundred men to armed forces headquarters. There they declared themselves in rebellion against Marcos and stated that they recognized the validity of Mrs Aquino’s election as president in line with the Namfrel projection. Then followed the ‘Four Days of Courage’ viewed on televisions around the world.’ Nuns with flowers stopped tanks while other devout carried Marian figures in procession before ranks of Marcos troops. Cardinal Sin was primarily responsible for mobilizing hundreds of thousands of Manila residents as a buffer between government and rebel soldiers, just as he had promised the coup plotters weeks earlier.3 Unable to get his commanders to fire on massed civilians, and finally advised by a vacillating United States administration that it was time to go, Marcos and his entourage were lifted out of the palace in American helicopters on 25 February, only minutes before looters entered. Corazon Aquino had already been inaugurated president by a defiant Supreme Court justice before Marcos left. It was an ignominious end to twenty years of rule, but the Filipino people had suffered much more than Marcos.

Most Filipinos were ecstatic. They had ended a dictatorship with very little bloodshed and had gained the world’s respect in the process. Mrs Aquino took office with a national surge of support greater than that enjoyed by any previous Philippines president. ‘People power’ had put her in charge. She called it a ‘miracle’; everyone was surprised. Now, more than three years later, the euphoria has passed. While public criticism of the president was widely frowned upon throughout 1986, it is now rampant. Let us examine how she has used her power, how she has dealt with the nation’s problems, and whether the current criticism in the media and political circles is justified.

Corazon Aquino took office with a vision. She wanted to restore political democracy and to clean up the mess left by Marcos – especially the corruption, the insurgency, and the economic stagnation. She has achieved much of the first objective but is much further from reaching the second. The need to consolidate regime legitimacy through social reform, particularly the redistribution of land, was understood by some of those around her, but was never very high on her agenda as the results of the past three years reveal. National autonomy, another announced goal, has been unevenly pursued.

What President Aquino has and has not accomplished is in large part attributable to the nature of her regime. And that, in turn, was affected by the way she came to power. The best evidence is that she did win a genuine electoral victory against overwhelming odds (although Namfrel was not allowed to complete its count). But that victory would not have been possible without the support of the church and the Americans. The withdrawal of American backing for Marcos set the stage for the events of February. It was most effective in the decisions of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and private banks to cut back on credit for the Marcos-dominated economy. That halted production in many industries and threw thousands out of work. The consequent unrest was an important basis for the upsurge of opposition in 1985 across the whole spectrum from the economic elite to the working class. American financing of Namfrel, although essential, was less important than the mobilization of volunteers by the Catholic hierarchy. It was Cardinal Sin who persuaded Salvador Laurel, the leader of a coalition of opposition groups, to run for vice-president, thus assuring a single opposition ticket, and who then mobilized support for Aquino at crucial times.

A majority of valid votes could not, however, have been translated into presidential power without the intervention of the military. Positive American signals to coup plotters were critical to the RAM initiatives,4 even though open United States support for the rebels did not materialize until two days before Marcos left, when victory was already in sight. The RAM saw itself as having made ‘people power’ possible and thus having gained a right to a powerful voice in the new regime.

Co-ordination among the church leaders, the economic elite, the military ‘reformers,’ and United States officials to back Aquino was stimulated by another major political force that had no direct role in the transition, the outlawed Communist party of the Philippines. Fear of the expanding insurgency of the New People’s Army (NPA) facilitated elite co-operation to support the most popular non-communist alternative. The communists and their allies misjudged the situation and declared a boycott of the February election, thereby forfeiting any prospect of influence in the new regime.

