A ballot etched in blood

MARCUS GEE February 17 1986

A ballot etched in blood

MARCUS GEE February 17 1986

A ballot etched in blood


The contest concluded the way the election campaign had begun—in violence and uncertainty. Disputes over the result persisted as the Philippine government’s Commission on Elections (COMELEC) slowly tallied ballots from the 86,000 polling stations scattered across the strategic Pacific nation’s 7,100 islands. When the counting had barely begun last Friday night, the two rivals for the presidency each claimed victory. Said President Ferdinand Marcos, who has ruled the country for 20 years through a powerful patronage network and an obedient military establishment: “I probably have won these elections.” Countered a confident Corazon (Cory) Aquino, the novice politician who challenged a regime she denounced as cruel and corrupt: “The trend is clear and irreversible. The people and I have won and we know it.” But on Sunday, 48 hours after the polls closed, there was no clear winner, although differing early counts by both COMELEC and the National Citizens’ Movement for Free

Elections (NAMFREL), an independent observer group, gave Aquino a lead.

For the nation of 54 million people the bitter contest between Marcos, 68, and Aquino, 53, was only the beginning of a power struggle between the forces they represented—an entrenched political elite and a reform-minded opposition. Before the ballots were counted Aquino said that she would lead nonviolent demonstrations if she and her vice-presidential candidate, Salvador Laurel, were denied victory because of fraudulent election practices. And Marcos said that a security crackdown would be necessary to prevent civil disorder. Behind the domestic political rivalry stood more potent forces—the United States, former governor of the islands, with strategic air and naval bases in the Philippines, and an insurgent Communist New People’s Army (NPA), whose spreading strength has alarmed both Washington and neighboring nations of southeast Asia. Said California Senator Alan Cranston before the election: “Every day that Marcos continues to monopolize all the le-

vers of power brings closer the day the Communists will rule in Manila.”

In fact, growing U.S. pressure on Marcos for political and economic reforms was a factor in the president’s decision in early December to seek a formal renewal of his mandate more than a year before an election was due under the constitution. His election call coincided with Marcos’s controversial reinstatement of Gen. Fabian Ver as chief of the armed forces—an action that provoked mass protests in Manila and open criticism from Washingtonone day after Ver and 25 other suspended military officers were acquitted of conspiracy in the 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino. Within days Aquino’s widow was persuaded by Marcos’s opponents—and a petition signed by more than 1.2 million Filipinos—to run for the presidency.

Corazon Aquino’s decision transformed the election into the Philippines’ first contested presidential campaign in 17 years. As a result, Friday’s balloting led to a huge turnout estimated at up to 90 per cent of the 26,189,000 registered voters. They travelled to polling stations by whatever means they could: in gaily decorated canoes, old motorized tricycles, horsedrawn carriages, buses, ferries or on foot. But police said that at least 30 people were killed, many of them by gunfire, in election-day violence between rival factions. There were reports of intimidation, vote buying, ballot-box switching and other irregularities.

After the election, Jaime Cardinal Sin, archbishop of Manila and spiritual leader of the predominantly Roman Catholic country, appealed for calm. Sin, a critic of the Marcos regime who

had endorsed Aquino’s candidacy, described the election as “a day of courage and hope.” He added, “Whatever may have happened today, and what will still happen, don’t be afraid, don’t be discouraged, keep calm, do not be provoked to violence.”

The balloting marked the end of a turbulent campaign spotted by outbreaks of violence. During the spirited and often strident electioneering it became clear that Aquino, despite her demure demeanor and a sometimes hesitant speaking style, was the most dangerous political foe Marcos had faced since he gained power on Dec. 30, 1965. But there was widespread suspicion before and after the voting that the forces supporting Marcos and his running mate, former foreign minister Arturo Tolentino, were engaged in electoral fraud. The charges weakened Marcos’s continued support from his long-term ally, the United States. And last week President Ronald Reagan pledged to seek more economic and military aid for Marcos—but only if the election was fair.

Throughout the campaign opposition spokesmen had said that supporters of Marcos’s party—Kilusan Bagong Lipunan (KBL), or New Society Movement-sought strategies to defeat Aquino, and many of them predicted that Filipinos would react violently if the election was fraudulent. Last Wednesday, on ABC TV’s Nightline, Aquino told host Ted Koppel: “If [the people] think that they have been cheated out of an election, I am afraid that they might not listen to me anymore if I still insist on going about this peacefully.” Added leading opposition figure Aquilino Pimentel, mayor of the southern Philippines city of Cagayen de Oro: “If there is massive cheating and no legal remedy, Marcos will be provoking a civil war.”

