The Long View: Year Zero


Year Zero

Since every administration suffers from the delusion that it has reset the clock, to point out that none of the three presidents who were inaugurated at the former Legislative Building finished their terms achieves nothing. Now, the National Museum of Fine Arts, the inaugural site for Ferdinand Marcos Jr., is both understandable and surprising for other reasons. It is understandable as an accessible, photogenic location that happens to have its fair share of inaugural history. The inaugurals there marked the start of three eras: the Commonwealth in 1935, the so-called Second Republic in 1943, and the restored Commonwealth in 1946.

As its former name tells us, the Legislative Building was also the home of our legislature for the longest time. And the Marcoses are part of that story. Mariano Marcos had attended sessions in the building when he was a congressman. When Ferdinand E. Marcos entered the House of Representatives to take possession of his father’s old seat just when the House had returned to its old premises in the rebuilt Legislative Building (it had been destroyed during the Battle of Manila in 1945), he did so as an act of vindication for his father’s memory, and as an act of promise, the first stepping stone to the presidency. After three terms in the House, he became a senator in 1959.

Marcos Sr., a provincial grandee given short shrift by his cosmopolitan peers, seems to have had little to no affection for the place. But, perhaps, he’d suffered too many indignities there. Just two months after he became only the second president to be reelected (but in the inevitable rewriting of the past, often asserted erroneously to this day, as the first), he suffered the indignity of student radicals rioting as he delivered his fifth State of the Nation Address.

It would have made more sense for Marcos the Younger to hold his inaugural at the House of Representatives, in the building still referred to as the Batasang Pambansa, built 44 years ago in that year of transformations, 1978. For that was the year the Elder Marcos transformed the image of the government into one that bore his indelible imprint. First, he essentially demolished Malacañan Palace, dissolving the past of the presidency and recasting it; second, he finally built the National Assembly building but only after eliminating Quezon City as the national capital two years earlier: through sheer regime longevity, he would erase all institutional memory; and he did so after breaking the promise he’d made to the members of the old, pre-martial law Congress and the Constitutional Convention, that their respective members would automatically sit in the new Interim National Assembly as a reward for their accepting a new Constitution. He did this first by holding a plebiscite to void the deal, and second by attempting a Year Zero move by instituting regions to break the power of the provincial barons (by 1981, he’d reverted to provincial representation though the regions continue to exist as a ghostly reminder of the stillborn Federalism of the New Society), and third, taking away the prospects of becoming purely a ceremonial president by making himself prime minister, too. To top it off, he changed the official year to begin not on Rizal Day, with elections in November, but instead in June, with elections in May.

The cost of reelection for Ferdinand the Elder in 1969 was to print money literally (expanding the money supply by 20 percent), the accumulation of $480 million in short-term debt with only $126 million in reserves, a 60-percent plunge in the value of the peso, and increase the cost of living by 20 percent, requiring an austerity-inducing bailout by the IMF. What came as a political achievement unmatched since the prewar single-party years took place at a time when the country was already facing a fork in the road: the pressure to turn into a more pluralistic society with all the accompanying uncertainties of modernity, versus the appeal of reviving the old top-down certainties of the single-party pre-independence era of Marcos’ own youth. Marcos did one better by dressing himself in the costume of a modernizer while trying to institute one family royal rule harking back to precolonial times.

What was the cost for achieving the third-highest electoral percentage in the history of our national elections, the first incontestable first term majority in two generations? The administration that expires tomorrow enjoyed impunity in its command and control of the police as provincial barons enjoyed, in turn, liberality on the national government’s part in public works; a similar lifeline was extended in the name of pandemic survival. The parting gift of the expiring administration to the incoming one was a warning that six years of generosity would now require belt-tightening and, preferably, new taxes. Something no new administration wants to hear, particularly when the world situation is escalating the price not only of oil, but of fertilizer and foodstuffs.

I have read an eloquent argument that when he assumes the presidency tomorrow, Marcos Jr. will actually be bending the knee, so to speak, to the national consensus reached after his family went into exile, and designed in large part, never to allow any family, including his own, to ever enjoy such impunity as they once exercised, again. For he will be pledging fealty to the 1987 Constitution. Then again, he was taking that oath as a local and national official for much of the 30 years he has been part of the effort to dismantle the republic established on the ruins of his father’s monarchical enterprise.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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