The Makings of a Constitutional Dictator

When Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law in the Philippines, he used his constitutionally legal powers to concentrate all state authority in himself.

However, this would not be the last time Marcos would use technicalities in his mandate as head of state to obtain even greater power. In mere months following September 1972, Marcos had already set in motion an elaborate plan that would eliminate his checks and balances from both the other branches of government and the Filipino people at large.

In everything he did, Ferdinand Marcos took great pains to ensure that his actions would align with the dictates of the law. When necessary measures fell outside the scope of existing laws, he changed the laws to suit his needs before proceeding.

For implementing such a strategy his rapid ascent to what seemed at the time like absolute power, Marcos has been labeled a constitutional dictator.

Absolute Power

In any democracy, checks and balances are vital. The basic idea is that no single individual has all the power, so that he is unable to abuse it. Power is ideally distributed among various bodies so that they may dispense their duties efficiently, and balance each other’s exercise of authority.

The Philippine government is generally divided into three branches: the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. Following the same principle of checks and balances, the President (executive) must thus approve laws passed by Senate and Congress (legislative), while the Supreme Court (judicial) may judge the constitutionality of the President’s actions.

Toward strengthening his dictatorial powers, Marcos made sure to disrupt this democratic setup. While he already had control of the executive branch as the President, he proceeded to take over all other functions that the government had mandate over. In effect, Marcos gave himself total control over the nation.

In General Order No. 1, signed September 22, 1972, Marcos declared:

Now, therefore, I, Ferdinand E. Marcos, President of the Philippines, by virtue of the powers vested in me by the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, do hereby proclaim that I shall govern the nation and direct the operation of the entire Government, including all its agencies and instrumentalities, in my capacity and shall exercise all the powers and prerogatives appurtenant and incident to my position as such Commander-in-Chief of all the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

By taking control over the entire government, Marcos put himself in a position of absolute power over the laws of the land, with no legitimate body in existence to hold him in check. He personally appointed every provincial governor, city mayor, and municipal mayor throughout the nation. Throughout his term, he issued 1941 presidential decrees, 1331 letters of instruction, and 896 executive orders. His word was law.

A New Constitution

As it became clear that Marcos could indeed exercise absolute power over the Philippine government, one more thing had to be secured: the indefinite extension of this power. In the 1935 Constitution, in effect at the time of Marcos’s first and second terms of office, limited the Presidency to a total of 2 four-year terms.

Marcos’s solution? He promulgated a change of Constitution, which included the replacement of Congress with the single-chamber Batasang Pambansa (National Assembly). The new proposed government would have a Batasang Pambansa composed of popularly elected legislators, a symbolic head of state in the President, and a Prime Minister who would be head of government, elected by the assembly.

One crucial provision was that the Prime Minister would retain his powers unless the assembly made it known that they had lost their confidence in him or the President nominated a successor. Moreover, transitory provisions in the 1973 Constitution assigned Marcos a term extension as President.

Even before the declaration of Martial Law, a Constitutional Convention had already been put in place since 1971 to review and propose amendments to the existing constitution. On November 29, 1972, the Convention approved their proposed Constitution, and the following day it was submitted by the President for ratification by the Filipino people.

This move was questioned by some legislators. How could a Constitution be ratified by the Filipino people in a state with neither Congress nor free speech? Nonetheless, the President ordered the organization of Citizen Assemblies, wherein citizens would be asked whether they approved of the New Society, whether they liked the reforms instituted under Martial Law, whether Congress should be opened again, and when the Constitution should be ratified.

In Proclamation No. 1102, Marcos announced that 95% of citizens at the Citizen Assemblies approved of the new Constitution. This announcement was also questioned, in a landmark case known as Javellana vs. Executive Secretary, wherein Josue Javellana questioned the power the President to call for Citizen Assemblies, and the power of the assemblies themselves to ratify the Constitution. Others alleged that the Citizen Assemblies themselves had been conducted unscrupulously, with force and deception. However, the case was dismissed by the Supreme Court, therefore allowing the 1973 Constitution to take full effect.

Marcos had thus succeeded in fulfilling his plans to obtain power. After transitory provisions lived out their course, Marcos was named the Prime Minister. He had indeed extended his stay in power. The 1973 Constitution allowed him to hold this position indefinitely, and he did so until 1981, at which point he appointed his finance minister Cesar Virata to the post. Marcos did not consider Virata a threat to his rule.



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  2. General Order No. 1. The Official Gazette of the Philippines. Retrieved from

  3. Mijares, P. (1976). The conjugal dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. New York: Union Square Publications.

  4. Javellana vs. Executive Secretary. The LawPhil Project. Retrieved from

  5. The History of the Senate of the Philippines. The Official Gazette of the Philippines. Retrieved from

  6. United Press International. (1972, September 24). Mass arrests and curfew announced in the Philippines. New York Times. Retrieved from