It was the 22nd of February 1986. We are looking at hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life gathering and marching along Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA). Soon enough, barricades were set up, armored tanks were mounted by protesters, & nuns and other religious leaders linked arms and formed human chains against the government troops. Fueled by the promise of bringing about a new era of freedom, peace, and equality for all Filipinos, the People Power Revolution (or EDSA 1) became a pivotal moment in the country’s history.
EDSA 1 saw the peaceful and bloodless overthrow of Marcos from the throne he had sat on for twenty years. It also paved the way for the restoration of democracy and along with it, the presidential form of government, bicameralism, and plurality formula. Ultimately, this dramatic series of events also catapulted Corazon Aquino to the executive helm.
37 years have passed since then.
37 years since the poor and the rich walked in solidarity with various political, civic, and religious organizations to demand free and fair elections and protest against corruption, human rights abuses, and political repression.
37 years since the legacies of EDSA 1 became a source of national pride for Filipinos—a reminder of the power and commitment of ordinary citizens to shape the course of history.
However, it only took a little more than 5 years for the same powers EDSA 1 booted out to return and attempt to reclaim their position as an act of political redemption. In 1991, Aquino allowed the Marcos family to return to the Philippines to face charges of tax fraud and corruption. Unwittingly, this same act laid the groundwork for what would eventually be the Marcos’ political comeback. Because of this, the outcomes of the EDSA People Power Revolution have been subject to criticisms. Its relevance is now challenged by many Filiipinos—be they supporters of the status quo, the opposition, or ordinary citizens—with the election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
This year, while we are commemorating the 37th anniversary of the EDSA People Power Revolution, the grim irony is that this will also be the first EDSA anniversary under another Marcos. How did the son of a man who drove his country to economic bankruptcy—the same son who has benefited, continues to benefit, and denies the plunder of his family—manage to secure an electoral landslide 37 years after his father was ousted? Were the lessons of EDSA 1 all for naught?
From a Great Escape to a Gradual Comeback
A year after returning to the Philippines, the family gradually regained their traditional post and re-established their “legacy”. Even after being dubbed by Guinness Book of World Records’ (now deleted) post as “Greatest Robbery of a Government,” the Marcosses continue to be a polarizing figure in Philippine politics, make headlines, and occupy positions of power.
In the 1992 Philippine presidential election, Imelda Marcos ran and finished fifth out of seven candidates. In the same year up until 1995, Marcos Jr. served as the Congressman for Ilocos Norte’s Second District. The following election, Imee Marcos replaced Marcos Jr. in the House of Representatives while his brother became Governor of Ilocos Norte. Since then, Imelda, Ferdinand Jr., and Imee Marcos have alternately run and climbed the political ladder; from the gubernatorial, to the Congress (both houses), up until the executive post. In 2016, Marcos Jr. lost to former VP Leni Robredo by a small margin, indicating the political possibility of using defeat as a springboard to the next election—a possibility we were, at the time, all too distracted to notice. Come the 2022 elections, the inevitable happened. After months, nay years, of campaigning via appeals to authoritarian nostalgia, another Marcos is back in Malacañan.
With the return of another Marcos in the historic seat of power, how would Filipinos confront their nebulous perception of the People Power Revolution? During a time when victims of martial law continue to plead for justice, why are legions of loyal supporters flocking to Marcos Jr. ‘s camp, propelling his family’s redemption and seemingly absolving them of their abuses? Have we suddenly forgotten the events that transpired 37 years ago? Who is to blame in this, please excuse the term, clusterfuck?
With a decisive mandate, President Marcos Jr. is now set to build a new political order. When asked by President Borge Brende during the World Economic Forum (WEF) if he had expected to return to the Malacañan Palace as Chief Executive, President Marcos Jr. casually responded, “…for us to defend ourselves politically, somebody had to enter politics and be in the political arena. So that, at least, not only the legacy of my father, but our own survival required that somebody go into politics.” The president brazenly admits the raison d’etre of his candidacy—self-preservation. How this can be uttered without creating ripples of reactions and upsetting the public is beyond me, but it does reveal so much about the post-EDSA era.
Did EDSA fail or did We fail?
There is no denying that the People Power Revolution was a victory of the people in confronting a regime that has paved the way for its own undoing. It is a movement that will forever be known worldwide for inspiring democratic restoration and anti-authoritarian sentiments. However, the movement, and those who led and participated in it understand this, was not perfect. It was merely a catalyst and not the end goal in itself. It was not supposed to magically solve all the systemic problems in the country which were exacerbated by the Marcos regime. While EDSA prepared the country for an even bigger, more challenging task of consolidating a fragile democracy, it was ultimately up to us to work towards it. However, the results of the 2022 Philippine elections make it painfully clear that we were not able to effectively rebuild the institutions of the country.
