A coup by any other name

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The Marcos terror regime may have been overthrown 31 years ago, the institutions of liberal democracy restored, and a new Constitution drafted. But the threat of dictatorship has never really passed.

The conditions that made the making of a tyrannical regime possible in 1972 are still in evidence. Among them are a lawless and self-aggrandizing political class afflicted with the authoritarian virus; an unreformed police and military establishment that is similarly impaired; and those sectors of the population impatient with the inefficiencies of what passes for democratic governance and who imagine one-man rule to be the cure-all for the country’s ills.

The 1987 Constitution does contain safeguards meant to prevent the abuse of the Presidential power to declare martial law, among them Congressional and Supreme Court oversight. But these legal constraints can be meaningless when, as the country witnessed in the aftermath of the Duterte declaration of martial law in Mindanao, both Congress and the Supreme Court are dominated by the Chief Executive’s allies.

During the problematic nine years of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as President, martial rule nationwide also seemed imminent. Mrs. Arroyo’s 2006 declaration of a state of emergency was in the minds of many the prelude to it. Although it never happened — she lifted the state of emergency within a week and abandoned whatever dark plans for the country she might have harbored — that episode nevertheless demonstrated that despite the Constitution, the return of authoritarian rule is still a continuing peril in these isles of uncertainty.

But not only through a declaration of martial law can despotic rule recur. Himself a spawn of the same political class that has monopolized power in this country for decades, President Rodrigo Duterte has renewed his oft-repeated threat to form a “revolutionary” government in response to supposed attempts by various groups to remove him from office. He has identified these groups as the bishops of the Catholic Church, the political opposition, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and even the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), among others. All except the CIA have denied his allegations, but despite the military’s own declaration that there is no such plot to oust him, Mr. Duterte insists that the conspiracy is real.

His threatened recourse of putting in place a “revolutionary” government has quite naturally been opposed not only by the supposed plotters but also by other groups that are rightly concerned over Mr. Duterte’s obviously despotic bent.

Not only is the executive’s formation of a “revolutionary” government nowhere in the Constitution, which makes it both extra- and anti-Constitutional; it would also be a form of deception. The term “revolutionary” suggests that the government Mr. Duterte seems so anxious to put in place would bring about the changes that he promised in 2016 — an end to the corruption and the conflicts that have riven the country for decades through the implementation of economic and social reforms, for example — but has so far failed to deliver.

But far from from being the harbinger of change, such a government’s being described as “revolutionary” is based on nothing more than the unrestrained use of Presidential power over the police and the military to trash the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, remove all constraints on the abuse of executive power, abolish Congress and the Supreme Court, and imprison opposition personalities and regime critics. It would be a coup d’etat by another name, but a coup nevertheless.

Mr. Duterte has been described by regime critics as paranoid when he threatened to impose a “revolutionary” government, but they’re giving him less credit than he deserves. It would seem that together with declaring martial law nationwide, the “revolutionary” government option is something that Mr. Duterte has been mulling over, and perhaps even preparing for, for at least the last six months.

When he announced last May that he would appoint Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff General Eduardo Ano to head the Department of Interior and Local Governments (DILG) once he retires from the military, Mr. Duterte also said he would fill a then still vacant post in the Cabinet with another military man to complete “my junta.”

He went on to say that the military would then have no need to launch a coup d’etat because “they’re already in the government; they would be in charge.”

Those remarks would have been dismissed as just another bad Duterte joke if they weren’t so close to describing how militarized his regime is turning out to be — and, from hindsight today, how much they suggest that he has been preparing for his assuming absolute powers through his command over the military and police and the militarization of the bureaucracy.

Among many others with military backgrounds, Roy Cimatu, who was AFP chief of staff from 2001-2002, replaced Gina Lopez as Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Mr. Duterte’s National Security Adviser, Hermogenes Esperon, was also AFP chief of staff. And then there’s Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, the most powerful bureaucrat in the country today because of his command over the armed services, who is a retired Army general and whom Mr. Duterte once described as a CIA agent.

These and many other appointments are consistent with Mr. Duterte’s frequent statements that he would appoint officials who’re former military men because they’re supposedly as ruthlessly efficient as he imagines himself to be. Trained and ideologized by a military establishment and its foreign patrons that has evolved into a major power broker in Philippine governance and politics, his appointees already constitute a formidable force for keeping things the way they are, or even restoring long dis-credited public policies and practices.

Mr. Duterte probably thinks himself well prepared for the coup — alias “revolutionary” government — that he’s been threatening to unleash long before his claims that a de facto alliance of Left and Right groups is out to remove him from office. A comparison with Ferdinand Marcos is inevitable. Otherwise known as martial law, the 1972 Marcos coup d’etat was against both the Republic as well as himself as a duly elected president under the 1936 Constitution. But it was the only successful coup in Philippine history for several reasons.

The first and most critical was Marcos’ having prepared for it from the moment he was elected to a second term in 1969. He succeeded primarily because he was absolutely certain of military support. Unlike its counterparts in neighboring countries like Indonesia and Thailand, the Philippine military needs politician-patrons to legitimize attempts to seize power. Although it is firmly for keeping things the way they have always been, and is not a class in itself but merely an appendage of the ruling elite, since the Marcos regime the senior officer corps has had the power to choose its patrons on the basis of who can best serve its economic, political and ideological interests.

By appointing enough military men to complete his junta, Mr. Duterte is also putting himself at its head. But the question of the hour is whether, like Marcos in 1972, he already has the total military support he needs to assume dictatorial powers success-fully and with little danger to himself.

Absent that, Mr. Duterte risks being himself the victim of the very process he shall have set into motion by declaring a “revolutionary” government in which anything, including the empowered military’s senior officers’ putting someone else in office, would be possible. Mr. Duterte could end up drawing the very gun with which to shoot himself rather than his adversaries.

(First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.)

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