“The authoritarian gene”

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Filipinos hailed the fall of the Marcos dictatorship 27 years ago, 14 years after the imposition of martial law on Sept. 21, 1972, as marking the end of a historical anomaly.

Prior to Presidential Proclamation 1081, had not the Philippines been a democracy, and was it not its show window in Asia? Did it not have a liberal Constitution replicating much of the Constitution of its last colonizer, which, among other sterling qualities, had a bill of rights and guaranteed the election of its officials from President to municipal councilors?

As the schools, the media, the Church, and every other institution were drumming into the heads of every school child, when Philippine independence was restored in 1946, the transition from one administration to another had been more or less effected peacefully. If there was violence at the level of local elections, that could be attributed to the uneven political development that in newly independent countries was a common legacy of colonial rule. Time would eventually make a difference, and the inevitable mantra after every election — it survives to this day — was how fewer compared to the last elections were its casualties.

In short, were it not for the ambitions of one man, things would have gone on as before, with the country electing, in 1973 when Ferdinand Marcos’ second term would have ended, the equally ambitious Benigno Aquino, Jr. to the Presidency. The period of dictatorship was thus an aberration — an anomaly in a democratic experiment that, while far from perfect, was proceeding as it should, towards a political and economic model of development for Asia and the rest of the developing world.

Inevitable then that for the middle class and landed elite sectors involved in the anti-martial law resistance, the goal in the dismantling of the dictatorship should be a restoration of pre-1972 society rather than a leap from it — and that its end was thought to also mark the end of the authoritarian “anomaly.”

Neither Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos nor their foreign and domestic allies, and certainly not the likes of Juan Ponce Enrile, could imagine, after Marcos, a society different from that which had produced a Marcos. And yet, not only did Marcos have the help of, among others, technocrats and academics, and the civilian and military bureaucracy, but a flawed, limited democracy ridden with corruption, and a Constitution crafted by the surrogates of its last colonizer, had also enabled him to come to power, and to aspire to keep it for life. The very same Constitution also sanctioned Marcos’ declaration of martial law, and his suspension of Congress and its own bill of rights.

He was a catastrophe waiting to happen, a disaster made inevitable by the political system of spoils and patronage. Acquitted of murder charges by a Supreme Court stacked with individuals cut from the same elite cloth as he was, Marcos had gone on to amass in Philippine politics a record distinguished by one electoral triumph after another: from the House of Representatives to the Senate, and from the Senate to the Presidency.

Those triumphs he achieved through the usual means; not so much through the force of his oratorical prowess as through patronage, organization, backroom deals, unlikely alliances, and intimidation, culminating in the Presidential elections of 1965 and 1969 during which he poured as much of the money he had amassed from the public coffers as he could. A word made popular by the US and Soviet capacity to destroy the planet several times over with nuclear weapons, “overkill” was with as much accuracy applied to the Marcos way to power.

Marcos and the dictatorship he installed were far from the abnormalities that to this day too many Filipinos imagine them to be. But as much in evidence today is the survival of the very same structures and processes that made him possible. Although no longer in fashion, “overkill” applies with even greater force to the contests we call elections, in which spending billions has become the norm, in addition to the intimidation and murders that since Marcos’ time, as well as earlier, had been their outstanding characteristics. As a consequence, then as now, only a handful of political families has kept control over the levers of power to the exclusion of other, more deserving sectors.

But of equal weight is the survival, and at times the dominance, of the authoritarian impulse, not so much as a response to the authentic aspirations for change of intellectuals, as a convenient means when all else fails for the dynasts to stay in power. What drives the lure of authoritarianism among the political elite is plainly and simply the lust for power and its attendant perks, among whose latest manifestations are the billions in pork barrel funds officials from the President, Congressmen, Senators and even the chairs of Constitutional commissions can dispense at will.

Disguised as the noble aim of defending the State, the authoritarian impulse is in everyday evidence in this proclaimed democracy. It is there in the country’s sizeable population of political prisoners; in the arbitrary arrest, detention and murder of political dissidents; the torture and the enforced disappearances at which the security forces have become experts.

It is there in the preeminent power of the defense and military establishments, whose representatives have succeeded in first preventing the passage of a Freedom of Information Act, and, later, in including in its latest version a provision exempting information on national security from public access, that, among other consequences in the context of continuing extrajudicial and journalists’ killings, will prevent citizen and media knowledge of such life-or-death information as inclusion in the military’s Order of Battle and Enemies of the State lists.

It isn’t the Filipino’s lack of discipline that invites authoritarian intervention. That indiscipline — the mad scramble for relief goods rather than getting in line, for example — is in the first place behavior learned from experience. It is based on the fundamental lesson taught in a society where it’s every man (and woman) for himself, that waiting in line usually results in your being told to come back next week and not getting anything while you and your family starve in an evacuation center hellhole. Authoritarianism is the impulse to dictatorship resident in the genes of the political elite of which Marcos was an outstanding member. It will not go away for so long as the very same dynasties and their accomplices in the civilian and military bureaucracies are in power.

Comments, blogs and other columns: www.luisteodoro.com, and www.cmfr-phil.org

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
September 26, 2013

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