Public Lives

The allure of authoritarianism


Forty-one years after Ferdinand Marcos imposed authoritarian rule on the Filipino nation, we tell ourselves with all conviction that never again should we permit this to happen.  But, the first step toward preventing the nightmare of dictatorial rule from becoming a reality is by understanding the conditions of its possibility.

Martial law was not the deed of one person. It was carried out with the willingness and cooperation of many others, even as it preyed on the readiness of our people to believe that their leaders know best what the country needs.  Many of Marcos’ associates continue to think that the turn to authoritarianism was correct, and would have succeeded in achieving its objectives had it not been derailed by unforeseen events in the global economy and the ambition and short-term interests of a few.

Some of the key people who helped carry out martial law—like former President Fidel V. Ramos who was head of the Philippine Constabulary at the time and Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile who was the martial law administrator—later turned against Marcos. But, not one of them will likely say today that Marcos had fooled them into supporting the authoritarian option. We can only assume that they too believed that martial law was the solution to the country’s problems at that time. In this, they are probably not alone.

It is this mindset we must try to comprehend. What social conditions give rise to it? What forms does it take? What kind of motivations does it feed upon? Clearly, it is not enough to explain martial law as the product of the outsized ambition of one dictator. We need to ask how he managed to get so many thinking persons to suspend their disbelief and assist him in the realization of his ambition. We have to know how he could cow an entire population into submitting to dictatorial restrictions in their daily lives, and into welcoming this as a necessary stage in the nation’s development.

These questions become all the more pressing in light of the fact that, by the time he declared martial law in 1972, Marcos was no longer the same popular figure that he was when he was first elected president in 1965. It is true that in 1969, he became the first president of the republic ever to be reelected. But, by the time his second term was coming to an end, he had lost much of the public support that made him an unchallenged figure in Philippine politics. The public and the mass media were deeply suspicious of his every move, believing that he was bent on prolonging his stay in office.

Opposition politicians knew he was planning something along the lines of emergency powers, but obviously they did not think it would be anything as permanent and as drastic as the so-called “New Society.” After arresting key opposition lawmakers like Benigno Aquino Jr. and Jose W. Diokno, Marcos promptly padlocked Congress. He also shut down all newspapers, and television and radio stations that had been critical of his regime. He hijacked an ongoing Constitutional Convention that was then wrapping up its work, and proceeded to draft a Constitution that would legalize indefinite one-man rule. None of these triggered a revolution.

The swiftness by which the arrests and the closure of the mass media were accomplished, coupled with the strict imposition of a curfew, struck such a deep fear in the hearts of ordinary people that all they could think of during those years was how to stay out of trouble with the military. Those who had the means went abroad. It was depressing to see how the people’s initial fear was quickly replaced by the positive acceptance of a political order that openly used coercion and violence to produce a climate of peace and security.

It was clear that Marcos and his henchmen had read Philippine society very well. They knew that its democratic institutions benefited only a small segment of the nation, and that the majority would not miss a critical free press or a recalcitrant Congress all that much. Marcos projected himself as someone who knew what he was doing. He not only had the whole military behind him, but, as important, he also commanded the loyalty of some of the country’s best minds and technocrats. Many members of the Marcos Cabinet, graduates of the University of the Philippines, argued persuasively that Marcos was on a mission to reform Philippine society and create the conditions necessary to make democracy function in a meaningful way.

It was strange to hear the progressive language of the Left appropriated by the ideologues of the New Society. The regime styled itself as antifeudal, propoor, modern, and nationalist. It highlighted the importance of a national culture and paved the way for many initiatives in the field of cultural development. This attracted not a few progressive intellectuals and writers to work for the government. Some of them would later claim that they were doing so as part of their work for the underground. Indeed, there is nothing in the world that cannot be made to look good by mere redescription.

The will to authoritarianism is alive in all societies that seek an easy way out of the complexities of modern politics in the simplistic rationality of command leadership. It is particularly strong in countries where the vast majority of citizens, because of poverty and ignorance, are uninvolved in politics except as passive recipients of command and patronage. To the extent our society is deeply stratified into the few who are very rich and powerful and the vast masses who are very poor, we remain vulnerable to the allure of authoritarianism.

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  • Mea Culpa

    Those in favor of having Martial Law, say ‘AYE’
    Those in favor of having Communism, say ‘Nay’

    • rj

      This is a false dilemma.

      • Mea Culpa

        well, that’s how i saw it with the reds that i’ve met, incidentally are my relatives….

      • Mea Culpa

        not giving justification to the martial rule, in respect to those abused….but then again, i could not just blink my eyes and let go of the things i saw with those reds back in the 70’s and 80’s…

    • Islaslolo

      It should be Martial Law vs Democracy! You are using Marcos’s justification for declaring Martial Law and the conjugal grab of power and people’s money if you say the other choice is communism. Be real and open your eyes and mind.

      • Mea Culpa

        Read my other comments to ‘rj’ for your perusal.

      • Islaslolo

        I don’t know how you define “reds” but during Marcos’s Martial Law regime, everyone that was against him or said something against him or his regime was considered allied with the communists.

        In effect, Martial Law closed the avenue for meaningful national conversations on how we, at that time, wanted our country to be. There were powerful forces that allied with and supported Marcos in his Martial Law regime and all of them are authoritarian in nature and organization, namely the large multinational corporations and the Roman Catholic Church. And it was no secret that the US government, at that time, encouraged Marcos to do it.

        So our young democracy, just getting out – albeit slowly – of its feudal character, was thrown into the dustbin of history by Marcos. It will take at least two generations, if we are indeed lucky, with proper education and upbringing to learn how we can function and prosper in a democratic society. And think about what is good and sustainable for us as a country and as a people. We should think as Filipinos, not as Ilocanos, Cebuanos, Tagalogs, Capampangans, etc., and not as Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, etc.

      • ed_dAVAO

        I too, would say Martial law was imposed to combat communism at that time, it’s decisive, It caused detention of numerous known leftist. One of them was Sison. The mistake of Marcos is the extended lifting of martial law.

  • fpc

    Perhaps authoritarianism had saved us from communism and anarchy in the 70’s.
    I am not talking about Marcos.
    That is why benevolent authoritarianism, if there is such one, is an allure in our fight against political dynasties and the culture of corruption pervading in our country.
    Who knows? It worked well in most Asian countries…

  • kevv33

    Remember the slogan of FM/Imelda: “Sa ikauunlad ng bayan disiplina ang kailangan”. It still rings true today for the indisciplined Pinoys. During the time of martial law, people were diciplined to submission by having the streets cleaned, orderly flow of traffic, and no jumping at queues, just to name a few. But later on Imelda became extra vagant and wasteful that it was Ferdie who was being disciplined by his lady to submission. If we reflect on the advantages of authoritarian regime, and if FM had the insight of LeeKuan Yoo of Singapore, we would have been the envy of our neighbouri countries, and could have been the stalwart of tiger economy.

  • talagalangha

    The, Marcos had to declare martial law to become the sole authority…

    Now, Pnoy only had to impeach Corona, and use the PDAF..

    Presto, he is the sole savior of the Philippines…


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