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The Long View
Reviewing the prewar plebiscites

By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:01:00 06/15/2009

Filed Under: Elections, Constitution

Here is a rundown of the dates, the issues and the outcomes of our past constitutional plebiscites. Let?s begin with those that took place before World War II, from 1935 to 1941. In the first place, the expansion of suffrage had been gradual from 1907 to 1935 (from 1.15 percent of the population fulfilling property and literacy requirements to be able to vote in 1907, to 9 percent being able to vote after the Jones Law in 1916 included any native language instead of just English and Spanish as qualifying for the literacy requirement). But from 1935 to the eve of World War II, the expansion of the electorate was dramatic. In John Siedel et al.?s ?Elections and Democratization in the Philippines,? we read: ?The size of the electorate is said to have reached only 11 percent by 1935. Four years later, only the literacy requirement remained, but only 48 percent of the population over the age of 10 in the regular christianized provinces could read or write in 1939.?

May 14, 1935: Ratification of the 1935 Constitution

Result: 1,213,046 YES 44,963 NO.

I cannot find figures on the number of registered voters, nationally, but you can infer it from the maximum percentage entitled to vote: 11 percent of the population. This was actually the first nationwide vote the country had, in which the nation voted as such and not just for provincial or regional leaders.

I can?t say if there was any change in the four months between the plebiscite on the Constitution and the first national presidential elections held that September; but what observers did point out was that only slightly over half of the electorate bothered to vote. Most observers commented that this was because the outcome was practically predetermined. It is remarkable that more people seemed to have participated in the plebiscite on the Constitution than in the presidential election (however, it also seems to have been rainy in many areas during the September election, then as now, possibly lowering turnout).

A possible reason for higher turnout was that the plebiscite on the Constitution was also, in a sense, a plebiscite on independence. Hence the very lopsided result in favor of the new constitution.

April 30, 1937: Women asked if they wanted suffrage

Result: YES 447,725 NO 44,307

This was an unusual plebiscite, in that the voting was restricted to women, only. They were asked if they wanted suffrage for themselves. The suffragette movement had been active from the 1920s and particularly in the early 1930s so women?s groups were extremely well organized to get out the vote. Male lawmakers had required 300,000 affirmative votes for approval. Women handily overcame that hurdle.

Oct. 24, 1939: Plebiscite on Economic Adjustment

Result: YES 1,393,453 NO 49,633.

This is perhaps the least known of all our constitutional plebiscites. The US Congress had passed Public Act No. 300, (76th Congress, Aug. 7, 1939) adjusting some of the economic conditions leading up to our independence in the Tydings-McDuffie Act. But the law would only go into effect if approved by the Filipino people in a plebiscite, because the adjustments affected the ?Ordinance Appended to the Constitution of the Philippines.? As a primer on the plebiscite in the Free Press put it, ?Instead of paying rising tariffs which will eliminate all profits ? Philippine products concerned will be placed under duty-free quotas during the remaining years of the Commonwealth.?

More people participated in this plebiscite than in the May 1935 one; to be expected, since the population and electorate had been growing; but the number also surpassed the much more controversial plebiscite held the next year. One reason I can think of is that the 1939 plebiscite, concerning economic questions, was viewed as significant because a necessary part of putting the country on a stable economic footing for independence; so, essentially, a second referendum on the question of independence.

June 18, 1940: Presidential re-election; Senate elected at large; creation of Comelec

Three questions were asked of the electorate.

1. Establishment of a bicameral legislature

Result: YES 1,043,712 NO 275,184.

2. Presidential and Vice-Presidential terms (from six years, no re-election, to four years with one re-election)

Result: YES 1,072,039 NO 240,632.

3. Creation of a Commission on Elections

Result: YES 1,017,606 NO 287,923.

Essentially the whole prewar period was used up by the debates on the issues of presidential re-election and the restoration of the Senate (unicameralism had won in the Constitutional Convention, not because the majority of delegates actually preferred it, but because the majority opinion for bicameralism was divided between the bicameralists on the question of a Senate elected at large or according to senatorial districts); it took another year after that, for the actual campaign to overcome public resistance to the 1939 proposal of amendments.

The first elections under the amended 1935 Constitution were held in November 1941, but before the new Congress could convene, World War II broke out. The turnout in that election was lower than for the plebiscite in 1940. As for the plebiscite itself, there was marginally more enthusiasm for the restoration of the Senate, but this time, on a nationally elected basis than for allowing presidential re-election; the most opposition was registered on the question of a Commission on Elections. The figures registered in opposition to the propositions were much larger than in 1939, pointing to the ferocity of public debate.

The conventional wisdom today is that popular interest and enthusiasm for constitutional questions and thus, participation in plebiscites, is historically low. I can only assume this conventional wisdom emerged during the martial law ?plebiscites? but this assertion certainly didn?t hold true for the first plebiscites. In fact, the opposite is true: public participation was higher for constitutional plebiscites.

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