With this array of backers it is understandable that Aquino’s success has been less a revolution than a restoration.5 To be sure it had some of the characteristics of a political revolution in the extralegal change of leadership followed by the creation of new institutions. But, despite a certain continuity in personnel, structure, and policy with the Marcos era, it was most notably a restoration of the values, elites, and institutions of the 1950s and 1960s, distorted, to be sure, by the intrusion of a politically assertive military. The ethos of Aquino’s political movement has sometimes been compared with that of Ramon Magsaysay in 1953, though Aquino’s was certainly more nationalist. The people on government rosters, and most particularly in the halls of Congress after May 1987, recalled the elite families that had dominated politics before the declaration of martial law in 1972. (The Aquino and Cojuangco clans were not the least of these.) And the new constitution ratified in February 1987 was largely a revival of the 1935 charter which had been discarded by Marcos in 1973. A lower house of Congress based on single-member districts reinvigorated patronage politics, so that the constitutional provision for an extra fifty seats to be elected by proportional representation (a provision designed to strengthen political parties and issue-oriented politics) has not been and probably will not be implemented by legislation. Mrs Aquino’s electoral support in February 1986 was based more on her charisma and on disgust with Marcos than on patron-client networks. But those networks, now nurtured by the president’s brother, Congressman José Cojuangco, have revived and are flourishing. The linkage between patron and client is the mechanism by which wealth is transformed into power, sustaining an elite which Marcos himself often called an oligarchy. In fact, the wealthiest of the oligarchs have regained control of some of their pre-martial law corporations with the help of the Aquino administration.6 The economic interests of the military high command seemed to be compatible with those of the elite.

The restoration of political democracy – usually meaning constitutional rule through honest elections with freedom of expression – was widely welcomed by Filipinos who have regularly participated in free competitive elections since 1907 – except during World War II and the martial law era. Mrs Aquino was uncomfortable with the fact that she had to use her decree powers to inaugurate that restoration, but within a month of attaining office she promulgated a provisional constitution which retained much of the 1973 Marcos document, while granting all legislative power to the presidency until a newly drafted constitution could be implemented.7 The pro-Marcos National Assembly, which had been elected in 1984, was disbanded. She then decreed the establishment of a constitutional commission, which she appointed, to draft the new basic law. Despite considerable criticism of an appointed, rather than an elected commission – which was unprecedented – Aquino consulted widely and created a body that was accepted by most Filipinos as generally representative, and thus legitimate.

A need for speed had been the major argument for appointed rather than elected commissioners, and this decision proved a valid one. By October 1986 the draft had been completed and in February 1987 with President Aquino’s endorsement it was ratified overwhelmingly in a nation-wide plebiscite.

As noted, almost all the governmental institutions provided for in the 1935 constitution were revived – with the addition of a human rights commission. However, the presidential term was set at six years without re-election, instead of the previous maximum of two four-year terms. With recent memories of an all-powerful executive, presidential prerogatives were somewhat more limited than before 1972. Implementation of the new constitution proceeded on schedule, with elections for Congress in May 1987 and for local officials in November. These elections were seen by both observers and participants as freer and more honest than any since 1971, though some legacies of the Marcos era could not be wiped out overnight.

Unfortunately, restoring democratic institutions turned out to be much easier than repairing the damage to society inflicted by Marcos’ misrule. That aspect of the Marcos regime which received most attention in the world’s media was the massive unprecedented corruption. Whereas the worst of previous Third World leaders had usually measured their loot in millions, that of Marcos had to be calculated in billions of United States dollars. It was quite appropriate, therefore, that one of Aquino’s first decrees created the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) to recover `stolen wealth.8 The corporate shells, equipment, and real property of Marcos’ cronies’ who had received huge loans from government banks – and then defaulted – were also to be sold to the private sector. As well as action to recover the costs of past corruption, there was talk of removing the remaining corrupt officials from office. But the impact of both these policies was undermined by structural dilemmas and a lack of political will.

Even though the PGGG had been given sweeping rights to sequester ill-gotten gains – in one of the few instances where the powers of presidential decree were used effectively – legal challenges mounted quickly. The restoration of constitutional government had, of course, meant restoring the rule of law and the majesty of the courts. The cronies were in deep political disgrace, but they could afford to hire the most skilled lawyers. Thus, in September 1988, the PCGG, under criticism from Congress, could only claim that it had recovered US$65 million from the holdings of Marcos and his cronies when estimates of Marcos’ wealth alone had gone as high as US$ to billion.9 The PC GG faced another dilemma as well. Although a large segment of the old economic elite had had little to do with the empire-building of the Marcos cronies, a number of elite families had been either tempted or pressured into various dealings with what was the fastest growing sector of the Philippine economy in the 1970s. Yet in the last days of Marcos many of these same elite families were enthusiastic supporters of Aquino and thus gained influence in the new administration. When sequestration by the PCGG began to hit corporations in which the old elite shared interests with the cronies, there was political as well as legal opposition, expressed through Congress or directly to the president. The same tangled skein produced pressure from the old elite to stop some sales of the remnants of crony corporations.

