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  • The Philippines at the Polls
  • David G. Timberman (bio)

On 11 May 1992, about 75 percent of the Philippines' 32 million registered voters went to the polls to elect candidates for national, provincial, and local offices. Tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Filipinos also joined nonpartisan efforts to ensure that the voting and vote counting were peaceful, orderly, and honest. Although they were not entirely successful-the vote buying, clientelism, and cheating that historically have accompanied Philippine elections were still in evidence-the elections offered an impressive display of participation in and commitment to the democratic process.

Election day was the climax, though not the conclusion, of the massive electoral process-it took another six weeks to count and certify the votes for president and vice-president (which had to be counted separately, since Philippine law allows split-ticket voting). When it was over, former general Fidel Ramos was declared the winner with just 24 percent of the vote and a vice-president from a different party. On June 30, he succeeded Corazon Aquino as the Philippines' twelfth president.

The foreign journalists who covered the elections tended to focus on the circus atmosphere of many campaign events, the closeness of the outcome, and the slowness of the vote count. Such coverage yeas accurate as far as it went, but it failed to convey what was really at stake, for had the elections been marred by extensive violence and cheating, or had their outcome been widely challenged, the shaky edifice of Philippine democracy would have suffered a most damaging blow.

On the surface, the 1992 elections were just the latest in a series held [End Page 110] under the democratic system restored by Corazon Aquino in 1986. The significance of these elections becomes clearer, however, when they are viewed in the context of the checkered history of Philippine elections and the fragility of Aquino's restored democracy.

Unlike many developing countries, the Philippines has a tradition of electoral competition dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century-a tradition that was interrupted first by the Japanese occupation during World War II and then by the late President Ferdinand Marcos's declaration of martial law in 1972. Before martial law, elections were usually bloody, expensive, and fraudulent contests among powerful families and factions; the passions involved were often more personal than ideological. Yet despite such grave shortcomings, elections did provide Filipinos with an opportunity to participate in the selection of their leaders and permitted constitutional transfers of political power within the elite.

During his 14-year dictatorship (1972-86), Ferdinand Marcos perverted the electoral process by using carefully controlled plebiscites, stage-managed referenda, and fixed races to lend an appearance of legitimacy to his regime. Elections took on a new significance with the increase in opposition to Marcos that followed the assassination of Benigno Aquino in 1983. The 1984 legislative and 1986 "snap" presidential elections became important occasions for mobilizing the democratic opposition to Marcos.

Widespread outrage over the violence and fraud that Marcos used during his February 1986 race against Mrs. Aquino led directly to the "people power" campaign and military uprising that unseated him two weeks after the election. Under Aquino, a moderately successful constitutional referendum took place in February 1987 and relatively peaceful and honest legislative and local elections went ahead in May 1987 and January 1988, respectively. Despite the overall success of the referendum and elections, the legitimacy of the Aquino government continued to be challenged by both communist insurgents and right-wing extremists. A military coup attempt in December 1989 almost toppled the Aquino government and shattered the fragile economic recovery that the country was experiencing. The Aquino government eventually regained its equilibrium, but 1990 and 1991 were years of continuing political drift and economic decline. Not surprisingly, public opinion polls revealed declining public satisfaction with both the executive branch and the legislature.1

In these circumstances, the 1992 elections took on particular importance. Public confidence in the democratic system would get a much-needed boost if elections went well and resulted in the constitutional transfer of power. Conversely, a problem-ridden or disputed election would not only hurt public confidence, but might even be...


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