Cory Aquino and democracy in the Philippines

Sheila Coronel
15 August 2009

The Filipino opposition activist Benigno Aquino was assassinated on the tarmac of Manila airport on 21 August 1983, moments after his return to the country to challenge the rule of long-term president, Ferdinand Marcos. That was also the day Corazon Aquino stopped being, in her words, "just a housewife". The woman once content to be in the shadow of "Ninoy" became instead the leader of the democracy movement in the Philippines that swept her to the presidency on 25 February 1986 and made her an inspiration to others around the world struggling against tyranny.

Sheila Coronel is director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, and a founder of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. Her eight books on Philippine politics include Coups, Cults & Cannibals: chronicles of a troubled decade, 1982-1992 (Anvil Publishing, 1993) and The Rulemakers: how the wealthy and well-born dominate Congress (Anvil Publishing, 2007)                               This article was with minor editorial variations published in the Wall Street Journal on 2 August 2009

Cory Aquino's death on 1 August 2009 has sparked a depth of collective emotion unseen in the Philippines for years. Thousands of mourners are gathering in Manila to pay their respects and honour the soft-spoken and unassuming woman who led the "people-power" revolt that ended the twenty-year reign of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. For more than a generation she was an established presence in the country's political life; her role as a defender of democracy and moral exemplar will be hard to fill.

That observation may seem counterintuitive. After all, the Philippines is widely perceived as a dysfunctional democracy; and the events of 1986 make the idea of "people power " - the use of peaceful protest to topple a government, elected or not - one of Cory Aquino's major legacies. Indeed it remains, for better or for worse, the default template for bringing about political reform and "regime change" in the Philippines. Yet the country is still a democracy. The institutions established during the Aquino administration - a strong legislature, an independent judiciary and a free press - are largely in place.

Cory Aquino achieved these changes under the most difficult of circumstances. In 1983, Ferdinand Marcos's Philippines was a place rife with rumour, conspiracy and intrigue. The president was seriously ill, kept alive in his barricaded palace by a team of doctors who had been sworn to secrecy about his condition. Various factions, including one led by his glittering and powerful wife Imelda, were jockeying for power. The economy was in dire straits; the press, muzzled; the opposition, divided and dispirited.

The killing of Benigno Aquino brought "Cory", as she became affectionately known to Filipinos, into the limelight and into a defiant challenge to these realities. She united the opposition and ran for the presidency against Marcos. She campaigned throughout the country, holding audiences rapt by recounting in a flat monotone the story of her husband's homecoming and death. When she told Filipinos, "I am like you, a victim of Marcos", there was silence and tears. Her story mirrored so many of their own and her courageous expression of it released the potential for others to articulate their hopes for change. It was a profound democratic moment in the history of the Philippines.

Cory Aquino was the complete opposite of Ferdinand Marcos. He was the consummate political animal - charming, cunning and ruthless; she was an anti-politician. But this apparent weakness was her strength, and this fact led Marcos to underestimate her. Until Cory arrived on the scene, Filipino leaders had been macho and male. Cory broke the mould. After the fraudulent "snap" election of 7 February 1986 and the subsequent defection of a unit of Marcos's armed forces, hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets. Filipinos, wearing the yellow apparel that had become the symbol of solidarity and support for change, stood proudly before Marcos's tanks; braved threats of violence and repression; and, after three intense days, saw their peaceful protest emerge victorious as the Marcos couple and their retinue were allowed to fly into exile.

A political legacy

The years after the people-power revolution were difficult. Cory Aquino cobbled together a political coalition that proved fractious and soon fell apart. In subsequent years, until she handed power to her chosen successor Fidel Ramos in 1992, there were six attempts by rebel military factions to oust her. The last time, in 1989, United States warplanes had to be called in to provide air-cover for troops loyal to the president.

Also in openDemocracy:

Steven Rogers, "Philippines' democracy in turmoil" (16 August 2005)

Mark Dearn, "Mindanao: poverty on the frontlines" (4 June 2009)

It is probably unrealistic to believe that Aquino could have done more. Her political and social inheritance - which included dictatorship, corruption, poverty, weak institutions, and near civil war - was difficult. Moreover, her power lay in her moral force and unquestioned personal integrity: she had no army, no political party, no formal organisation behind her. In any event, her campaign and victory made her the projection-screen for an entire country's hopes, and she could not possibly have fulfilled them all.

Cory Aquino was not a visionary or a social reformer. She was very much a product of her time and place. She belonged to one of the biggest landowning families in the Philippines, was a loyal believer in the Catholic faith, and believed she was destined to restore democracy to what she knew it to be: the 1960s-style elitist democracy of political families and patronage. But the political circumstances of the time meant that she became the vehicle of a more participatory democracy. During her presidency, Aquino recognised the key role of non-governmental organisations and was active in them during her retirement.

This commitment revealed an enduring strength of character which Marcos, the rebel colonels, and even at times the Filipino people underestimated. After her presidential term ended, she successfully defended the constitution she had introduced in February 1987 - ratified by an 80% majority in a referendum - against attempts to amend it. She even successfully led a second people-power revolt in 2001 against former president Joseph Estrada, who went on to be convicted of corruption in 2007.

Even in death, it is likely that Cory Aquino will remain the symbol of Filipinos' hopes. After the period of mourning ends, her ultimate political legacy will continue to be discussed and debated. But there is one thing her compatriots can agree on: in 1986 she showed Filipinos that they were capable of greatness, and thus surely can be again.

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