From 1965 to 1986, Ferdinand Marcos successfully perpetuated his kleptocratic dictatorship, including through the imposition of martial law (1972-1981) and election fraud. As his autocratic rule stretched from years into decades, political unrest and public outrage intensified with the country’s economic collapse in the 1980s, the systematic suppression of political rights, and the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino, Jr. in 1983.
Amid domestic and international pressure, Marcos surprised the world on November 3, 1985, when, during a US television interview on “This Week with David Brinkley,” he publicly declared that he was prepared to face a “snap” (rapid, early) election and prove that he continued to retain the support of the Philippine people. He also committed to inviting outside observers. The legislature affirmed his pronouncement and set February 7, 1986, as the election date.
The snap election surprised NDI as well. Just over two years after its founding, NDI had not planned to enter the realm of election observation. However, seeing a strong challenge presented to Marcos by Corazon Aquino, Benigno’s widow, who was unifying the opposition, and recognizing the potential for crisis, NDI and the National Republican Institute for International Affairs (NRIIA now renamed the International Republican Institute), decided to jointly observe the Philippines vote.
To better understand the task, NDI’s then-president Brian Atwood reached out to the International Human Rights Law Group and its Legal Director, Larry Garber. Garber prepared the 1984 Guidelines for International Election Observation as a consequence of the Law Group’s effort to base that activity on human rights principles and fact-finding methodologies. That led to Garber serving as NDI Senior Associate from 1988 to 1993, directing its electoral programming as the Institute assumed a leading role in the election observation arena.
Comprehensive Observation Model: Importantly, the observation model adopted for the Philippines, which served as a wellspring for NDI assessing more than 150 elections since 1986, took a holistic, politically impartial approach to examining the electoral and broader political environment. It included pre- and post-election elements as well as an election-day delegation of political leaders and election experts from several countries, which ensured political neutrality and geopolitical credibility. The model recognized the significance of credible domestic (citizen) election monitoring, which also became a hallmark of NDI’s work in subsequent decades.
In January 1986, NDI and NRIIA sent a joint team to the Philippines that included the heads of both institutes, their deputies, Garber, and another elections expert to examine the feasibility of credibly assessing the snap election. The team concluded that it would be possible for an international observer effort “working with Filipino authorities and accredited citizens’ groups to evaluate the fairness” of the electoral process. It flagged significant pre-election manipulations, heavy pro-government media bias, the potential for fraud and noted encouragement from the two main parties and citizen groups to deploy observers.
That evaluation led to the first international election observation mission for either institute, which included a 44-member joint NDI-NRIIA delegation drawn from 19 countries. The delegation was led by Misael Pastrana, former president of Colombia, and John Hume, Northern Ireland political leader and member of both the British and European parliaments. The delegation was present in the Philippines from January 26 to February 19. Its stated goals made clear that it would offer an independent, impartial assessment of the electoral process.
NAMFREL: NAMFREL’s modern form took shape in 1983. Ties to the Catholic Church and business community helped establish its nonpartisan bona fides, organizational strength, and subsequent acceptance by politicians and COMELEC, which designated NAMFREL as its “citizens arm” to help ensure free and fair elections.
For the 1984 legislative elections, NAMFREL recruited 200,000 volunteers to raise citizen confidence at the polls and deter violence. The volunteers also relayed voting results from their assigned polling stations, which NAMFREL tabulated in its Operation Quick Count. For the 1986 snap presidential election, it mobilized over 500,000 volunteers across the country. Despite obstructions, NAMFREL tabulated results from 70 percent of the nation’s polling sites, which indicated a clear Aquino victory. That provided a factual basis for the People Power Revolution.
Decades later, NAMFREL continues to actively carry out its electoral watchdog, advocacy and educational roles in the Philippines and internationally. At a May 2023 electoral reform meeting in Manila, COMELEC Commissioner Nelson Celis honored NAMFREL’s ongoing contribution, saying: “NAMFREL has remained steadfast in its pursuit of transparency, accountability, and inclusivity... Their unwavering commitment to progress and their relentless pursuit of fair and safe elections have set a shining example for us all.”
The mission communicated with the official U.S. presidential delegation led by Senator Richard Lugar and liaised with the nonpartisan National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) and others as it received briefings and conducted meetings with a broad cross-section of electoral stakeholders.
Exposing Election Fraud: NDI-NRIIA observer teams visited more than 1,500 precincts during February 7th’s voting and concentrated on the post-voting transfer of ballot boxes to canvassing centers and results tabulation. That necessitated teams remaining on the job for two days beyond the election. The observers noted large-scale vote buying, intimidation of poll watchers and voters by armed thugs, and extra-legal delays in vote counting.