To help prevent election fraud, NAMFREL marshalled 500,000 volunteers to try to oversee every step of the voting

process and protest any irregularities. The volunteers, instructed to appear at the polling stations 30 minutes before voting began, kept a special lookout for “flying voters”—people who tried to vote in two or more districts—as well as vote buying and intimidation of voters by hired thugs. And under election regulations, voters placed their thumbmark on the voting record after casting ballots, and then had indelible ink painted on their right forefingers to show that they had already voted.

In spite of those precautions, NAMFREL chairman José Concepcion said last week that there was only a 50-percent chance that the election would be honest. For one thing, he identified 375 municipalities and 56 of the country’s 74 provinces as potential trouble spots. Among them: central Mindanao Island in the southern Philippines, where opposition leaders claimed to have evidence that the KBL padded voter lists in 2,244 barangays—local government districts—with nonexistent “ghost voters.” But after the balloting, as NAMFREL began issuing vote counts that showed Aquino ahead, the government’s election commission warned the organization to avoid “misleading the people into believing that one candidate has won.”

Opposition spokesmen also charged that in many provinces Marcos’s “warlords” or KBL bosses encouraged intimidation of voters by the tough paramilitary Civilian Home Defence Force (CHDF). AS the campaign was closing last week, CHDF soldiers attacked an Aquino motorcade in her home province of Tarlac, 90 km north of Manila, while the candidate was campaigning a few kilometres from the scene. The soldiers smashed the windows of a car carrying Aquino’s sister-in-law and campaign media co-ordinator Lupita Kashiwahara as she tried to photograph them.

Other instances of intimidation occurred in the province of La Union, the gateway to Marcos’s so-called Solid North political stronghold in northern Luzon Island. There, NAMFREL workers reported that thugs fired guns outside the home of a local NAMFREL official in the town of Balaoan. And Reena de la Vega, a local organizer for the organization, said that the town’s mayor had stored 40 rifles in his home and threatened opposition supporters. As well, Aquino spokesmen said that militiamen in Buguey, 400 km north of Manila, shot and killed local opposition leader Euginio Coloma.

Some of the estimated 16,500 Communist guerrillas of the NPA were active on the fringes of the campaign. Military spokesmen said that on Mindanao, as many as 4,000 people fled their farming villages to take refuge in Butuan, in the northern part of the island, because they feared polling day attacks by the insurgents. For their part, spokesmen for the banned Communist party said that they would limit their activities to attacking government thugs at polling stations and stealing army weapons. But the election commission deputized the country’s 230,000-member armed forces to stand guard.

Before the election returns were complete, some opposition leaders said that Marcos might crack down swiftly on his opponents regardless of the re-

suit. Marcos himself appeared to increase those fears last week when he accused Aquino followers of “sowing hate, anger and revolution,” and he declared that his administration would not hesitate to use force. Declared the president: “If you insist on violence, then violence it is. We can handle anything that you will do.”

Still, whoever leads the Philippines into the future is likely to need continued American support. Declared Diosdado Macapagal, Philippine president from 1961 to 1965: “The United States is a decisive factor. Washington calls the shots now more than ever before.” And Washington has exerted heavy pressure for reforms since the widespread anti-Marcos demonstrations sparked by the assassination of Benigno Aquino, a leading opposition figure who was assassinated as he left his plane in Manila after returning from three years of exile in the United States.

The reasons for U.S. concern have been made clear by spokesmen in the Reagan administration and in Congress. They say that without significant reforms, increasing numbers of Filipinos will join the country’s insurgents, leading to an eventual Communist takeover. At stake for the Ameri-

cans: two huge military installations in the Philippines—Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay Naval Base. As well, a refusal to enact reforms will add to the Reagan administration’s difficulty in justifying further support for the Philippines to Congress, which last year slashed a request for $100 million (U.S.) in military aid to $40 million.

Meanwhile, Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and leader of a 20member U.S. delegation sent to monitor the election, visited several polling

places in Manila and outside the capital. He initially said that he thought the people’s will was being heard. But after one of his spokesmen reported that the senator had found “substantial evidence of fraud and was very concerned,” Lugar told reporters, “I am certain there were abuses along the way.” For his part, Marcos said that if U.S. election observers decided that the balloting had been fraudulent, he would think “seriously” about declaring the election invalid.

Indeed, as Filipinos continued to express doubt that Marcos would give up his office, some were making plans to either leave the country or move their money to foreign banks. Aquino supporter Jose, 21, a business administration student at Manila’s University of the Philippines, who asked that his last name not be used, said that his family planned to move to Vancouver. There, he said, it is “all flowers and trees, not goons and guns. We have been living in this dark age under Marcos for so long I don’t know when it will come to an end.” For many Filipinos, that uncertainty may intensify in the weeks ahead.

— MARCUS GEE in Manila