What Became of the People Power Revolution? Observations and Impressions of Philippines Elections 1986 and Now

Larry Garber meeting with Jose Concepcion Jr, the first chair of NAMFREL on the day before the 2016 Philippines elections

The 1986 Philippines snap presidential election serves as a lodestar for international democratic activists who came of age professionally during the 1980s. The successful People Power Revolution demonstrated the role that electoral participation could play in mobilizing a population to reject a fraudulent process and to overthrow a dictator. And it introduced the international community to such concepts as “domestic election monitoring” and “parallel vote tabulations,” which are now core components of the menu used by democracy promoters around the globe. Indeed, since 1986, Filipino activists have frequently been called upon to share their experiences with those contemplating how best to challenge entrenched authoritarian regimes.

I observed these developments in the Philippines first-hand. My involvement began in January 1986 when I was retained by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to serve as a consultant on a pre-election mission to determine the feasibility of organizing an international observer delegation for the February election. We decided to organize a 44-person international delegation together with NDI’s counterpart, the International Republican Institute (IRI). And when our observers came back from their election day deployments with horror stories of fraudulent practices mostly committed by Marcos supporters, I was proud of the hard-hitting, post-election statement that our delegation issued. I returned to the Philippines to observe the 1986 Constitutional plebiscite, the 1987 legislative elections and 1988 the local elections, and then summarized these electoral experiences in a NDI-published monograph entitled Reforming the Philippines Electoral Process: 1986-1988.  

And then I stopped visiting, as my attention shifted. However, this past March, I received a call from NDI's asia regional director, asking whether I would be interested in joining a pre-election mission being organized by NAMFREL, the Philippines domestic monitoring organization whose efforts played such a crucial role in exposing the 1986 fraud and whose volunteer spirit had proven so enamoring. Unfortunately, the March timing did not work given my teaching schedule. However, I realized that I would be visiting the South Pacific in early May, which meant that I would be in the region around the time of the May 9, 2016 Philippines elections.

Stepping out of the airport terminal, I felt the heat and humidity that characterizes Manila in May. My driver informed me that the trip to the hotel would take longer than normal because of a final rally by one of the presidential candidates, Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte is a foul-mouthed, tough talking, convention defying candidate, who was leading the polls in a five-candidate field. As we drove past the U.S. Embassy, the crowd walking to Luneta Park across from the hotel slowed traffic to a halt. I told my driver that I would walk the rest of the way to the hotel and got a sense of the excitement that Duterte was generating.

Despite the institutional incentives of a first-past-the-post electoral system, Filipino elections are characterized by multiple candidates competing for both president and vice president, who are elected separately (i.e., the elected president and vice president can, and often do, represent different parties). Several of the candidates’ names in 2016 were familiar from the 1980s. Miriam Defensor Santiago was an anti-corruption crusader following Marcos' ouster, ran for president in 1992, and to this day believes that she was cheated out of a victory. Her "running mate" was Bongbong Marcos, the son of the former dictator, who is now a senator (his sister is the governor of Ilocos Norte and his mother, the inimitable Imelda, is a member of Congress). Gringo Honasan also was running for vice president; he was a leader of the Reform Armed Forces Movement, which played a leading role in mobilizing the Philippine military to oppose Marcos' corrupt regime in the period preceding the 1986 election, was subsequently implicated in several coup attempts against the Aquino government, received an amnesty in 1992 and has served as a senator now for almost 20 years. And of course, the outgoing president, Noynoy Aquino, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a second term, is the son of former President Cory Aquino.

Equally familiar were the concerns about electoral fraud. Vote buying remains a major problem. The transmission of results from individual polling sites to provincial centers was a worry, despite the introduction of automatic counting machines a decade ago. I wondered why improving the credibility of the electoral process has proven so difficult.

To be fair, serious reforms were introduced by well-respected chairs of the Commission on Elections (commonly referred to as COMELEC) in the immediate post-1986 era. They reduced violence by prohibiting weapons from being brought anywhere near the polling sites and by enforcing the ban. Management reforms within COMELEC improved institutional morale and enhanced efficiency. But a series of political appointments to the COMELEC undermined these efforts. In 2004, the Philippines again experienced an electoral crisis that undermined the legitimacy of the proclaimed presidential winner, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and almost led to her impeachment.  

The day prior to the election, I met several NAMFREL stalwarts and visited their election headquarters. Former NAMFREL leaders described the organization’s evolution from the pre-eminent domestic monitoring group, which mobilized half-a-million volunteers for the 1986 election, to a limited niche role today. The task of organizing a comprehensive poll watching and vote tabulation operation and of serving as COMELEC’s principle citizen’s arm has been ceded to the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV).

True to international observer custom, I arose early on election day and arrived at a polling site for the 6 a.m. opening. A few prospective voters were present and the balloting process went smoothly. A voter would mark the ballot for president, vice president, 12 senators, one district-based member of the House, one party-list member of the House, governor, mayor and various local council members, and then insert the ballot into the automatic counting machine. Per a Supreme Court ruling, the machine would print a receipt, which the voter could review to ensure that the machine had accurately read his/her selections.