Cleaning up corruption is a daunting task for any regime, even more so when it has become embedded in the way of life as it had under Marcos. A similar task had confronted Ramon Magsaysay when he was elected president in 1953, but in 1986 the Augean stables were piled much higher. And while her personal probity was beyond assail, it is not clear that President Aquino was as deeply committed to making it the standard of her whole administration as Magsaysay had been. In any case, with the restoration of the rule of law, officials charged with corruption could not be removed without due process, and the most successful thieves acquired the most expensive solicitors. Those removed legally were at best a handful. Aquino therefore fell back on the trusted technique of ‘reorganization.’ With impressive rhetoric about the need to restructure to increase efficiency, whole offices and sections of bureaux were abolished, and new ones put in their places. This not only allowed the dismissal of incumbents but provided patronage rewards for demanding new allies. Those fired were not necessarily the most corrupt, however, but were simply those with the weakest connections to the new authorities.

In 1987 those who regularly dealt with the bureaucracy were reporting that the under-the-table price of services was no longer certain and that with the confusion of reorganization the hapless citizen often did not know whom to pay. But by 1988 that problem was being solved – the ‘right’ recipient was increasingly the president’s brother, José ‘Peping’ Cojuangco or his designates. By 1989 the trend was even more clearly established: the PC G G, once headed by a brilliant and incorruptible former senator, Jovito Salonga, was now chaired by a new appointee, the personal attorney of Cojuangco. The sale of sequestered corporations is now not necessarily for the primary benefit of the Philippines government.

Despite the importance of the fight against corruption to Aquino’s legitimacy, the attempt to halt the insurgency was given higher priority and had more immediate political ramifications. The communist-led insurgency, which was eighteen years old in 1986, is a major national tragedy. Thousands on both sides have been killed and hundreds of thousands are refugees from the fighting. When Aquino promised during her campaign to seek a ceasefire, it was a very popular move. But in 1986 when she tried to make good on that promise, she was caught between hard-line revolutionaries and the short-sighted intransigence of powerful factions in the Philippines military and their Pentagon backers.10

In her commitment to correct human rights abuses and as a step towards building the trust necessary for ceasefire negotiations, she quickly announced her intention to release all political prisoners; even José Maria Sison, founding chairman of the Communist party, was let go. Formal negotiations got under way in August 1986 with an all-civilian panel representing the government. Meanwhile Enrile, now the minister of defence, escalated his charges that Aquino was ‘soft on communism’ and finally in November was caught in a coup plot; his dismissal strengthened Aquino’s hand, even though he was not prosecuted. This helped speed negotiations, and an agreement on a 6o-day ceasefire was signed in November. Although talks then began for a longer term settlement, neither the military brass nor the N PA’S leaders found a prolongation of the ceasefire to be in their institutional self-interest, and full-scale fighting resumed in late January 1987.11

Ironically, the mere commencement of ceasefire negotiations, which so frightened the Pentagon, contributed more to undermining the revolutionary movement than all the military efforts of the previous decade. Just as President Aquino and some of her advisers had hoped, the hard line taken in the negotiations by the NPA leaders, which helped prevent a renewal of the ceasefire, caused some of their political support to evaporate; they had underestimated the national longing for peace. Mrs Aquino’s miscalculation was her judgment of the reaction of the armed forces. Enrile was not the only problem. Her attempt to bypass the military in the 1986 negotiations and other perceived slights stirred resentment among younger officers, and in August 1987 she was very nearly overthrown by the RAM under the leadership of Colonel Gregorio Honasan – in a country which had never seen a serious coup plot before 1986.12

The absence of any credible coup attempt since then is largely a result of the fact that the president has gone a long way to accommodate military demands. She has increased the deficit to raise their pay and has otherwise expanded the defence budget to a level much higher than it was under Marcos, and she appears to have abandoned her earlier policy of protecting human rights. No military officers have been punished for their part in torture or disappearances, and no effective steps have been taken against the increasing number of assassinations by vigilante groups trained and funded by the military. Nor has she dared to go after corruption in the armed forces, although she certainly does not promote it, as Marcos did.

