The President, the Military and Democracy

Soon after independence, Philippine democracy was threatened by the communist-inspired Hukbalahap movement. The insurgents who had fought against the occupying Japanese forces resumed their fight against the newly-installed administration; they had little confidence in the Philippine democratic process which they saw as favoring the ruling elite. Appointed Defense secretary, Ramon Magsaysay was, however, determined to restore faith in democracy, and especially the electoral system. Historically, elections in the Philippines were characterised by vote-buying, vote-rigging and the use of private armies to intimidate voters. Magsaysay used the AFP extensively to ensure that the 1951 elections were conducted fairly, and indeed they were alleged to have been the fairest in Philippine electoral history. Although he did not completely restore the Huks’ faith in democracy, Magsaysay reformed the military with assistance from the US and defeated the Huks.

Having worked closely with the military, Magsaysay realised that the skills of the officers could be harnessed to develop the country. When he became presi-dent in 1953 Magsaysay decided to use the military in government. He appointed active duty officers to perform a range of functions in his administration. By 1954 Congressman Bengson claimed that over 122 active duty officers were performing duties formally the prerogative of civilians (Selochan 1990:118). Justifying this action, the president said that he was weary of the civilian bureaucracy as a whole. Furthermore,

I have needed men of my absolute confidence to undertake delicate missions of investigation and cleaning up … In other cases, specialised skills and technical know-how were required for quick and official results … In still other instances, the new administration came upon officers so deeply entrenched in dishonesty and corruption that only the most ruthless, uncompromising kind of military discipline could redeem them from the mire and restore them to gainful usefulness to our people (Magsaysay, quoted in Abueva 1971:315).

Magsaysay, who probably would have been re-elected in the presidential elections of 1957, died in a plane crash that year. Knowing Magsaysay’s attitude to the vice-president, Carlos Garcia, many officers who had been closely associated with Magsaysay were reluctant to allow Garcia to assume the presidency. Abortive plans to seize power before the inauguration were hastily and poorly designed (Selochan 1990:122-23), and Garcia assumed the presidency, aware of the military’s attitude to him and to the democratic process. For these and other political reasons, Garcia was determined to rid the administration of officers appointed to government by his predecessor. By this stage AFP officers were pervasive in the government. They were in the cabinet positions normally occupied by civilians. After acrimonious debate, Garcia was able to persuade some officers to return to the AFP; others retired their commissions and ran unsuccessfully for office in the 1961 congressional elections.

Many of the officers who had been in Magsaysay’s administration believed that they were more capable of governing than civilians. Some officers also believed that these civilians had achieved their positions as a result of political patronage rather than merit. That civilian politicians were corrupt was evident from their activities during elections and from the manner in which they used their positions to acquire favours from businessmen and the AFP. Democracy in the Philippines, according to many of these officers, benefitted the elite who controlled the political process. The majority of Filipinos, they argued, did not understand the concept of democracy; for them it meant being paid to vote for a candidate at elections. Many officers believed that Philippine-style democracy could not contribute to the economic development of the country but was being abused for the benefit of the elite. Authoritarian rule provided the means of addressing the situation. But the military was neither united in this view nor capable of seizing political power.