In 20 Years Since Marcos, Little Stability for Philippines

Refused a state burial, the body of former President Ferdinand Marcos lies in a family mausoleum. Marcos's overthrow ushered in a period of sustained political turmoil.
Refused a state burial, the body of former President Ferdinand Marcos lies in a family mausoleum. Marcos's overthrow ushered in a period of sustained political turmoil. (By Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post)
By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 24, 2006

BATAC, Philippines -- Two decades after President Ferdinand Marcos was chased from power, he still draws the faithful and the curious to this farming town in the northernmost Philippines.

Displayed in an adobe mausoleum, his lavishly waxed corpse lies in a family tribute, bedecked in military medals and surrounded by faux flowers while Gregorian chants echo softly. Scores of schoolchildren visit nearly every day, filing past souvenir peddlers for a look at the deposed dictator whom residents of Ilocos Norte province fondly call "Apo," or the Old Man.

The "People Power" movement that forced Marcos into exile 20 years ago this week -- he died three years later in Hawaii -- did little to weaken the hold of his family on the province they have dominated for much of the last century.

But Marcos's overthrow ushered in a period of sustained political turmoil -- repeated coup attempts, a popular uprising that toppled another president, and continuing efforts to impeach the current president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Now, many Filipinos declare that East Asia's oldest democracy has failed.

The blame, Philippine analysts say, rests with the country's political system -- first put in place by the United States during four decades of colonial rule -- and the family dynasties it allowed to cement their power. Today, Philippine democracy is little more than a ruthless contest among rival clans with such names as Aquino, Arroyo and Marcos. Political parties are largely irrelevant, and most Filipinos are relegated to the role of spectators.

The cost to the economy has been tremendous. The perpetual political crisis has scared off investment, both domestic and foreign, while national leaders have often been too preoccupied with their own survival to pursue long-term strategies of development that could reverse the country's slide into poverty.

"The political system pieced together by the American colonial administration is incapable of performing the functions of a modern state," said Joel Rocamora of the Institute for Popular Democracy in Manila.

"In theory, it's American-style politics because we have a Xeroxed system," said Imee Marcos, the former president's daughter, a three-term member of Congress who personifies the dynastic system. "But democratic processes don't work the way they're meant to," she added. "It's ties of kinship and blood relations."

The United States wrested control of the Philippines from Spain in 1898 and soon created a national assembly modeled on the U.S. Congress, with representatives elected from single-member districts.

With suffrage initially limited to literate property owners, the new system allowed landed families in each district to monopolize local power. The clans used their access to public money, loans and patronage to consolidate their position. Political office became a family heirloom to be handed down.

Nor was it only in politics that U.S. colonial rulers sought to reinvent the Philippines in their own image. Hundreds of American educators streamed into the archipelago, setting up the public school system and establishing English as the language of instruction.

In later decades, Filipino filmmakers mimicked their American counterparts, producing movies about cowboys and Indians. Radio stations long played nothing but American music. Filipinos play basketball instead of soccer, rush home early from work to watch "American Idol" and are passionate about U.S.-style beauty pageants.

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