In sum, the politicization of the military first by Marcos and then against him, which proved essential for toppling the autocrat, produced the primary threat to the consolidation of democracy since 1986. The double irony is that the laudable attempt to end the insurgency peacefully stimulated a greater political assertiveness by the military which not only threatens central democratic institutions in the short run but has led to military behaviour that, whatever its present success in frightening rebel supporters, must ensure the survival of the insurgency in the long run. In 1988 the church and the non-communist left both promoted the idea of regional ceasefires and of localized zones of peace. There were reasonably successful two-day ceasefires at Christmas and the New Year, but neither side has shown a willingness to support broader restraint. In any case, President Aquino herself no longer appears to be providing leadership towards peace.

For most of Mrs Aquino’s elite and urban middle class supporters, the revival of the economy was undoubtedly the first priority, because the GNP had plunged more than io per cent since 1984. In a distinctly unrevolutionary fashion, the new administration chose to retain the nation’s top economic policymaker, Governor José Fernandez of the Central Bank, even though he was a Marcos appointee. The sense of continuity was reinforced by the first plan of the Aquino administration’s National Economic and Development Authority which appeared in late 1986; the economist who had directed the authority in the 1970s found no basic change from objectives or strategies he had set.

The improvement in the economy which did, in fact, take place in the next three years was more a result of Aquino’s luck than of her administration’s policy, though ‘pump-priming’ public works expenditures did contribute. World commodity prices, which had penalized the Philippines in the last years under Marcos, rose during 1986-7. The prices of coconut products, the country’s largest export, rose more than 100 per cent from third quarter of 1985 to third quarter of 1988.13 The sugar price index went from 362 to 520 in the same period. Copper and lumber prices increased somewhat less dramatically. Furthermore, the overthrow of Marcos unleashed foreign credits and a renewed flow of investment: direct foreign investment, which had been negative in three quarters of 1985, jumped to US$343 million in the first half of 1988. A key stimulus of economic expansion was a change in bank lending rates, which fell from 35 per cent in early 1985 to 13 per cent by mid-1987. At the same time the rate of inflation dropped dramatically, less than 5 per cent for the two-year period. Prices levelled off, and with the easing of credit factories reopened and many former employees returned to work. By 1987 the GNP was growing by nearly 7 per cent. It is not surprising that Mrs Aquino’s popularity remained very high. (Real per-capita income is not expected to match 1981 levels until 1991, however.)

Favourable growth figures were primarily the result of an expansion of industrial production; even in 1987 agricultural production grew at less than half the rate of population. The awareness of gross inequities was thus most intense in rural society. That awareness led to increasing support for sweeping land reform. After being attacked by Marcos in the 1986 presidential campaign for coming from a great landowning family, Mrs Aquino had been pressed into making her own promises about land reform. But she did nothing for nearly a year after taking office, even though some of her key advisers were arguing that land reform was the best way to win over the peasants. Only after troops surrounding the presidential palace fired on peasants demonstrating for land reform in January 1987, killing more than a dozen, did the president appoint a cabinet action committee to draft an agrarian reform decree.14

Landlords countered with their own crescendo of protest – obviously with more success than the peasants. In July a presidential decree declared the principle of land reform in all crops but left decisions on the most important provisions to Congress. In the lower house, where members were elected almost entirely by patronage politics, landlords were amply represented, and their most effective spokesman was the president’s powerful brother. Despite extensive lobbying by a newly formed coalition of radical and moderate peasant organizations, which had strong support from the president’s brother-in-law, Senator Agapito Aquino, the bill finally passed by Congress and signed by the president in June 1988 was, in the eyes of its opponents, ‘a landlords’ law.’ Extension of land reform beyond rice and corn was entirely ineffective. Provisions for enforcement were so weak that most landholdings covered by the legislation will never even become known to the Department of Agrarian Reform, and any moves by the department which displease landlords can be blocked in the courts. Finally, even if landlord evasion severely limited the area to be transferred to the cultivators, the act required compensation of owners at market price, for which available government funds are completely inadequate.