First, even after Marcos Sr. was ousted, the ruling system remained. Marcos and his family may have been overthrown, but their allies and cronies were not. In the post-Marcos era, populist demagogues emerged under the guise of liberal reformism. Democratic elections were reduced to clashes between oligarchs and provincial bosses who have managed to monopolize public office, consolidate power for themselves, and limit the opportunities for new political leaders. Even counter-hegemonic movements were led by members of traditional elite families, obscuring class contradictions and perpetuating elite rule. If anything, post-EDSA democratization further concealed deep-seated inequalities.
Second, the following administrations did little to address the fragile democracy before them. Democratic institutions were restored but post-Marcos administrations still shunned the demands and economic turmoils under the authoritarian regime. Administrations following the democratization failed to address many of the historical injustices and human rights violations that took place under the Marcos regime. At the same time, we failed to make legal changes necessary to facilitate a robust democratic system with checks and assurances that our country will no longer fall for the same trap it just freed itself from. For example, Guatemala’s constitution bans anyone, including their families, who came into power by a coup d’etat to run for the executive post. In the Philippines, while it is understandable that a ban on holding public office may be deemed unconstitutional (yes, even for those who had no regard for the constitution in the first place), there are still no effective mechanisms to ensure that those who altered the democratic order are held accountable and prosecuted. Instead, the Marcoses returned to the country and were welcomed with open arms.
Third, post-EDSA education fell short in instilling a collective memory about the economic atrocities and human rights violations during martial law. Now, countless myths, some of which are portrayed in textbooks, are floating around and many Filipinos callously consider Marcos’ regime as the “golden age” of the Philippines. But far from having economic prosperity, the Marcos regime oversaw the severe retrogression of income per person. The presumed growth during the beginning of Marcos Sr.’s first term was fragile as the country eventually degenerated into a balance of payments crisis, thanks to the rapid rise of short-term external debts. By October 1983, after failing to meet its debt repayment, the country under Marcos declared bankruptcy and became the first Asian country to declare a moratorium in the debt crisis. Unchecked information dissemination platforms combined with propaganda and historical revisionism, reported to have been a decade in the making, contributed to the production of an uncritical electorate. As one famous quote by George Santayana reads, “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Fourth, the pervading politics of convenience compromised the developments that the democratization movement instituted. Instead of being guided by ideology, platforms, principles, and policy, political parties and figures are merely machines whose purpose is merely to secure electoral victory. For example, Juan Ponce Enrile was among Marcos Sr.’s most prominent cronies before he rebelled and joined the 1986 ouster. But in 2016, he expressed support for the late dictator’s burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Two years later on the 46th anniversary of the declaration of martial law, he denied, in an interview with Marcos Jr., the thousands of recorded human rights violations which he oversaw as martial law’s architect.
Overall, these challenges reflect the broader issues that the Philippine political system is facing. It would therefore be a grave error on our part to look back on this glorious part of history and blame it for the mistakes that we, or those in positions of power, committed or the steps we did not take.
If, and only if, EDSA really had a failure, it would only be the complacency it induced on us. Following the ouster of Marcos, Filipinos were over the moon optimistic about the possibilities that a genuine democratic system would bring. However, seemingly overwhelmed with euphoria, we misconstrued the whole movement for a revolutionary leap that would dictate the course of the future. Yet again, EDSA’s end-goal was fundamentally to topple Marcos’ dictatorial regime. What should have happened after is on us, the next administrations after Marcos, and the traitors who took advantage of our political system. Bemoaning EDSA’s “failures” tells a lot about one fatal failure on our part—the transition from dictatorship to democracy will not end in “happily ever after” if we do not consolidate the fragile regime we were left with.
37 years have passed since Marcos was ousted, but the electoral victory of his son in the 2022 Philippine Presidential election does not indicate a failure of the EDSA People Power Revolution on its own. Instead, what it indicates is the ongoing political polarization in the Philippines and the persistence of support for the Marcos family due in part to the abovementioned failures above. Now more than ever, with another Marcos in power, the legacies of the People Power Revolution should remind us that democratization does not end with the overthrow of a non-democratic regime or the subsequent establishment of a democratic government. By commemorating EDSA, we are not only celebrating the triumph of democracy over dictatorship. If anything, this is a wake up call for us—a reminder that we’ve got some work to do, starting with the rectification of the ways we failed EDSA.
Alabastro, R. (1991). Manila to let Imelda Marcos Return. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1991/08/01/manila-to-let-imelda-marcos-return/b124c41c-ff1e-47e1-94e0-efd4cddf1ab1/
Anthony, M.C. (2022). A Marcos returns to power in the Philippines. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2022/05/13/a-marcos-returns-to-power-in-the-philippines/
Heydarian, R.J. (2022). The Return of the Marco Dynasty. Project MUSE, 33(3), 62-76. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2022.0040.
Limpin, D. (2021). After EDSA: Historical Revisionism and Other Factors That Led to the Marcoses’ Return. Philippine Social Science Council. https://www.pssc.org.ph/after-edsa/
Remission, R. (2016). Enrile: Marcos deserves hero’s burial. CNN Philippines. https://www.cnnphilippines.com/news/2016/08/22/juan-ponce-enrile-ferdinand-marcos-libingan-ng-mga-bayani-burial.html