A History of Plebiscites in the Philippines
by Manuel L. Quezon III
President Ramon Magsaysay famously said, “Can we defend it at Plaza Miranda?” And there’s a plaque in Manila to prove it. Magsaysay’s famous quote helps us understand a basic characteristic of Philippine democracy. It is, is by its nature, based on plebiscites: On an issue-by-issue referendum between the leader and the led. Cory Aquino, as the American writer Lew Gleeck pointed out, was a master of it, the most famous example being the plebiscite to approve our present constitution.
Our formal history of plebiscites began on May 14, 1935, when we went to the polls for the first time, to approve or reject a proposed constitution. 1,213,934 or 96.6 percent of those who voted, said “Yes.” Only 42,690 or 3.4 percent said “No.” But barely fifty percent of those qualified to vote, voted. This showed the weakness of plebiscites in contrast to elections: They tend to have a lower over-all participation by the voters. Not that it matters, in the end.
On April 30, 1937, Filipina women were asked in a plebiscite, if they wanted the right to vote. They said yes. On Sept. 15, they gained that right — seven years ahead of the women of France.
On Oct. 24, 1939, changes to the economic provisions of the Tydings-McDuffie Act were submitted in a plebiscite, because they required amendments to the ordinance appended to the constitution. The changes permitted Philippine coconut and tobacco duty-free status and provided for negotiations on trade between America and the Philippines to take place.
In 1940, the most far-reaching amendments to date were approved by the National Assembly in April of that year and accepted in a plebiscite in June: It cut the term of the president from 6 years to four, but allowed re-election for another four years; it restored the Senate; and it established the Commission on Elections.
On March 11, 1947, there was a referendum on the Parity Amendment, granting Americans equal economic rights until 1973. It won — but barely, and controversially.
In 1967, a plebiscite question was asked, regarding a proposal for Congress to convene as a constituent assembly. The electorate responded with an overwhelming “No” — the first and only time a plebiscite question has been defeated. The result was Congress had to bow to pressure to call a constitutional convention in 1971.
But the convention couldn’t get its act together, and President Marcos saw he was running out of political time. His second, and constitutionally last, term was due to expire on Dec. 30, 1973. Something had to be done. What he did first was impose martial law on Sept. 23, 1972. The second thing he did was change the constitution.
At first, there was going to be a formal plebiscite to approve the new constitution. Then Marcos learned it would probably lose in a free vote. So he cancelled the plebiscite and asked people to simply raise their hands.
Scholar David Wurfel writes of the 1973 Constitution that the “document was drafted in the presidential palace, adopted by the Constitutional Convention under duress, and ‘ratified’ by voice vote in village assemblies were armed soldiers and policemen were in prominent attendance.”
Marcos knew the appeal of an argument we still hear today: “Let the people decide!” He also gambled that what mattered was a devotion to form over substance.
The Supreme Court in Javellana vs. Executive Secretary and so forth, regarded the ratification as invalid; but failed to achieve a majority to declare the new constitution not in force. So Marcos won by default — form over substance.
Nine plebiscites, referenda, or elections were held under the New Society, all of them with a result favorable to the government.
Recall that Marcos’s term had expired on Dec. 30, 1973. By 1977, he was essentially serving it out his third term in office. So in December 1977 a referendum was held, which approved Marcos continuing in office and also becoming prime minister. By this time, Marcos didn’t need the bribed and cowed delegates to the 1971 Con-Con so he double-crossed them on an earlier promise. Vote for my constitution, he said in 1972, and you can sit in the new parliament this constitution will create. Six years later, he announced that parliament would never sit. Instead, an interim Batasan Pambansa would be elected in 1978. He rigged the vote except in Cebu, where he lost so big as no one would accept his candidates.
By 1981, Marcos had embarked on essentially his fourth term in office. No coincidence, then, that he sought some kind of new mandate. On Jan. 17, 1981, President Marcos proclaimed, before a throng of 1,500 officials in Heroes Hall, the end of Martial Law. In February 1981, the Batasan Pambansa, sitting as a constitutent assembly, approved more amendments. The presidential system was restored; and on April 7, 1981 the government held yet another a plebiscite. It won, just as it would win when Marcos engineered more constitutional amendments. Since he was getting older, and sicker, even his party wanted a constitutional successor. The vice-presidency was restored in 1984, but on condition it would be vacant until 1987, when Marcos’s new six-year term would end.
Richard J. Kessler wrote that the 1984 Batasan elections were “the first honest test of Marcos’ popularity since the 1969 presidential election.” His grip started to loosen. In 1986, the Mother of All political referenda was held. Marcos won — in his rubber-stamp Batasan Pambansa. So the Batasan was deservedly abolished.
Post Marcos, of course, we’ve only had one national plebiscite. That was on Feb. 2, 1987 when the electorate overwhelmingly approved our present constitution.
The political genius of Marcos lay in his refusing to abide by any rules; the weakness of this opponents was that they were conditioned, culturally, to believing certain rules shouldn’t be broken, and were horrified when they were; and Marcos successfully engineered the elimination of the strong, unwritten confines of tradition. Tradition which may not guarantee honest government, but keeps it running relatively smoothly, avoiding turning it into a never-ending, limitless, struggle for power.
David Wurfel argued in 1977 that Philippine democracy did not break down on the eve of martial law; it was provoked and challenged by Marcos. I agree with him. The virtue of the old, premarital law era was that it defined how winners and losers behaved, guaranteeing some stability and peace between contests and confining the vendetta to the provincial level. Marcos turned vendetta into state policy.
As they say, you can fool some people all of the time but you can’t fool all the people all the time. Marcos’s obsession with form over substance couldn’t disguise how self-serving all his amendments were. And so, if presidents were given the benefit of the doubt before him, they’ve never given our presidents the benefit of the doubt since. Which is why former President Fidel Ramos failed in efforts to secure amendments in 1996, as did former President Joseph Estrada in 1997 and which is why Mrs. Arroyo’s having a tough time, now.
So there we have it: Our history of plebiscites tells us a plebiscite question can lose, just as a plebiscite, even if it succeeds, depends on how it was held and why amendments were proposed in the first place.