Landlord attachment to their estates is very emotional; they feel they are protecting their way of life – as part of which farm workers are paid less than US$1 per day. They perceived that the communist threat was passing, given the popularity of Aquino, the capture of several top party officials, and the establishment of pro-landlord anti-communist vigilantes with military backing in hundreds of towns. Thus there was no need to sacrifice. Impatient cultivators who seized idle lands to plant food for their families were often removed by force with the co-operation of absentee owners and the military. Except in areas controlled or influenced by the guerrillas, perhaps some 10 per cent of all villages, the rural power structure was as firmly based on wealth as it had been two generations ago. Agrarian ‘reform’ under Aquino was in some respects a step backward from the policies of Marcos, providing a severe restraint on the prolongation of her regime’s legitimacy.

There seems little doubt that the dominant elite hoped that the experience of the 1950s would be repeated. Then the Huk-balahap rebels, concentrated in central Luzon, were roundly defeated by a reformed military. At the same time the guerrillas’ erstwhile peasant supporters were charmed by the charismatic Ramon Magsaysay, first as secretary of defence and then as president. After Magsaysay’s death peasant participation in politics was largely rechannelled into the traditional patron-client relationship. Since the election of Aquino in 1986 and the brief ceasefire which her representatives signed with the NPA,there has been a repetition of that earlier process to some extent. But taming the current revolt is not nearly as easy as dealing with the Huks in the 1950s. First, the revolutionary movement of the 198os is much broader. It is spread over nearly all the provinces and is based on a much more intense and extensive political education of peasant supporters. Even if those who have been co-opted by the president’s popularity and patronage politics should number in the millions, there is probably still a critical revolutionary mass in the countryside. Furthermore, the wooing of the Huks in the 1950s was based in part on the promise of free land in Mindanao and other frontier areas. This option is no longer available – in fact average farm size has been declining since the 1960s. Finally, the military has not been reformed into an effective fighting force; corruption is again on the rise, factionalism is deep, and human rights violations are often an integral part of tactics. Most military units create more enemies of the government than they destroy.

It is probably fair to say that all domestic policy, even the negotiations with the Muslim rebels, has been pursued with less vigour under Aquino than under Marcos, partly because there is less cohesion in policy-making circles and partly because there is less sense of urgency. The personal popularity which Corazon Aquino enjoys and the legitimacy lent her regime by free elections have placed less emphasis on policy output as a means of gaining support for the government.

This confidence in regime legitimacy has even coloured foreign policy, which under Marcos was primarily a ‘tool for regime survival.”15 Of course, Mrs Aquino faced many urgent domestic tasks in her first year and deliberately delayed giving attention to the most compelling foreign policy question – the future of the United States military bases of Subic Bay and Clark Field – with the formula, ‘I am keeping my options open.’ Furthermore, decisive action in foreign affairs was difficult while the political divide between the president and Vice-President Laurel, who also served as foreign minister, grew ever wider. Attention to foreign policy quickened after Laurel was eased out in late 1987 and replaced by Raul Manglapus, who had been foreign secretary for a time under Magsaysay.16 (Manglapus took the unprecedented step of resigning his elected Senate seat to accept a cabinet appointment, which surely must have required some assurances from the president about future policy.)

Soon after taking office Manglapus was faced with the five-year review of the current bases agreement with the United States, which would focus primarily on the question which the Filipino side called ‘compensation.’ To justify his initial demand for US$1 billion per year, Manglapus stressed the dangers for the Philippines inherent in serving as a base location and asserted that the bases were primarily for the defence of the United States, not the Philippines. These arguments taken from the nationalists’ quiver gave new legitimacy to the anti-bases movement, which the government had hitherto described as ‘leftist.’ The Americans were unaccustomed to such feisty and sophisticated negotiating tactics from the Filipinos; some officials said that they would not again deal with Manglapus on the bases question – but American unhappiness, which was widely reported in the press, seems to have served to prolong rather than shorten his tenure. The executive agreement finally signed in October 1988 provided the Philippines with US$48o million per year – according to American reckoning – nearly three times the previous level of grants and loans primarily for military purposes.17 (Manglapus claimed that ancillary sources of aid were also mentioned which brought the yearly package to nearly a billion dollars.)

