Philippines 'People Power' Anniversary Twenty years ago this month, the People Power Movement galvanized the Philippines and ended the decades-long rule of President Ferdinand Marcos. Host Debbie Elliott looks back on the momentous -- and at times violent -- Philippine election of February 1986, with Gary Covino, a journalist who covered the event for NPR.
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Philippines 'People Power' Anniversary

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Philippines 'People Power' Anniversary

Philippines 'People Power' Anniversary

Philippines 'People Power' Anniversary

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Twenty years ago this month, the People Power Movement galvanized the Philippines and ended the decades-long rule of President Ferdinand Marcos. Host Debbie Elliott looks back on the momentous — and at times violent — Philippine election of February 1986, with Gary Covino, a journalist who covered the event for NPR.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. Twenty years ago this month the world was watching the Philippines, eager to see if People Power would bring an end to the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos. He had been in power for twenty-one years, enforcing his rule through a combination of martial law and rigged elections. It was February 1986 and a widow named Corazon Aquino was challenging Marcos for his seat.

President CORAZON AQUINO (Former Philippine President): I have been emboldened by the eager embrace of throngs determined to put an end to this régime. The forces of Pharaoh are determined to keep the people chained to their misery and there are sinister plans to cheat the people of their liberation. I ask you to send this message to the Pharaoh in language unmistakable and clear. Let our people go. Let the Philippino people go.

ELLIOTT: Corazon Aquino became the face of the Marcos opposition after her husband, Benigno Aquino, was assassinated by government operatives. Initially reluctant to run for office, Corazon who went by the nickname Cory, was urged to do so by more than a million Philippinos. These backers showed their support for Aquino and her People Power Movement by dressing in yellow, Aquino's signature color. Getting President Marcos to even hold elections was a major victory but the true test for the Marcos opposition came on Election Day, February 7, 1986. Millions of Philippinos headed to the polls and the big question was whether or not the voting would be free and fair.

Mr. GARY COVINO (Journalist for NPR): I got to the Nuevo Guadalupe Elementary School in the Makati area of Manila just after 3:00 PM, the official poll closing time.

ELLIOTT: That's Gary Covino covering the Philippine elections for National Public Radio twenty years ago. We're going to hear his dramatic reporting from that Election Day, but first he joins us on the line to help us set the scene. Welcome, Gary.

Mr. COVINO: Hi, Debbie. Nice to be talking to you.

ELLIOTT: So give us the lay of the land. What had been happening that day?

Mr. COVINO: Well, all over the country, of course, people were going to the polls. On that day I was spending my time in an area of Manila called Makati. It was a real strong hold for the opposition and for people who supported Cory Aquino. And what we witnessed were scenes of intimidation. Scenes of pick-up trucks full of what the Philippinos called flying voters. Basically pick-up trucks full of poor people being taken from one polling place to another, to another, to another, in which they would cast votes en masse for Marcos. We found poll watchers being threatened with beatings, being threatened with guns. Being forced from the polling places.

These poll watchers by the way, most of them were from a group called NAMFREL(ph), which stood for National Committee for Free Elections. On the other side of this was something called the KBL. That was the party of Ferdinand Marcos. They were the ones who were trying to intimidate voters. They were the ones who were messing around with the voting lists and knocking names of people off the lists. They were the ones who were trying to keep the voting from being free and fair.

ELLIOTT: So as the polls are closing you wind up in this public school where people had been voting.

Mr. COVINO: Yes, I wound up at a place called Guadalupe Nuevo Elementary School right at the poll closing time. The reason I was there is that in much of Makati the NAMFREL citizen poll watchers had actually been run out of the polling booths and there were no citizen poll watchers in many of the precincts in this area. However, at this one school the NAMFREL people had managed to stand their ground and stay in the classrooms.

When I got to the school I saw a sort of commotion in the entrance and I walked inside. It was a very dim, dark kind of place, a kind of cavernous place. And I saw some people near a staircase who saw me and my microphone and they motioned me to come over and join them, and that's what I did.

