THE election of Ramon Magsaysay to the presidency of the Philippines in November 1953 was widely interpreted as the beginning of a progressive era in the history of the Islands. The new President has the genuine support of the great majority of the people of the Philippines, and is keenly aware of the many problems that face them. But the program of rural reform with which he came to office had not been worked out in much detail, and although Magsaysay has been energetic, sincere and zealous, the first year of his administration has been somewhat disappointing to the Filipinos. This need not be too surprising, for his task is hard and complicated. Some of his most difficult problems are administrative, and only experience can enable him to find the solutions.

More serious is the challenge to his leadership from factions among the politicians of the Philippines. As in the United States, the President of the Republic must have the support of Congress if he is to accomplish his major objectives. Since a substantial part of the Magsaysay program requires legislative approval, he must capitalize on his popular appeal to win the acceptance in the Philippine Congress of economic measures that are contrary to the vested interests of many of the legislators. At the same time he has to work on a personal basis with the leaders of the Congress. As might be expected, his pro-American policy has been seriously challenged, and his rural reform program has met sharp opposition.

An analysis of the 1953 election that brought Magsaysay to Malacañan reveals the nature of the political obstacles that threaten his administration and suggests what is likely to be the pattern of Philippine politics in the next few years. The campaign of 1953 was the most bitterly contested in the history of the country. In a way the fundamental issue was whether or not free and honest elections would be held in the country that is sometimes called the show window of democracy in the Far East. The success of Magsaysay, a Nacionalista, over the Liberal nominee, President Elpidio Quirino, indicated that the government of the Republic could be changed by the ballot.

The electoral campaign was fought against the background of the 1949 general election when the Liberals swept the nation with the selection of President Quirino, Fernando Lopez as Vice President, all of the eight senatorial candidates, and more than two-thirds of the house. That election, characterized by many instances of fraudulent voting and open terrorism, was never conceded by the Nacionalista presidential candidate, Jose P. Laurel, who continued to refer to President Quirino as the "squatter in Malacañan." The off-year election of 1951, on the other hand, was conducted under reasonably honest conditions, and resulted in the victory of the Nacionalista senatorial candidates along with substantial gains for the party in the provinces.

The first of the major parties to hold its national convention was the Nacionalista. On April 12, 1953, Ramon Magsaysay was chosen the party's standard bearer in a secret ballot of 702 votes to 49 for his rival Camilo Osias. Senators Laurel and Recto, the "old guard" of the Nacionalistas, had previously thrown their support to Magsaysay. This assistance not only assured Magsaysay's nomination but also meant that the two senators would hold key positions if he were elected. The Liberal convention, opening on May 24, was divided on the issue of secret balloting. The followers of candidate Quirino wanted viva voce voting and those of candidate Carlos P. Romulo called for the secret ballot. In the final voting on the issue the Quirino faction won, with the Romulo group walking out of the convention. Quirino was then unanimously acclaimed the presidential candidate of the Liberal Party. Romulo was subsequently nominated for the same office in the Democratic Party created for him.

From June 21 to August 22 when the Nacionalistas and Democrats formed a coalition against the Liberals, the Philippines witnessed an exciting three-cornered race under the Quirino-Yulo, Magsaysay-Garcia and Romulo-Lopez tickets. The party of each presidential candidate had its platform, its rules and its propaganda. But since personalities rather than platforms are more important in Philippine politics, attention should be directed to the ranking nominees.

The backgrounds and personalities of Quirino, Magsaysay and Romulo are as contrasting as colors in the rainbow. President Quirino had held the highest office of the country since April 17, 1948, when as Vice President he succeeded upon the sudden death of President Manuel Roxas. An Ilocano from Ilocos Sur, he was graduated from the college of law, University of the Philippines, and has held the offices of Congressman, Senator and at various times Secretary of Finance, Interior and Foreign Affairs. He is cosmopolitan, egotistical, shrewd and sincere in his beliefs. In poor health, and during most of this period in a Baltimore hospital, he was the oldest of the candidates.

In marked contrast, Ramon Magsaysay is young, energetic, personable and unsophisticated. Born in Zambales and still a relatively poor man, he never had an extensive formal education. A guerrilla leader against the Japanese during the Second World War, he was later twice elected to Congress and in September 1950 chosen by President Quirino to be Secretary of National Defense. In the latter office he made a splendid record in greatly reducing the menace of the Communist-led Hukbalahaps, and, during the 1951 election, in insuring relatively free and honest balloting at the polls through the use of the armed forces.

Carlos P. Romulo is the most distinguished leader in foreign affairs yet produced by the Philippines. Editor, author, soldier, he had served as resident commissioner to the United States, ambassador in Washington, chief of the Philippine delegation to the United Nations, foreign minister of the Philippines and president of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Born in Tarlac, he was educated at the University of the Philippines and Columbia. Eloquent, ambitious, capable, Romulo is better known on the world stage than in the provinces of the Philippines. The coalition of the Nacionalista and Democratic parties formed in an effort to insure the defeat of President Quirino resulted in his withdrawal as candidate.