Many of the issues raised during this negotiation were, of course, relevant to the discussions that will begin in 1989 on a new agreement to replace the present one which expires in 1991. The Philippines constitution of 1987 provides that any extension of the United States use of these bases beyond that date must be governed by a treaty ratified by two-thirds of the Senate. In fact, much of what goes on in the Senate these days is designed to influence the question of ratification. Like their American counterparts, Filipino senators sometimes try to take foreign policy initiatives away from the president. The issue of nuclear weapons is a case in point.

The Philippines constitution includes a ‘declaration of principles’ which, among other things, states that ‘the Philippines, consistent with the national interest, adopts and pursues a policy of freedom from nuclear weapons in its territory.’ Even though the United States refuses to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear devices at its bases, the belief that they are there is almost universal in well-informed circles. Thus the utility of the bases for the United States, if this provision were fully implemented, would be severely restricted. In August 1987, without consulting the president, ten members of her party out of the twenty-four newly elected senators sponsored a bill that would outlaw ‘possession, storage or transport’ of nuclear weapons on Philippines territory.18 In June 1988 it passed the Senate overwhelmingly. But the bill remains stalled in the House of Representatives and the secretary of justice has ruled that the regulation of nuclear weapons is a presidential prerogative. In November 1988 the Senate’s frustration was expressed in a resolution, passed overwhelmingly, which declared the bases agreement amendment of the month before in violation of constitutional provisions on nuclear weapons. The Senate also attempted to legislate a partial repudiation of the Philippines’ massive foreign debt – whose interest and principal payments now take more than 40 per cent of the export of goods and services – but was again blocked by the house, which is both less nationalist and more effectively controlled by the administration.

The overweening importance of the bases issue is confirmed by the connection to it of so much of the other activity of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Manglapus’ tour of the other countries of the Association of South-East Asian Nations in 1988 was designed to get from their governments either open support for the maintenance of the bases as essential to the security of the whole region, or quiet agreement to their removal. (He was not successful.) He improved relations with Hanoi and Moscow to signify a reduction of external threat to the Philippines. In December 1988 the first ever visit to the Philippines by a Soviet foreign minister won Filipino approbation when Mr Shevardnadze hinted that the Soviet Union might dismantle its bases in Vietnam even before Washington made a decision on whether to withdraw from its bases in the Philippines. The strengthening of relations with communist countries was also related to the government’s desire for frequent reassurances that neither China, nor the Soviet Union, nor Vietnam had any intention of supporting the NPA. (Despite claims in Heritage Foundation publications and the Washington Times, there is no solid indication that the assurances given have been violated.19) Mrs Aquino’s trip to China in 1988, after a meeting with Deng Xiaoping, also included a nostalgic visit to the village of her ancestors, thus putting Sino-Philippines relations on a new level.

Even the Philippines need for foreign economic assistance has been linked – by the United States – to the extension of the bases agreement. The Multilateral Aid Initiative (MAI), sometimes called the ‘mini-Marshall Plan,’ which originally called for US$10 billion in grants and loans over five years but has now been greatly scaled down, was seen as an American technique to encourage the Philippines to extend the bases agreement, even though half or more of the funds would come from other countries.20 (Indeed, members of the United States Congress are quite open in their warnings of ‘no bases, no aid.’) The initiative’s prospects are now endangered by new constraints on the United States budget – administration requests have already been cut in the House Appropriations Committee21- and by severe clogging in the Philippines aid pipeline which raises doubts among donors about the capacity of the Philippines to absorb a larger flow of foreign assistance.

An increasing number of Filipino leaders counter that the best way for friendly countries to help is to forgive the debt, which is nearly US$3o billion – by far the largest as a percentage of GNP in Southeast Asia- and rising at more than US$I billion per year. Debt servicing now requires a net outflow of US$2.2 billion per year.22 It is not likely to be matched by new credits; nor is that necessarily a desirable solution. The Aquino administration, despite initial reluctance, seems to have revived the frantic search for foreign loans pursued under Marcos and has thus come under increased pressure from the International Monetary Fund to adopt the same budget-cutting, deflationary policies that helped topple that regime.23 The debt crisis sharpens both domestic and foreign constraints on the search for solutions to the Philippines’ many problems, most especially the maintenance of democratic stability.