(Soundbite of 1986 broadcast)

Mr. COVINO (1986 Broadcast): The march up the stairs is being led by a guy with a pink chair. Several people now carrying chairs, sticks. One guy has a shovel. Chairs being thrown around. Can't see who is at the other end of the hall. NAMFREL workers charging down the hall now picking up grade school chairs as they run. Hurling them against a gate in the hallway. I'm going to move back a little.

ELLIOTT: What an incredible scene to walk into.

Mr. COVINO: Yes I know. I didn't quite know what I was getting myself into. It was a real pitched battle. And this was a huge school, so scenes just like this were happening all over the school, on several stories, several different hallways outside of many, many classrooms.

ELLIOTT: But eventually you make it into the actual classrooms where the voting had taken place and you found that the rooms had been locked and barricaded from the inside.

Mr. COVINO (1986 Broadcast): What is happening right now is the NAMFREL people who are telling their volunteers who are locked inside these classrooms to come out, that it is safe. Do they ballot boxes in there? We are in front of room 301, the classroom of Ms. Guinto. People are trying to break the door down to get at the ballot boxes. Whatever poll watchers and whatever KBL are inside. The door is open. A huge crush at the doorway. I can't see exactly what is going on inside. Get ready, here we go into the door. Huge crush of people pushing into this one little classroom. All right. The search is on for the ballot box. Everyone is gathered around a small voting booth. What they've gotten out is from this little cubicle where the voting takes place they have gotten one box. Is that an official ballot box?

Unidentified Woman: Yeah, that is an official ballot box.

Mr. COVINO: A nun here is guarding the box. She's got her habit on with a NAMFREL t-shirt over it. She said they hid the box in the corner here and they've been guarding it. Still locked.

ELLIOTT: There's a lot going on there, but one thing: a nun guarding the ballot box?

Mr. COVINO: Well, yeah, and many of the people guarding the ballot boxes and barricaded in these classrooms in this school were religious people and they were also middle class people, mostly women. I think you have some tape of me talking with one woman who was guarding one of the ballot boxes in one of the classroom by sitting on it.

Unidentified Woman 2 (1986 Broadcast): I'm trying to keep the box where it is suppose to be.

Mr. COVINO: Are you a teacher?

Unidentified Woman 2: No I'm a housewife who has just volunteered to be an inspector.

Mr. COVINO: Did you know what you were getting into when you volunteered?

Unidentified Woman 2: I thought I did, but now that it actually happened I don't think. But at least I can say I've tried. You know, we have all done our part.

Mr. COVINO: Do you feel proud that you managed to save that thing?

Unidentified Woman 2: Oh yes. I'm proud of the man who guided us, because if they got in I don't think I would have risked my life, you know? When people are armed, you can't fight them.

ELLIOTT: Your report that day foreshadowed the trouble that would come after that 1986 election. President Marcos and Aquino both claimed victory. There were mass protests in support of Aquino and evidently Marcos fled the country on February 25th. Corazon Aquino was immediately sworn in as President and remained in office until 1992. Gary Covino, listening back to this tape now, twenty years later, what impressed you most about the People Power Revolution?

Mr. COVINO: Well, you know, when I think back on it, the thing that impressed me the most was this. When we asked Philippinos who do you support, who do you want to win, they would say Cory Aquino. Then if we asked them who do you think is going to win, almost invariably they would say Ferdinand Marcos. They were convinced that Marcos would use whatever tactics were necessary to once again retain power.

So they made a choice against what their mind and experience told them and instead they voted for what their heart and their spirit told them to do, and it's one of the most impressive things I've ever seen in my entire life.

ELLIOTT: Gary Covino is an independent radio producer. He spoke to us from his home in Massachusetts. Thank you.

Mr. COVINO: Thank you, Debbie. Glad to be with you.

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