Reflections on the 1986 Snap Election and the People Power Revolution
On February 6, 2021, the former U.S. Secretary of State, George Shultz, died peacefully at age 100. For most Americans and Filipinos, his passing would be meaningless. To them, Secretary Shultz was just another American from the past.
For me, Secretary Shultz deserves a coveted place in Philippine history. It is ironic that he died a one day before the 35th anniversary of the Feb. 7, 1986 Snap Election. When you factor in the time difference between Washington D.C. and Manila, he most likely died on the anniversary.
The Snap Election of 1986 was the immediate cause of the down fall of Ferdinand Marcos. The long dictatorial reign of Marcos rapidly unraveled following his rampant fraud and interference in the election. Marcos, who had one year left on his “democratic” presidential term, thought that he could appease American critics of his crony capitalism, like Secretary Shultz, by holding a Snap Election.
Most American conservative commentators and members of the Reagan Administration thought that the continuing support of Macros was the only option in Philippines. To them, the choice was either Marcos or a communist takeover by the New People’s Army. Some conservatives argued that the Philippines would become similar to Cambodia under the murderous Khmer Rouge. To them, there was no middle ground or moderate political, social, or business opposition to Marcos.
Secretary Shultz understood the political, social, and business nuances in the Philippines. He also knew that President Reagan was a huge proponent and friend of Marcos. As Governor of California, Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, made a trip to Manila in 1969 where they were lavishly wined and dined by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.
With skills developed from a long career in government and private industry, George Shultz was able to lead an opposition coalition within the U.S. government against Marcos in the aftermath of the Snap Election. Eventually, Secretary Shultz was able to convince President Reagan that it was in America’s strategic interest to cut the cord with Marcos. If Reagan would have held firm to Marcos, the outcome of the EDSA Revolution could have been radically different.
I was a minor observer in the Philippines during the weeks leading to the Snap Election. I had watched Marcos’ November 3, 1985 appearance on “This Week with David Brinkley” announcing the Snap Election for February 7, 1986. I immediately asked my history thesis advisor, Dr. Farber, and my university’s International Studies advisor, Dr. Mason, if I could design an Independent Study course on the Snap Election. I had already enrolled and scheduled a trip to the Philippines to conduct research for my master’s thesis on Philippine-American history. With little hesitation and clear guidelines, my advisors approved the course.
There was another reason for the trip to the Philippines. My wife had not seen her family in San Fernando, Pampanga Province for over five years. We had planned to spend the month of January 1986 in the Philippines and longer if needed. My wife was supportive of my historical research, but she was very concern for me asking questions about the election. She stressed that politics in the Philippines could be a blood sport and that it could be my blood. With the boldness and naiveté of a young man in his twenties, I did not heed her advice.
On New Year’s Day 1986, my wife, our five year old daughter, infant son, and I boarded a Japanese Airline flight to Manila via Tokyo. We spent one night at a hotel outside of Narita International Airport waiting for our flight to Manila the next day. As we reentered the airport on a shuttlebus, we had to disembark the bus and pass through Japanese security. There was an armored vehicle with a machine gun staring directly at us. My wife and I tightly held our children as we cleared the intimidating check point. Immediately, I thought that if it was this bad in Japan, what would it be like in the Philippines.
My fears of arriving at Ninoy Aquino International Airport were unfounded. Everything was peaceful and hospitable. The Immigration Officer even stamped “Balikbayan” in my U.S. Passport.
As we traveled through the streets of Metro Manila, I witnessed multiple political campaigns. The political signs for the opposition said “TAMA NA SOBRA NA.” The campaign signs for Marcos stated “Marcos PARIN.” My first impression of the Snap Election campaign was that Marcos had miscalculated. It was obvious to me that there was a sizable amount of pent-up opposition and hatred of the Marcos regime.
During my travels and history research throughout Manila, Central Luzon, Bataan, and Baguio, the people that I spoke to never had any hesitation in talking about and discussing the election. Most of the people that I met were strongly against Marcos. Clearly, there was not any fear of retribution. There was an abundance of newspapers that carried scathing opinion columns against Marcos. There were some reports in newspapers and television stations of the traditional “Goons, Guns, and Gold,” but I did not encounter any. In general, I witnessed a peaceful election campaign.
One observation that I had was the political development of Cory Aquino. As the campaign progressed, her public speaking, persona, and retail political skills were budding by the day. She was still able to maintain the stereotype of the reluctant house wife thrown into the political fray, but she had become a world-class politician before my eyes.
Another observation that I had was the deteriorating health of Ferdinand Marcos. The more I saw Marcos on television and a couple campaign events, it was hard to believe that people would vote for a person in his physical condition. His face was obviously puffy, and he was so weak that his aides had to carry him on stage at times. He looked like a caricature of the handsome and vigorous Marcos from the 1960s and 1970s.
We departed the Philippines just a few days before the Snap Election. I tried to convince my wife and father-in-law that I should volunteer to be an international observer. I lost the argument. They emphatically said that it was time for us to leave. My witnessing of history in the making was over.
I am proud to say that I received an A- on my Independent Study paper. During the subsequent events after the Snap Election, I became the “resident expert” on what was happening in the Philippines. Now that thirty-five years have passed, the one thing that makes me most elated today is that the People Power Revolution became the world’s model for ousting long-term dictators.
Dennis Edward Flake is the author of three books on Philippine-American history. He is Public Historian and a seasonal park ranger in interpretation for the National Park Service at the Eisenhower National Historic Site in Gettysburg, PA. He can be contacted at: [email protected]