Ferdinand Marcos (1917-1989) was a nationalist president remembered as a corrupt dictator who ushered in an era of political repression and violence. In attaining and holding the presidency, he wielded charisma, vast wealth, political connections among both Filipinos and Americans, military clout, and drew upon the charm of his wife, the former beauty pageant winner Imelda Marcos.
Marcos, an Aglipayan Catholic and later a Roman Catholic, believed that he had a divine mandate to lead the Philippines and claimed to receive visions directly from God. He also drew on Philippine mythology, referring to himself as malakas (strength) and Imelda as maganda (beauty) in reference to the Philippine Adam and Eve. His relationship with the Catholic Church was largely exploitative, using the Church when it suited his political aims and understanding that it was necessary to rally popular support. However, he was ultimately defeated by the ability of the Catholic Church to mobilize the majority of the population in a concerted show of People Power.
By his second term in office, his leadership had seriously impoverished the nation (campaign expenses—some $50 million USD—led to a 50% devaluation of the Philippine peso) and Marcos was blamed directly. Leftists and student activists led protests which were violently suppressed by security forces. Marcos accused Catholic priests, many of whom were now openly criticizing him, of fomenting protests. Marcos still had many allies, including family members, politicians, and the United States government, which delivered increasing amounts of military aid to combat communism.
Marcos instituted martial law in the lead up to the 1973 elections; his two presidential terms were complete but he planned to continue to lead as the Prime Minister under a new parliamentary system. He secretly sponsored acts of public violence that would justify martial law that gave license for the arrests of those who challenged him, especially opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., but also leftist activists, academics, journalists, priests and nuns, and students. He also called for a constitutional convention and bribed political leaders such that his presidential term was extended and a parliamentary system was put in place. A variety of leftist organizations sprang up in opposition to Marcos, many of which were under the umbrella group, the National Democratic Front. Some priests and nuns joined the leftist Christians for National Liberation, and were arrested and some tortured.
Following the assassination of political opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., the Church promoted the presidential candidacy of his wife Corazon Aquino. Believing that he could once again win rigged elections, Marcos called for early presidential elections in 1986. The Church sponsored volunteers to monitor the vote; for a period it seemed that once again he would take the presidency until thirty employees of the state-run Commission on Elections (COMELEC) quit, citing election fraud, and were taken into hiding by the Church. COMELEC announced the victory, which the Church immediately decried as fraudulent, instead issuing an official statement that Corazon Aquino had won and prompting massive public protests. These included protests at the military base where defectors from Marcos’ regime were held; soldiers were met by kneeling nuns reciting the rosary along with thousands of others in a show of what is remembered as People Power.
On February 25, 1986, American helicopters airlifted Marcos and his family to Guam, then into exile in Hawaii, where he died in in 1989. Several of his family members, including his wife Imelda, have since returned to the Philippines where they have served as elected leaders.
Luis H. Francia, A History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos (New York: The Overlook Press, 2010).
"Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos during a state visit at the White House in 1966," Marion S. Trikosko for the Library of Congress, from Wikimedia Commons.
Steven Shirley, Guided by God: The Legacy of the Catholic Church in Philippine Politics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2004).
Robert Youngblood, Marcos Against the Church: Economic Development and Political Repression in the Philippines (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).