At the mission’s February 9 press conference, Misael Pastrana stated that the delegation witnessed irregularities and deliberate abuses aimed at affecting the electoral outcome. He added: “We cannot determine at this point whether the extent of this activity will affect the overall result of the elections, but the potential exists, and we would be remiss if we did not publicly acknowledge this fact.” John Hume noted that the wrongdoings observers witnessed were largely carried out by “officials who were supporters of the government.” The delegation left a small team on the ground to monitor the vote count and evaluate evidence of fraud.
The delegation’s findings were widely reported in the Philippine and international media, which brought attention to the developing fraud in the tabulation process. Later that day, several delegation members attended a press conference at the Baclaran Church, where well over a dozen computer operators who walked off their jobs at the national election commission (COMELEC) announced that election results were being manipulated for a Marcos victory. Electoral officials also were obstructing NAMFREL from collecting polling station results, which were needed to complete its parallel tabulation of the official count.
The National Catholic Bishops’ Conference denounced the election as “the most fraudulent in Philippine history,” commended the honest computer operators and NAMFREL volunteers, and called for a nonviolent struggle to honor the people’s vote. NAMFREL’s chair issued a similar statement.
Members of the NDI-NRIIA delegation, upon return to their respective countries, denounced the fraud. NDI testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, bringing the Institute considerable attention on Capitol Hill for the first time. The joint mission’s final report detailed the various forms of manipulation, which added to the mission’s impact. Senator Lugar spoke with President Ronald Reagan, who eventually criticized the election’s conduct, signaling a shift in the U.S. relationship with Marcos.
Witnessing “People Power”: Events in the Philippines developed rapidly as the now famous nonviolent civil resistance movement – the “People Power Revolution” – emerged and brought Marcos’ authoritarian regime to an end. When the legislature declared Marcos the victor on February 15, hundreds of thousands began to protest. Seven days later, the Defense Minister and Armed Forces Vice Chief of Staff declared that they had broken with Marcos. When Marcos ordered their arrest, the president of the National Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Archbishop of Manila called on the Philippine people to surround the military headquarters in Manila to thwart pro-Marcos forces from moving on it. Throngs took up the call and formed human barricades.
On February 25, under pressure from the People Power demonstrations and considerable international pressure, Marcos left the Philippines for exile in Hawaii. Corazon Aquino was recognized as President and began a process that led to the February 1987 constitutional plebiscite, legislative elections that May, and local elections in January 1988. NDI sent teams to each of those polls, resulting in a comprehensive report entitled Reforming the Philippine Electoral Process: Developments 1986-88.
As an innovation, the Institute used the 1987 legislative elections to help civic groups elsewhere in the world learn about election monitoring and electoral integrity. In addition to observing the election process, delegates from nine countries learned about Philippine electoral reforms and the development of NAMFREL. Many of the delegates subsequently put their experience to work at home - including those who helped found the nonpartisan citizen election monitoring effort whose quick count played a decisive role in Chile’s 1988 plebiscite, which brought General Augusto Pinochet’s rule to an end.
Legacy of 1986 Philippine Election to Domestic and International Election Observation: From 1986 onward, NDI has helped promote the practices of international election observation, nonpartisan citizen election monitoring, and electoral reform advocacy around the world as critical elements of advancing and defending democracy.
NDI drew on NAMFREL’s example and has often acted in partnership with NAMFREL leaders to advance the networking of election monitoring organizations. NAMFREL leader Damaso (Dami) Magbual chaired the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) and was the first chair of the Global Network of Domestic Election Monitors (GNDEM), which NDI supports and includes more than 250 NGO members in more than 85 countries. Citizen election monitoring groups, which NDI has assisted in scores of countries, play a vital role in safeguarding the integrity of election processes and their outcomes through a wide range of monitoring and advocacy activities, including their quick counts (also referred to as Parallel Vote Tabulations, PVTs, or Process and Results Verifications for Transparency, PRVTs).
In its work with a variety of intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations over the years, NDI helped build consensus leading to the 2005 Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation. The declaration is now endorsed by more than 50 organizations and recognized with appreciation in UN General Assembly resolutions. The ongoing processes around the declaration, a similar declaration by citizen election monitors, and cooperation among the international and citizen election observation communities play vital roles today in promoting international standards and defending national elections.
NDI has also helped the international community to recognize and support the rights of citizens to monitor and advocate for electoral integrity in their countries. A recent example is the October 2022 statement by UN special rapporteurs recognizing that citizen and international election observers deserve protections as human rights defenders.
Today, NDI remains committed to defending the people’s vote by promoting innovation and cooperation in both the international and citizen election monitoring communities. That commitment continues to be inspired by its experience in the 1986 snap election in the Philippines.
Author: Pat Merloe, Strategic Advisor to NDI
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.