The most important, unresolved issue surrounding the Philippine elections and their aftermath is the extent of American involvement. Were the Americans hoping to bolster support for Marcos or get rid of him? What was the American attitude towards the elections themselves – were they seen as a democratic test, however limited, of popular opinion or merely a showcase display to prop up Reagan’s old friend in Manila? How much was the American government covertly determining events?
For a number of extraordinary months, I was in the Philippines actively involved in the elections, and I know from my experience there that the new government in Manila has every interest in setting the record straight. In the coming months, both the left and the Marcos right will try to undermine the legitimacy of President Aquino by quoting Reagan’s self-serving claims to have successfully supported her and her ‘fellow freedom fighters’ in the Philippines. It is extremely important that we know what really happened.
A reasonable starting point is October 1985, when Reagan sent his friend, Senator Paul Laxalt, to Manila. Laxalt’s job was not merely to tell Marcos that the United States was impatient with the absence of reform in the Philippines, but also to stress that this impatience was felt by both the White House and the State Department. In its content the message was not new, but in the past it had always been conveyed by the State Department. It was also a message that Marcos, a shrewd manipulator of Washington politics, had always dismissed as emanating from his enemies in the American bureaucracy acting without the sanction of his greatest supporter, Ronald Reagan. (Marcos did indeed have enemies and had suspected – correctly – that there was a group of State Department officials who had already decided early last year that his time as president should end, and that it was essential to prepare for the transfer of power; at one point, several key officials even considered organizing a military coup.) Laxalt was the first to impress on Marcos that the American Ambassador in Manila, Stephen Bosworth, and others in the State Department spoke for the whole administration, and it was the administration’s view that Marcos should start preparing for free and fair presidential elections to be held in 1987. The intention was that Marcos would not be a candidate. Marcos, instead, announced that he would hold ‘snap’ elections to prove that he still had the people’s confidence. The State Department had no interest in an immediate election – it would take at least until 1987 to establish Marcos’s chosen successor at the polls – and, with the opposition in disarray, without a candidate or a clear programme or even, for that matter, access to the media, Marcos had, in effect, trapped the Americans into going along with an election grossly weighted in his own favour.