In terms of issues it would be difficult to find any that were definitive. The opposition devoted considerable time to characterizing the administration as riddled by graft and corruption and to asserting the need for a change at Malacañan. The Quirino party called for more time to continue the program of "total economic mobilization" and raised the charge of American intervention in the politics of the Philippines. The coalition accused the administration of planning to terrorize the voters at the polls, while the Liberals accused the opposition of preaching revolution if Magsaysay lost. Quirino told the voters that if he won they would be electing two presidents, as under the constitution he could serve only two more years and Yulo as Vice President would succeed him. Magsaysay in his campaigning in the barrios informed the people that if he won he would give them roads, schools and artesian wells. Foreign policy in practical terms was not an issue in the campaign either with respect to the ratification of the Japanese peace treaty or the revision of the Bell Trade Act, the two major problems facing the occupants at Arlegui.

From the mountains and swamps to Luzon the Communist-led Hukbalahaps or People's Liberation Army viewed the campaign with interest. Definitely weakened by Magsaysay's work as Secretary of National Defense under President Quirino and following an over-all program of retrenchment until better days, the Huks supported a number of candidates in Luzon regardless of party. This policy of "critical support" caused them in practice to back certain Liberals in central Luzon and certain Nacionalistas in the northern and southern parts of the island. Quirino's charges of United States intervention were quickly supported by Luis Taruc, who asserted that "American imperialism" was the key issue in the election, and also by Moscow's Izvestia which declared that the Philippines was still "an American colony."

Amid the political turmoil of the times the Commission on Elections occupied a key position. Charged under Article X of the Constitution of the Philippines with the "enforcement and administration of all laws relative to the conduct of elections," the three Commissioners--Chairman Domingo Imperial and his two associates, Leopoldo Rovira and Rodrigo D. Perez, Jr.--rendered valiant service to the cause of democracy. Though the Commission on Elections has no powers of prosecution, it can send recommendations to the Department of Justice, and in order to insure free elections, it can deputize law agencies. In the 1953 elections the Commission authorized the use of some 17,000 men from the Philippine Constabulary, from units in training and in the reserves, and from various battalion combat teams to police the polls.

The efforts of the Commissioners to insure clean and honest elections were reinforced by a number of factors. In an unprecedented step on September 15 the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the Philippines issued a pastoral letter asserting that "God will surely punish, if the State does not, anyone who for personal or party considerations will sink so low as to prevent or sabotage free and fair elections, thus depriving the will of the people of its effect, and those whom the people choose as their representatives of their lawfully-acquired positions." Leaders of other church groups likewise called for honesty at the polls.

In another effort to arouse public opinion, the NAMFREL (National Movement for Free Elections) waged an active campaign, especially in Manila. Closely associated with its effort were the League of Women Voters and certain other civic-spirited organizations in the Philippines. The Philippine press and radio also contributed to the crusade for free elections. Although the press and radio are largely centered in Manila and their influence is limited in the vast majority of the 52 provinces, the effect of these calls for honesty and freedom at the polls was real and salutary. At the same time, however, most of the press tended to exaggerate in black headlines charges of plots and counterplots whether or not valid. The fact that the large newspapers in Manila were generally anti-administration testified to the freedom of the press.

From the constitutional viewpoint one of the rather effective but not too subtle influences on free elections was the announcement by 15 members of the Senate, all belonging to the opposition, that they would not proclaim any candidate as president elect or vice president elect if they believed his victory had been secured through fraud and terrorism. In a "Covenant" dated October 18, the senators of the Nacionalista, Democratic and Citizens Parties agreed that they would all be bound by a majority of the signatories to the pact.

The rôle of the United States was also a significant factor in the crusade for an honest and free election. Although American officials in Washington and Manila explicitly asserted that they were not taking sides in the Philippine election, they called for honesty at the polls. A substantial part of NAMFREL material was printed and distributed with the assistance of American officials. A relatively large number of American journalists visited Manila and wrote articles on the political situation, most of them favorable to the candidacy of Magsaysay; this helped create a situation that led President Quirino to accuse the Americans of intervention. Senator Laurel's remarks, rather vaguely calling for American assistance in preserving Philippine democracy, added fuel to the President's apprehensions. Although the issue of intervention did not assume overwhelming proportions, Americans in the Philippines did have a healthful influence on the conduct of the elections.

It was against this complex background that the Filipinos went to the polls. Despite the apprehension of many people, the elections were held with no more than a dozen deaths, half of these being in the traditionally troublesome province of Cavite. As widely expected, Magsaysay swept the country, receiving 2,912,992 votes to Quirino's 1,313,991. At noon November 12 the President conceded his defeat, although he later bitterly accused the Joint United States Military Advisory Group of assisting in his rival's victory. Garcia easily defeated Yulo but his margin was less than that of Magsaysay. There can be no doubt of the fact that the election was an overwhelming personal victory for the new President.

In the Senate the coalition won all eight seats. As a result, the new Senate consists of 13 Nationalistas, five Democrats and one Citizens Party member against three Liberals and one independent. The twenty-fourth seat is vacant in view of the election of Garcia to the vice presidency. In the House of Representatives the former large Liberal majority was reduced to less than one-third of the total membership of the body. Among the victors, it should be noted, the Nacionalistas far outnumbered the Democrats.