Without minimizing the seriousness of this constraint, it should be noted that there are four developments on the world scene that may facilitate the Philippines quest for autonomy, economic development, and stable democracy. First of all, economic problems in the communist world have caused interest in or support for revolutionary movements abroad to wane or; more precisely, to collapse. Neither Soviet nor Chinese support for the Huks or the NPA was ever very significant, but Filipino revolutionaries have even less ground now to hope for assistance. Second, economic pressures in the United States are forcing some constraints on Washington’s imperial reach. Although the Central Intelligence Agency still spends millions on the anti-insurgency campaign,24 Filipino demands for compensation forbase use may have hit the fiscal ceiling. Thus the prospects for destabilizing Filipino-American conflict over the extension of the lease on the bases have been reduced. Washington is also worried about long-term instability in the Philippines and is thus less likely to try to impose an extension of the lease at all costs – for example, by supporting a military coup to remove an intransigent nationalist Senate, a scenario which some Filipino observers feared until last year. Both governments seem to view a phase-out as the most cost-effective alternative. Third, these two developments have, in any case, contributed to the reduction of Soviet-American tensions and even given rise to the possibility of disarmament within the region. The strategic rationale for the bases has been correspondingly reduced. While the eventual phase-out of the bases may well undermine the justification Washington relies upon for appropriating high levels of military and economic ‘aid’ for the Philippines, there are many analysts who suggest that forgoing reliance on these funds would not only bolster Philippines autonomy but enhance democratic processes. Finally, as the United States and the Soviet Union experience relative decline, Japan and the newly industrializing countries of Asia continue to grow at a rapid rate, which provides new opportunities for the Philippines to diversify its sources of aid, trade, and investment, and to gain additional room for manoeuvre in the process. The Japanese opposition to the use of the MAI as a lever for extension of the bases lease is a case in point. The new danger, of course, could be over-reliance on Japan, which may perhaps help to explain Filipino overtures to China.

In sum, while the Philippines faces severe restraints, both at home and abroad, in its efforts to pursue autonomous democratic development, there are also opportunities. A popular president who has so far not been blamed by the public for government mistakes and failures, an energetic and resourceful private sector, recently restored constitutional processes, and a people showing signs of weariness of armed struggle even to achieve laudable goals – these are assets not to be squandered.

But whether the leadership has the vision to build on these assets or the unity to implement goals once identified is in grave doubt. Politicians and military officers, businessmen and bureaucrats alike tend to have very limited horizons. Thus attention seems to be riveted on short-term prospects, such as who is going to win the 1992 presidential election.

If Corazon Aquino really does not run (and she has so far said she will not), there will be a scramble for her mantle among at least three major contenders: Fidel Ramos, the present secretary of defence is the most popular, seems to have the strongest American backing, and, of course, works most smoothly with the military. The speaker of the house, Ramon Mitra, is a master of patronage politics and has the backing of the president’s brother – and the money to go with it. The Senate’s president, Jovito Salonga, was a close friend and ally of Benigno Aquino and is the only one of the three who fought Marcos from the beginning; he has his own set of clients in various provinces but is also backed by the more progressive elements in the original Aquino coalition. (Unless massive Marcos funds are made available, no legate of the ‘New Society’ is likely to be a major contender.) If Mrs Aquino does not wield her endorsement forcefully, the outcome could be close, perhaps producing a president with only minority support – a somewhat dangerous, because unknown, outcome in the Philippines.

But even if Aquino herself, or an anointed successor, is easily elected, there is still a great danger of governmental immobilism and increased domestic strife in the 199os. The collapse of any coherent population planning has caused a new surge in the birth rate, and no new efforts to control it are in sight. This will probably mean even higher unemployment. Land hunger and destruction of the environment will also be accelerated. Despite benign pronouncements, government is unable to stop – in truth many officials are among the guilty parties – the destruction of the forests, once one of the Philippines’ great natural resources. Most of the political elite are blind to the consequences of the failure of reform, and even if a bold policy were enacted, the bureaucracy – thanks to early politicization in the American period and the ravages of postwar inflation even before Marcos – is so riddled with corruption as to be an ineffective instrument of state policy.

