The Explainer: Why Marcos Lost

That was a CBS News story from 1986, showing the Marcoses on the eve of their fall from power. This month we remember that fall, and the story of the hundreds of thousands who risked their lives to make that fall happen. But we overlook how improbable that fall actually was.

Tonight, Why Marcos Lost. It wasn’t necessarily meant to be. What the Great Dictator had, going for himself, and why it turned out not to be enough, is our topic for tonight. I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


President Ferdinand E. Marcos once said never make an important decision when you’re angry, hungry, or happy. In 1969 became only the second president to be reelected to office by playing it cool, and playing to win at all costs.

His opponent was Sergio Osmena Jr. of the Liberal Party. Marcos defeated him by waging war on many fronts. First, he attacked Osmena’s record as a businessman during the Japanese Occupation, contrasting it with his guerrilla record. Second, he fostered divisions within the Liberal Party –the so-called Marcos Liberals.

The Nacionalista slate Marcos headed was also awash with cash, had a vast network of well-funded local officials, had the entire national bureaucracy mobilized to support the incumbent’s candidacy, and had further entrenched loyalists within the Constabulary and the AFP.

As Sergio Osmena famously put it to the press: “I wuz robbed!” He was also quoted as having said, “I was outgunned, outgooned, and outgold” by the mighty Marcos machine.

Yet as we saw last week, after spending mightily enough to cause devaluation and inflation, the Marcos landslide of 1969 dissipated quickly.

By 1971 the Marcos mobbed by an adoring public was isolated from the public and would remain increasingly remote as time went on.

Marcos was thus stuck. He had moved heaven and earth to become only the second president re-elected by the people, but his sinking popularity was at odds with his continuing ambition to stay in office. His attempts to change the Constitution got bogged down in scandals involving allegations of bribery.

In the end he decided to tear up the Constitution, frighten the courts, padlock Congress, arrest his enemies, and silence the media. To do this, he relied on the military whose leadership he selected from his UP Vanguard cronies. The man in gold braid in this photo, would become increasingly central to his maintaining military control.

That man was General Fabian Ver, Marcos’ relative and who was in charge of the Presidential Security Group and military intelligence during the Martial Law years. In 1981, Ver replaced Gen. Romeo Espino as Chief of Staff of the AFP.

While Marcos had begun to restore the outward appearances of the three branches of government in 1978, with the Interim Batasan Pambansa, real power was still in his own hands and a few trusted subordinates. Since 1972, the man in charge of the Department, later Ministry, of National Defense was Juan Ponce Enrile.

It was Enrile who was the ultimate, civilian authority on all decisions including whom to arrest, who to parole, who to put on trial. Unyielding opponents like Ninoy Aquino stayed in jail while lesser-known critics of the government were gunned down or tortured.

In those New Society years, Marcos kept everyone in check by playing them off against each other. He refused to designate a successor, which kept everyone guessing –and plotting- and he knew everything about anything by means of spies and surveillance. The media remained tightly controlled, local officials were watched by the military, and the judiciary was under his thumb.

In 1981 Marcos arranged to have a presidential election that was such a sham, the opposition boycotted it and to have a token opponent, he had to temporarily revive the dormant Nacionalista Party to find someone to defeat. George Bush Sr. went to Manila and said Washington loved FM’s dedication to democracy.

In a strange echo of 1969, within two years of his 1981 re-election, Marcos was again on the ropes: the economy had tanked, and Marcos’ health took a turn for the worse; Ninoy Aquino came home to convince Marcos to step down and was gunned down as he stepped down from the plane.

The ultimate trump card of Marcos, both in his own eyes and those of his critics, was Washington, who viewed him as indispensable. Yet as public opinion at home and abroad turned against Marcos, Washington made noises about his needing to moderate his greed. In 1985 Marcos decided to shut up Washington and his critics by calling for early, or snap, elections.

It may be that Marcos believed he had enough popularity to defeat Salvador H. Laurel who he expected, anyway, to wage a symbolic, gentlemanly campaign. But Laurel gave way to Cory Aquino.

Aside from offending Marcos’ machismo, Cory proved to be the kind of opponent difficult to attack: she was the widow of a martyr and, personally, so different from Marcos that he couldn’t fight her pound for pound in the kind of political boxing he’d mastered.

He was an orator, she droned on in speeches; he had a kind of faded charisma, hers was derived from her cause and not herself. He had money, she made a virtue of running a chaotic, rag-tag campaign.

Marcos compared himself to an old warhorse smelling the gunpowder of battle but he was tired and sick; his wife had to do a lot of his campaigning for him. The money poured and the machinery kicked in, but for some reason the money didn’t get where it was supposed to and the machinery, while massive, was unable to attract genuine enthusiasm.

