Corazon Aquino’s election struggles were similar to those of Morgan Tsvangirai

August 1, 2009

Corazon Aquino

Corazon Aquino was thrust to power in a contested election against a tyrant. Accusations of vote-rigging and police violence were rife. The parallels with recent events in Zimbabwe are worth examining

Corazon Aquino (January 25, 1933 – August 1, 2009) became a focus of opposition to President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines following the murder of her husband, a prominent opposition senator. She retains historical importance as Asia’s first female president.

Her story is not unique among female politicians who turned to politics as a matter of unfinished business after the death of a husband. Benazir Butto was another such world figure who herself to meet a violent end. Unlike Benazir, Aquino wrestled power from her adversaries.

A comprehensive account of Corazon Aquino’s election by Pico Iwer in Time mapped her remarkable story:

In 1986, as the global village looked on, history turned into a clash of symbols in the Republic of the Philippines, the Southeast Asian archipelago of 56 million people and more than 7,000 islands.. In a made-for-television drama watched by millions, two veteran rulers, President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, stumbled and fell.

Marcos, who had never lost a vote in his life, called a snap election. He was thus hoping to satisfy the Reagan Administration’s demands that he become more democratic. But Marcos’ plans for victory were upset by a slight, bespectacled mother of five, who had entered politics only two months earlier.

Her political strengths seemed to be her innocence of politics and the moral symbolism of her name. In Spanish, her first name meant “heart”; in Philippine politics, her second signified “martyred opposition,” in memory of her late husband Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino, once Marcos’ chief rival, who was slain on [their] his return from exile in 1983, Cory Aquino, at 53, stood in effect on a platform of faith, hope and charity.

Her campaign was to unite political opponents of Marcos, and she was swept to power in a spectacular popular uprising.

Behind the scenes, there had been intense political maneuvering. The early front-runner, Senator Salvador Laurel who was himself heir to a major political dynsasty. However, his father had been associated with the Japanese occupation, and impeached subsequently. Laurel eventually accepted that he would be better placed to campaign for vice-president on Aquino’s ticket.

The result was the popular triumph described above. After her election the self-styled housewife set about fulfilling election pledges: The BBC described the gains and eventual disappointments following her appointment.

She released political prisoners, reinstated habeas corpus and forced a number of pro-Marcos judges and generals to resign. Faced with an entrenched Marcos faction in the national assembly and provincial administrations, she took a major gamble and announced that she would rule by decree until a new constitution was written; it finally came into force in 1987.

Despite her personal popularity, her government faced a series of coup attempts from Marcos loyalists and disgruntled military officers and she decided not to run for a second term in 1992.

A Pattern of events

There are parallels with other struggles in which military and governmental groups battle for power. Opposition may be united through an emerging figure seeking to bring about radical change. The heir to a violently deposed leader ticks another box, as her claims to seeking power are easier to maintain as driven by duty rather than ambition.

Leadership Questions and Reflections

Can we extrapolate from one historical story to help us understand subsequent ones? I can’t help noting in the BBC report much that could refer to more recent elections in which efforts were made to dislodge a dominant leader:

As voters went to the polls, reports began to come in of bribes, intimidation and missing ballot boxes, as the government desperately tried to retain power. With conflicting results, both candidates claimed victory and held rival inaugurations.

That reminded my of present-day Zimbabwe (although readers may add other examples from around the world).

Just how far might we speculate on the future on Zimbabwe from the Aquino story? We might reflect on the differences between the countries. Or we may focus on the similarities of the election struggles.

If we concentrate on the latter, we might anticipate a period of bitter struggle in Zimbabwe between the forces of democracy and reform, and those of military power generally opposing such reforms.

This week [August 1st 2009] Morgan Tsvangirai met with military leaders. He, like Aquino and others before him, will find himself facing the challenge of neutralizing forces by democratic means that otherwise will prevent substantial social and economic changes from taking place.