My election day guide was Jojo Castro, a prosecutor in Makati City and former NAMFREL volunteer, who accompanied me on my visits around the Greater Manila area. The NAMFREL chair for Quezon City joined us as we drove to the President Corazon Aquino Elementary School, which was allocated the largest number of voters in the greater Metro-Manila region. The visuals at this site were awful. Long lines of people were waiting in the heat to vote. There was lots of confusion directing prospective voters to their assigned polling sites. Senior citizens and pregnant women, who were supposed to be given expedited treatment, had been waiting for three hours plus. This was the type of polling site that the media loves to film, and sure enough several television station cameras were present when we arrived.  I wondered why people would remain in such heat, but having seen these scenes before I was not surprised and assumed that by the end of the day everyone would have the opportunity to vote.

One of the advantages of observing elections is that you have access to places that you otherwise would never dream of visiting. Our next stop was the men's and women's city detention centers. COMELEC had authorized voting for those detained who had not yet been convicted. Although the numbers of prospective voters in these facilities were relatively small, and the costs for implementing such a program large, the process was operating quite smoothly and the detainees appreciated exercising their right, perhaps as it provided a useful diversion from the crowded detention areas where we could see the other detainees hanging around.

After lunch, we visited a school in another part of the greater Manila area. Although the school hosted several polling sites, it was much better managed than the school we visited in the morning. We watched the closing of the polls at a school near my hotel. The counting machines worked as designed and, within minutes of entering the requisite security codes, were spitting out precinct level results for all the elections taking place. The alternative, hand-counting all the ballots would have taken hours if not days (as I recalled all too well from 1987). This automated process clearly represents a significant advance over manual counting and, given how well it worked this time, hopefully will alleviate concerns about the introduction of new technology.

By 10 p.m., more than 90 percent of the results had been tabulated by PPCRV and were being reported by all media. COMELEC reported an 81 percent turnout, an impressive number by any standard. And within a day, the four defeated presidential candidates had conceded and promised to cooperate with the winner.

One of my specific interests in pursuing this visit was to examine, through interviews with past and current activists, and through first-hand observation, the evolution NAMFREL during the past 30 years.  In the 1989 NDI monograph, I wrote:

What does the future hold for NAMFREL? Even among its former proponents, there are many who believe the organization has outlived its purpose. Marcos is gone and COMELEC appears committed to restoring a credible electoral process. Others believe that the organization still has an important role to play in both helping the government strengthen the electoral process and in undertaking other functions relative to eliminating corruption and fostering good government.

Twenty-seven years later, NAMFREL leaders past and present are reflecting on similar issues. What role should NAMFREL play between and during elections? What is required to keep the organization viable? Should the organizational mandate be expanded to include a broader range of activities (e.g., transparency in elections, performance scorecards for elected leaders)? Should the restriction on accepting foreign funding be lifted?  

For this year's elections, NAMFREL sought to crowd source election results in case the official transmission broke down or was slow in releasing results. This effort proved unnecessary, as the results based on transmitted precinct results were released within hours of the polls closing.  NAMFREL's other major task is to conduct the Random Manual Audit (RMA) to confirm that results tabulated by the Automated Counting Machines coincide with the ballots actually cast.  

Understandably, those who have been involved with NAMFREL for decades are reluctant to see it fade away. And the brand name resonates in many quarters, even with the proliferation of other organizations that perform many of the specific activities previously associated exclusively with NAMFREL. Regardless, NAMFREL has significantly contributed to the way elections are monitored around the world, and for this effort the international community of democrats will always be grateful.

Let me close with a few broader impressions from my visit. Post-1986 Philippines politics have seen ups and downs, with several coup attempts and threats, criminal prosecutions against two presidents, continued dynastic politics, corrupt governance and controversial elections, and now the election of a president with a poor human rights record during his long tenure as Mayor. However, the institutions established by the 1986 Constitution have proven resilient, even as a few constitutional changes, such as two rounds of for president/vice president, may be warranted. The country has now experienced five presidential transitions, which meets the traditional political science standard of a sustainable democracy.

Perhaps most important, under President Noynoy Aquino the economy has experienced robust growth and serious steps have been taken to combat official corruption. Still, the country has too many people living in poverty and inequality among the population is growing. Many are waiting to see how the president-elect plans on addressing these challenges, plus those posed by China's actions in the South China Sea and the future relationship with the United States; perhaps not surprisingly, his views on many issues remain opaque.

Editor's Note: Larry Garber is currently on detail from USAID to the Eisenhower School of National Security & Resource Strategy at the National Defense University.  He served as consultant to the NDI observer mission to the Philippines in 1986 and worked with NDI from 1986-93.  The views expressed in this document reflect the personal opinions of the author and are entirely the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States Government or the National Defense University.  USAID and NDU are not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied herein.