On Feb. 5, 1986,Jaime Cardinal Sin warned that Catholics would employ civil disobedience measures if the election proved fraudulent. On Feb. 7, the snap election was held. The Commission on Elections claimed Ferdinand Marcos was leading while the National Citizen’s Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel, now denied accreditation by the same institution for the 2010 elections) reported that Corazon Aquino was winning. She proclaimed victory on Feb. 

The next day, Feb. 9, the Comelec’s attempt to computerize the canvassing of votes blew up. Linda Kapunan, shown in this post-Edsa photo, led the walkout of computer tabulators in protest over being instructed to cheat.

The Comelec computer operators sought sanctuary in Baclaran Church. By Feb. 13, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines issued an unprecedented pastoral letter condemning election fraud, essentially withdrawing the “mandate of heaven” from Marcos.

On February 15, the Batasan Pambansa in stormy session went ahead and proclaimed Marcos and Tolentino as President and Vice-President-elect respectively. So far, so good: what was expected to happen, took place.

On Feb. 16, the “Tagumpay ng Bayan” took place, when Cory Aquino led a mammoth rally of more than two million people at the Luneta where she launched a nationwide civil disobedience campaign and the boycott of Marcos-crony firms to force him to concede defeat. People gave up beer and ice cream, and stopped paying their electric bills.

At this point, it was still so far, so good for Marcos. Government remained firmly in his hands. Even if there were divisions within his government, he was still on top of the situation. He discovered a plot by Juan Ponce Enrile to attack the Palace on Feb. 23 and hold him hostage.  Marcos ordered Enrile’s arrest. On Feb. 22, hearing they were about to be rounded up, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Lt. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos revolted against Marcos and holed themselves up in Camp Aguinaldo.

And this is where Marcos’ having mastered the game proved his undoing. On one hand, Marcos had a former ROTC officer, Ver, in charge of his military while the rebel armed forces had leadership from a West Point graduate, another Marcos cousin, Fidel V. Ramos.

And while Marcos had the powers of a commander-in-chief and the entire national treasury at his beck and call, he now had the Church militant conferring a kind of supernatural authority on the rebels via Cardinal Sin.

Thousands of people formed a human barricade against the expected advance of Marcos’ troops. Cardinal Sin appealed over Radio Veritas for people to send food and help guard the barricades. Still, so far so good for Marcos: the crowds at Edsa had no guns. But at the crucial moment Marcos started making decisions when he was angry, and crazed with hunger –for staying in power.

In “Closer Than Brothers: Manhood at the Philippine Military Academy” (Alfred W. McCoy) there’s a riveting section on the battle of wills and wits between Ferdinand Marcos and the rebels holed up in Camp Aguinaldo. One big problem was that Marcos was very ill. McCoy quotes one aid who witnessed Marcos creeping from room to room, brain befuddled by disease and medicines, his situation not helped by General Fabian Ver’s seeming incapacity to undertake genuine generalship. He had troops surround Malacanan and when they were finally ordered to move, the traffic jam was so bad, troops got stuck.

It’s not that Marcos was concerned with the well-being of his countrymen, but rather, he delayed too long. Fabian Ver had wanted the massacre to take place as soon as possible; Marcos said no, on TV; to this day, even some of his critics give him credit for doing this; what we forget is that he eventually ordered the people gathered at Edsa massacred, but by then, the momentum had shifted to the rebels.

Every time the Marcos government was poised to seize the upper hand, the Palace or the prime movers and shakers in the shaky government would issue contradictory orders, or delay, and delay, and delay…

These delays proved crucial. Generals and other officers wavered then changed sides. With the military in chaos, the civilian authorities ended up paralyzed, too; with Metro Manila on the streets, the provincial warlords didn’t know what to do and other cities –Cebu, Davao, Cagayan de Oro and Baguio- engaged in People Power, too.

Marcos even resorted to the tried and tested tactic of proclaiming a curfew. People ignored it.

And so on February 25, with only the Soviet ambassador in embarrassed attendance, President Marcos held his last hurrah in the Palace. He’d lost because his own body failed him, his subordinates, promoted not on merit but purely on loyalty, failed him, and fear and money had lost their power to enforce discipline and obedience.

Cory Aquino declined to take her oath of office in a military camp and held her inaugural in Club Filipino instead. The Marcoses, advised to cut and cut cleanly by US Senator Paul Laxalt, hurriedly packed their bags.

On February 25 it was, as the headlines proclaimed, all over. Marcos, his family, and close friends escaped Manila, hoping to set up a rival government up North.

But instead of Paoay, the Marcoses ended up in Hawaii, shadows of their former selves, trying to operate a shadow government in exile.

By Feb. 26 a new government was in place and the roller-coaster would continue for several more years to come.

And all the way to Marcos’ death in Hawaii in 1989, the plots to turn back the clock and restore the dictatorship would continue.

When we return, we’ll ask our guest to walk us through why guns, goons, and gold proved an unwinning combination in 1986.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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