4. The Military and the Fragile Democracy of the Philippines

Viberto Selochan


The Philippines became the first independent democratic country in Asia, adopting a political system modelled on that of the United States. With strong leadership and a weak central state as the hallmarks of Philippine politics, the author questions whether democracy will continue to flourish in the post-Cold War era.

The author outlines the origins of democracy in the Philippines, stating that the American-style democracy exported to the Philippines was bound to encounter problems. When Magaysay became president in 1953, he decided to use the military in government. Marcos, who instituted martial law in 1972, perpetuated this abrogation of democracy. It was only by the end of her term of office in 1992 that Aquino was able to claim that she had restored democracy to the Philippines.

On 4 July 1946 the US granted independence to the Philippines, in keeping with its promise of self-determination for the islands after a period of Commonwealth administration. The Philippines thus became the first independent democratic country in Asia. During its colonial administration the US had encouraged the development of political parties, though the two major parties which developed differed little in ideology – the main differences concerning their attitudes to US administration of the islands.

At independence the Philippines political system was modelled on that of the United States, where the constitution required the armed forces to uphold civilian supremacy. As in the US, elections were held every four years in the Philippines, and presidents were limited to two terms in office. This constitutional requirement was initially upheld and the military played a minor role in politics, except to guard polling stations against fraud during elections. Threats by the communist-inspired Hukbalahap movement soon after independence to seize political power and disrupt national elections required the military to play a more active role in monitoring elections. As a result of its success in curbing the insurgents’ threat to the country, the military was co-opted into playing a larger role in the administration of former defence secretary, Ramon Magsaysay.

When he was elected president of the republic in 1965, Ferdinand Marcos believed that in a developing country where the military was not occupied with external threats, it should assist in developing the country. He used the military in civic action programs and to enhance his chances of being re-elected. Marcos was the first Philippines president to be elected to a second term in office. Constitutionally deprived of seeking a third term, Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and facilitated the military’s playing a larger role in government. When he was forced to leave office in 1986, elements in the military found difficulty in adjusting to the requirements of the democratic system restored by Corazon Aquino. To assist in this process, military personnel were subjected to instruction in democratic principles and the role of the military in a democracy. Yet Aquino had to endure seven attempts by the military to seize political power. The survival of her government was due to some extent to the belief among elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) that the military must remain subservient to civilians in a democracy. The military’s adherence to democracy was again tested during the national elections in May 1992. There were fears that it would attempt to seize power if the elections were seen to be fraudulent, but with free and fair elections the military adhered to the restored democracy.

Strong leadership and a weak central state have been the hallmarks of Philippine politics. Whether democracy will continue to flourish in the post-Cold-War era, when authoritarian rule is generally in retreat, remains to be seen.