Certain significant developments stand out in retrospect. In the first place it was demonstrated that by democratic processes an opposition coalition could overthrow a well-entrenched and long-established administration. Here stress should be placed on the words "democratic processes," for a major consideration was the holding of an election generally free from fraud and terror. Although the campaign indicated that political morality was not at a high premium, the election itself revealed definite progress in political maturity. The use of soldiers to police the polls was necessary, but a practice that should eventually be terminated. Democracy in the Philippines should be able to flourish without the presence of armed men near the voting places.

A development of considerable importance in the last election was the awakening of public opinion in many of the villages of the Philippines. No leader has ever before come so close to the masses of Filipinos. In addition to Magsaysay's visits to many parts of the country, the organization of the Magsaysay-for-President Movement (M.P.M.), reaching from Manila far into the provinces, helped to focus support for the candidate. And closely associated with the M.P.M. was the Women's Magsaysay-for-President Movement, effective in organizing the feminine vote. All of this was something new and encouraging in Philippine politics, and it could mean great potential strength for the President in appealing to the people.

The election results also indicated that Magsaysay would face many difficulties in Congress. Although the Nacionalista Party holds a majority of the seats in the Senate, its leaders are by no means united in their estimate of Magsaysay or in their support of his program. They had tended to look upon him simply as the candidate most likely to defeat Elpidio Quirino, and once he became President the struggle for power in the party began in earnest. Senator Claro M. Recto emerged as the leader of the anti-Magsaysay faction among the Nacionalistas, while Senator Jose P. Laurel, whose son is Speaker of the House of Representatives, sought to maintain party unity. The Democratic senators and the one Citizens Party member who had supported the candidacy of Magsaysay found themselves in a strategic position in the struggle for leadership between Recto and the President. The controversy among the Nacionalistas came to a head on June 6, 1954, and Magsaysay triumphed temporarily at least, when, in a caucus at Malacañan, the leaders pledged all-out support for his foreign and domestic program. Magsaysay was thus recognized as the spokesman for the major policies of the party. Although Recto was not present he later stated that he would abide by the declaration of principles approved at the caucus.

The direction of Philippine foreign policy is an important issue in the controversy between Recto and Magsaysay. The victory of the Nacionalistas in the election placed them in a position to determine the attitude of the Philippines toward the rest of the world. Recto, long considered the spokesman of the party in foreign policy, believes in Asia for the Asians, in closer ties with the geographic neighbors of the Philippines, in extensive reparations from Japan, in abrogation of the Bell Trade Act under certain conditions, and in the lessening of the ties with the United States. Magsaysay is in favor of complete coöperation with the United States and is eager to maintain the intimate relations existing between the two republics. The basic differences of viewpoint between the President and the Senator on foreign policy have not been resolved.

One of the plainly encouraging consequences of the election, however, was the weakening of the Hukbalahaps, who had hoped that fraud and violence at the polls would discredit the democratic process in the Philippines. Even during the campaign, the personal popularity of Magsaysay and his promises of rural reform had weakened the peasant support of the Huks in Luzon, and when he was in office he pressed his policy of carrying the fighting to the Communist insurrectionists while endeavoring to remedy the conditions that breed revolt. In contrast with the dissidents the new administration declared that they must surrender their arms and submit for trial if accused of crime; in return it promised that those who were cleared or pardoned would be resettled with government aid. On May 17 Luis Taruc, one of the top Communist leaders, surrendered to Philippine authorities and faced trial on charges of murder, rebellion and sedition. Although the backbone of the dissidents has not yet been broken and a Communist policy of infiltration in the government, press, youth organizations and labor unions of the country is not unlikely, the surrender of Taruc added prestige to Magsaysay as an anti-Communist leader.

The more active rôle taken by the Catholic Church in domestic politics during this election may also be a portent for the future. The pastoral letter calling for free elections was a constructive forward step, but a later statement by prominent figures in the Church amounted in effect to a plea for votes for Catholic candidates and raises a number of serious questions. In his educational policy especially, President Magsaysay must cope with the always difficult problem of Church and State.

So far as international politics are concerned, President Magsaysay is off to a good start. If the charges of American intervention had been proved, or if the voters had acted as if they believed it, the reputation of the Philippines would have seriously suffered in the eyes of other newly independent and very nationalistic states in Southeast Asia. In reality, however, the election provided a good example of the processes of free democratic government--an example that should be especially helpful to Indonesia, which is still wrestling with the problem of holding a national election. Although the present influence of the Philippines in Southeast Asia is limited, it is quite possible that Magsaysay will strengthen the ties of his country with its neighbors without weakening the special relations existing with the United States, thus also strengthening the ties between America and Asia. Whether the new President can become a popular leader around whom the free nations of Asia can rally against international Communism will, however, depend upon the success with which he copes with his domestic problems.

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  • RUSSELL H. FIFIELD, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Michigan; author of "Woodrow Wilson and the Far East" and other works.
  • More By Russell H. Fifield