Eleksyon ’49: The Dirtiest Election in Philippine History

“Every epoch has its own heroes and every hero has his own epoch.”
— President Elpidio Quirino

With less than a year remaining, the Philippines will be electing another man/woman in office, the Presidency of the country, and yet many politicians have started their political campaigns already. Many observers are wary of the typical and usual political malpractice in ensuring victory.

But 60 years ago, political participation was still the same as today though its not that quite sophisticated because of the absence of mobile phones and television, cheating and intimidation was rampant when the country was still reeling from post-war reconstruction, growing Communist insurgency and rampant lawlessness in the countryside.

It has a strange twist of parallelism with the current political situation of the country wherein the government was dominated by the ruling party. As a matter of fact, President Elpidio Quirino and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo have something in common and that they inherited the presidency.

As for President Quirino’s case, the Philippines was still struggling to reconstruct itself back to the day it was. After the United States gave the Philippines independence on July 4, 1946, the country is now left on its own to survive even though the country received much of the World War II reparations in Asia from the Japanese government. Private armies, brigands and hoodlums, and Communist partisans — who used to wage guerilla wars against the Japanese army have turned their attention on corrupt political kingpins — have made the country a gangland.

President Quirino’s predecessor, President Manuel Roxas, was successful in getting rehabilitation aid from the United States at the price of giving the Americans strategic military bases in Subic and Clark Field. And one of the unforeseen consequences of the U.S.-Philippine defense agreement was the American “secret war” against the Communists and left-wing elements in the country. It is also an open secret that the Central Intelligence Agency may have meddle in the country’s foreign and domestic affairs. It was during this time that the Hukbalahap were at the peak of its power and popularity because it seems that the government was helpless in preventing widespread lawlessness and the fact that most of the provincial and local government were corrupt.

Because of President Roxas’ heavy-handed approach against the partisans, there was widespread discontentment by the peasants and so it is not surprising that many asked protection from the partisans instead from the local authorities. Unfortunately, President Roxas died from a heart attack on April 15, 1948, while having a speech at Clark Air Base.

President Quirino inherited the presidency and just like any political successor who wasn’t elected, it is interesting to point out that he doesn’t have the political mandate to rule the country. Its a big challenge to fill in the shoes of one’s predecessor. And so in order to gain political legitimacy, getting reelected by a popular vote is the only way to gain political mandate. And so as President Quirino is about to finish the remaining years of the late President Roxas’ term, he filed his candidacy for reelection as President of the Philippines.

Historically, an incumbent has always the entire political machinery that could topple any aspiring presidentiable. And two people are standing on the way for President Quirino’s reelection — Jose P. Laurel (the President of the Japanese-sponsored government) of the Nationalista Party and Jose Avelino of the Liberal Party (it was a different faction from the administration party).

According to “The Magsaysay Story” by Carlos P. Romulo and Marvin M. Gray, publisher of the Manila Evening News, they accused President Quirino of widespread fraud and intimidation of the opposition by military action, calling it the “dirty election”.

In the run-down to the coming elections, political dirty tricks were already being played out as the political candidates from the local to the national elections played their hearts out to “buy” political favor from their constituents.

According to Thomas B. Bruell in his book “The quiet warrior: a biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance,” armed thugs were hired by the Liberal Party to frighten away opposition voters while ballot boxes were stuffed with phony ballots while in transit from distant regions to Manila, where they are counted. These dirty tactics are still the classic choice of actions traditional politicians do. Mr. Bruell summed it up in a statement like this: ‘Brute force, not votes, had been the deciding factor in the past elections.’

And so these dirty tactics were enough to ensure President Quirino’s victory in the election as the elections results showed:

Nominee                   Running Mate           Popular Vote
Elpidio Quirino (Liberal)           Fernando Lopez           1,803,808 (50.93%)
José P. Laurel (Nationalista)    Manuel Briones            1,318,330 (45.71%)
José Avelino (Liberal*)             Vicente J. Francisco        419,890 (11.85%)
* – a rival faction

It is interesting to note that Senator Jose Avelino may have been used to capture potential votes for Jose P. Laurel. The elections may have been either way of the 400,000 votes may go to Laurel’s favor. It was the only time in Philippine history where the duly elected president, vice president and senators all came from the same party, the Liberal Party. The senators, both from President Quirino’s faction, that won were: Quintin Paredes, Esteban R. Abada, Lorenzo Sumulong, Enrique B. Magalona, Tomas L. Cabili, Macario Peralta, Jr., Justiniano Montano, and Teodoro de Vera.

Many questioned the disputed election, thus in turn tarnished the reputation of President Quirino’s credibility of stopping government corruption and the growing power of the Hukbalahaps in the countryside. Many thought that the American intelligence agency may have a hand in the election turnout. Its not surprising that an unpopular government may put American interests in jeopardy. Mr. Bruell pointed out that the Philippine government was established as the “showcase of democracy” in Asia. In an Asia threatened by communism, the Philippines were “proof” to other Asians that democracy could work for them as well, Mr. Bruell adds.

President Quirino may have started to permanently put his foothold in the presidency for good and as rumors of the administration planning to have repeat “performance” for the next elections. Mr. Bruell relates that another victory by President Quirino in the next elections may instigate a nationwide uprising and a possible Communist takeover.

Despite term limits that safeguard the democratic institutions, leaders have tried to evade the law by propping up “Kamag-anak Incorporated” to further their political power. It is not surprising that some politicians resort to propaganda and rampant cheating to stay in power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And after four years in power, President Quirino suffered a humbling defeat from former Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay. The election of 1953 reversed the political climate of the country as the Nationalista Party destroyed the Liberal Party’s political control.

In a book entitled “Democracy, Accountability, and Representation” by Adam Przeworski, Susan Carol Stokes, and Bernard Manin, they said that in 22 presidents who faced reelection without impending term limits, only 14 were not reelected, and of those only 6 can be counted as real defeats by incumbents like the case of Quirino who was defeated by Magsaysay in 1953 as well as President Carlos Garcia was defeated by Diosdado Macapagal in 1961.

This reason can be attributed to the fear that presidentialism gives an excessive advantage to the incumbents and as South American liberator Simon Bolivar would say “We elect monarchs whom we call presidents.” Thus the fear of presidents turning into monarchs was the reason for imposing term limits.

President Quirino’s defeat in 1953 may have been a lead bullet with a colateral damage that lead to the untimely death of President Magsaysay four years later. Ex-President Quirino never ran for public office again and died on February 29, 1956. The Philippines is still suffering from archaic political practices and still looking for political stability.

Come 2010, lets vote wisely and learn from the dark past of the 1949 elections so that we can select the right people to run our country and exorcise the demons that made our country ill.

This entry was published on June 14, 2009 at 1:05 pm. It’s filed under Election, History, Political History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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