Thus partly for international and partly for domestic reasons, the situation in the Philippines is one of unstable stalemate. Although a highly politicized population (by Southeast Asian standards) demands reform, reform is unlikely to be implemented so as to reduce unrest. On the contrary, incomplete, uneven reform, as in the past, is much more likely – and such a policy creates rather than reduces social conflict. Thus the insurgency is likely to regain momentum, but without major foreign support it cannot seize power. The revolutionary movement can, however, sustain conflict at a level which inhibits economic growth. It might also gain sufficient strength to frighten an intransigent elite into the reimposition of authoritarian rule, as in 1972, thus intensifying conflict. Declining world prices for Philippine exports and rising interest rates would speed the spiral of decline.

The marvellously non-violent way in which ‘people power’ won restoration of constitutional government in February 1986 may someday be recognized as a fleeting moment in Philippines history, an opportunity with great potential, which was lost.


1 Raymond Bonner, Waltzing with a Dictator: The Marcoses and the Making of American Policy (New York: Random House 1987), 434.

2 See Bryan Johnson, Four Days of Courage (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart 1987).

3 Lewis Simons, Worth Dying For (New York: William Morrow 1987), 269.

4 Alfred McCoy, Marian Wilkinson, and Gwen Robinson, ‘The plot to topple Ferdinand Marcos,’ Veritas (October 1986).

5 David Wurfel, Filipino Politics: Development and Decay (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press 1988), 323.

6 See, for instance, Manila Chronicle, 14 March 1987.

7 Carl Lande and Richard Hooley, ‘Aquino takes charge,’ Foreign Affairs 64 (summer 1986), 1087-107.

8 See Belinda Aquino, The Politics of Plunder: The Philippines under Marcos (Manila: College of Public Administration, University of the Philippines, 1987); Francisco Nemenzo, ‘From autocracy to elite democracy,’ in Aurora Javate-de Dios et al, eds, Dictatorship and Revolution: Roots of People’s Power (Manila: Conspectus 1988), 223-5.

9 Manila Chronicle, 1 September 1988.

10 Gareth Porter, `Philippine communism after Marcos,’ Problems of Communism 36(September-October 1987), 14-35.

11 See A Record of the Peace Initiatives Offered by the Government of the Republic of the Philippines to the NDF (Manila: Information Division, GRP Negotiating Panel for Peace, 1987); Nemenzo, `From autocracy to elite democracy,’ 155-61.

12 Alfred McCoy, `RAM boys: reformist officers and the romance of violence,’ Midweek (Manila), 21 September 1988, 29-33, 28 September 1988, 30-4, 12 October 1988, 29-32.

13 United Nations, International Financial Statistics, 1989, 428-29.

14 See D. Wurfel, ‘Land reform under Marcos and Aquino: contexts, accomplishments and prospects,’ Pilipinas I e ; James P%%{=text-decoration: none}utzel and John Cun-nington, Gaining Ground: Agrarian Reform in the Philippines (London: War on Want Campaigns Ltd 1989).

15 D. Wurfel, Philippine Foreign Policy: Strategies for Regime Survival, Canada and the Pacific: Agenda for the Eighties, Working Paper 15 (Toronto: Joint Centre on Modern East Asia, University of Toronto/York University, 1983).

16 See Raul Manglapus, `R.P.‘s foreign policy thrust: development diplomacy,’ Philippines Free Press, 28 January 1989, 10-13, 38.

17 D. Wurfel, ‘Philippine foreign policy and neo-patrimonial dependency,’ in D. Wurfel and Bruce Burton, eds, The Political Economy of Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia (London: Macmillan, forthcoming).

18 Washington Post, 21 August 1987.

19 See, for example, Richard D. Fisher, ‘The international anti-Aquino network: threat to Philippine democracy,’ Asian Studies Backgrounder, 4 May 1987, 9; Washington Times, 24 March 1987.

20 ‘Not in the bank,’ Far Eastern Economic Review, 23 March 1989, 75.

21 Jon Melegrito, ‘Maxi-rough road for mini-Marshall Plan?’ Katipunan 2(April 1989), 7-8.

22 Augusto Cesar Espiritu, The debt trap: how do we get out of it?’ Manila Chronicle, 21 September 1988.

23 Rigoberto D. Tiglau, ‘Manila tests its credit,’ Far Eastern Economic Review, 23 March 1989, 74-5.

24 New York Times, 18 February 1987; Philadelphia Inquirer, 15 February 1987.

Categories Philippines, General politics