The Philippines braces for a power vacuum
The Philippines is facing a double leadership crisis. President Ferdinand Marcos, who has dominated the country for the last two decades, is ailing; at the same time the legal political opposition is unable to come up with a strong alternative.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Over the past 20 years President Marcos has carefully built a highly centralized political and military structure with just one person at its apex: himself. Now he is ill, perhaps fatally so; he needs to find a successor who will protect his family and his fortunes -- and, he apparently hopes, his name. He also needs to find a way of transferring power to his chosen successor.
Both are daunting problems: The regime is under fire from all quarters, at home and abroad. And, like most authoritarian rulers, he has created a vacuum around him -- there seems to be no one who possesses both the confidence of the President and the capability to take over from him.
The people most interested in Western-style democracy, the political middle ground, are facing equally serious problems. They are the least organized, least united, and least coherent part of the political spectrum. And they face strong challenges from both the right and the left.
On the right is the Marcos regime. The President may be ailing, but his machine is still far stronger than its opponents. Marcos supporters are worried about their future and uncertain which option would best protect their interests. But they have plenty of muscle, both physical and financial, with which to back any option they choose. And they have the advantage of incumbency.
The revolutionary left -- the Communist Party, its armed wing, the New People's Army, and its political organization, the National Democratic Front -- is the success story of martial law, which was in place from September 1972 to January 1981.
In his Oct. 21 foreign-policy debate with Walter Mondale, President Reagan said ``the alternative'' to Marcos was ``a large communist movement to take over the Philippines.'' In fact, compared with the Philippine government, the left is still weak -- but it is well organized and intelligently led. Its influence in the countryside is substantial. Its following among the urban middle class -- which has been turned off by the infighting of traditional opposition groups and attracted by the organization and dedication of the underground -- is growing. And unlike the right or the center, the left knows exactly where it is going: By 1990 it plans to play a major, if not dominant role in Philippine politics, Communist Party organizers say. One way it hopes to do this is by ``mass defection'' of populations in major cities in the Philippines, probably starting with Davao.
If it wants to assert itself in Philippine politics, the middle ground has to dismantle much of the military, political, and economic institutions of the Marcos era and defuse the leftist movement. It also has to get itself organized.
Presidential rhetoric portrayed the declaration of martial law on Sept. 21, 1972, as a reaction against the corruption, chaos, and violence of the ``old society.''
Marcos's ``New Society'' would, to quote one of his main publicists, be one of ``national discipline, national unity, and national self-determination.'' It would rid the Philippines of pork-barrel politics, private armies, and shoot-outs in the streets of the capital. It would also eliminate the small but vigorous communist underground movement.
But in fact Marcos did not eliminate these phenomena; he refined them.
Instead of a multiplicity of local political bosses doling out patronage in their areas, Marcos created a single source of patronage -- the Movement for a New Society (Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, or KBL, in Tagalog). And at the top of the political pyramid, the pork barrel was replaced by ``crony capitalism'' -- a coterie of close friends and political allies of the President (perhaps business associates, too) who benefited greatly from his patronage.