04 August 2017

Dr. Jose P. Laurel and the “Dirtiest Election” in Philippine Electoral History

Both pictures above in the public domain.
Many readers will have heard of Dr. Jose Paciano Laurel, born in 1891 in what was then the town of Tanauan in Batangas, from secondary school history lessons. He was twice elected to the Philippine Senate, the first time in 1925 when the country was still an American colony; and again in 1951 when the Philippines were already a fledgling independent republic. In 1936, he was also appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

He is arguably best remembered, and not necessarily fondly so, as the President of the Second Philippine Republic, for all intents and purposes a puppet state set up by the Japanese in 1943 in pretense of a partnership or alliance with the Philippines instead of conquest which was really the case1.

In 1944, Laurel was even forced to declare war on the United States, something that according to Maria Roseny B. Fangco he resisted for as long as he could knowing that this stance put his own life at risk2. Although he did so, it was on the condition that Filipinos would not have to fight.

Understandably, when World War II ended in 1945, Laurel was charged with 132 counts of treason. The Japanese had earlier taken him to Japan, but there the victorious Americans took him into custody and had him returned back to the Philippines to face charges3.

On the face of things, Laurel appeared to have been a “collaborator” with the Japanese. However, Fangco wrote that when Manuel L. Quezon, President of the Philippine Commonwealth, went into exile after the American surrender to the Japanese in 1942, the “reins of government were left in the hands of Jose Vargas, who was the mayor of Manila, and Jose P. Laurel, the Secretary of Justice…”

In other words, Laurel was being left behind, in a manner of speaking, to mind the house. He was of the opinion that it would be in the best interest of the country if he and other government officials remained “at their posts to maintain a semblance of government and to protect the people to the greatest extent whenever and wherever possible2.”

Fortuitously for Laurel, in 1948 President Manuel Roxas, first of the Third Philippine Republic, issued a general amnesty that freed him before he could be brought to trial. Three years later, he returned to the Senate having amassed the highest number of votes among the elected senators. This meant a lot to Laurel because the overwhelming votes meant to him that his reputation remained intact in spite of the less than savory role he had to play during the Japanese occupation.

Meanwhile, in 1949, he ran for the presidency against the Liberal Party’s Elpidio Quirino. The latter was elected Vice-President to Manuel Roxas, who won in the 1946 Philippine General Elections to become the first President of the Third Philippine Republic after independence from the United States was finally granted. Roxas, however, did not finish his term. He died of a heart attack in April of 1948. This meant that Quirino had to be sworn in as President soon after and was the incumbent President when the 1949 elections took place4.

Apparently, Laurel never stood a chance against Quirino, who was described by Jennifer Conroy Franco as “the notoriously corrupt President whose massive use of state ‘machinery, money, facilities and personnel’ and extraordinary manipulation of the process” led to his win in the 1949 elections5.

A chapter in “The Philippines Reader: a History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Dictatorship and Resistance” described the elections as “a landmark of dishonesty” and estimated that as much as ⅕ of the total ballots cast were spurious or not valid6.

That same chapter cited the observations of a Reader’s Digest contributor who noted that “every device known to fraudulent elections was used… Filipinos sadly wisecracked that even the birds and the bees voted in some precincts.” Meanwhile, the New York Times was also cited as having called the elections “the costliest and most violent” in the annals of the Philippines.

In his book, Walter C. Ladwig III wrote that Quirino actually began strengthening his position even before the 1949 elections took place by providing “patronage” funds to provincial officials at the expense of the national budget. According to Ladwig, the US Embassy received widespread reports that the Liberal Party’s “enforcers” had electoral registers falsified, valid ballots destroyed and replaced with invalid ones, shut down local newspapers and harassed rural opposition leaders7.

Quirino did not have things all his own way. For instance, in the town of Batangas, prominent officials refused to accept the apparently fraudulent victory of the Liberal Party and turned to arms. On November 1949, supporters of the Nacionalista party’s Laurel rose up and took control of a few of the town’s major facilities, even disarming local policemen until they were forced to surrender when reinforcements arrived from neighboring towns8.

In the end, despite the upheavals, Quirino was sworn in as the Third Republic’s second elected President. As already mentioned, Laurel ran and overwhelmingly won in the 1951 senatorial elections. He was widely encouraged to run again for the Presidency in 1953, but declined and preferred instead to devote all his energies to supporting his party-mate Ramon Magsaysay’s campaign.

In a way, therefore, Magsaysay’s landslide victory over Quirino was not just a sort of “revenge” for Laurel but, more importantly, an affirmation of the widely held belief that he was the legitimately elected President back in 1949. That, indeed, the elections of that year were the “dirtiest” has to be seen, needless to say, within the perspective of time.

It was only the fourth presidential elections held since the establishment of the Philippine Commonwealth and just the second after independence from colonial rule. There had been twelve presidential elections held since. Doubtless there will be those who will argue that some of these were far dirtier than those held in 1949.

Notes and references:
1 Along with other details of this article, from “José P. Laurel,” Wikipedia.
2 Along with other details of this article from “Bantayog: Discovering Manila through its Monuments,” by Maria Roseny B. Fangco, published 2008 by the Foreign Service Institute, Department of Foreign Affairs.
3Historical Dictionary of United States-Southeast Asia Relations,” by Donald E. Weatherbee, published 2008 in Maryland, USA.
4Manuel Roxas,” Wikipedia.
5Elections and Democratization in the Philippines,” by Jennifer Conroy Franco, published 2001 in New York.
6The Philippines Reader: a History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Dictatorship and Resistance,” edited by Daniel B. Schirmer and Stephen Rosskamm Shalom, published 1987 in the United States.
7The Forgotten Front: Patron-Client Relationships in Counter Insurgency,” by Walter C. Ladwig III, published 2006 in the United Kingdom.
8History and Cultural Life of the Poblacion (Batangas Town),” by the Department of Education District of Batangas.

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