The coup this time

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This column was being written on Monday, May 1st, amid government threats to re-impose the state of emergency it declared last February 24. If by the time this column sees print a declaration to that effect has been issued, and the Constitution further threatened or even abolished, it would not be in response to any armed threat to the regime, but because it is what it has wanted since February. But it would also mean that the regime is risking not only a military rebellion, but also the displeasure of the United States government.

There is no mistaking the regime’s contempt for democratic rights ever since 2001. But this disdain became even more evident when free expression, freedom of assembly and the free press became an inconvenience in the regime’s efforts to remain in power after the tainted elections of 2004.

The Calibrated Preemptive Response (CPR) and no-permit-no-rally policies were preceded by earlier, even cruder denials of the right to free assembly, and threats to press and media freedom. But since 2001 the regime has also presided over the unprecedented killing of activist members and leaders of legal left-wing organizations.

But regime scorn for the Constitution and democratic rights—and for democracy itself– is not due alone to Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s own personal interests and cacique predilections. It is rooted as well in the unreformed police and military, whose repressive and anti-democratic mindset has only been strengthened by the years of economic decline, social unrest and political instability that followed EDSA 1. But even more fundamentally is it based on the authoritarian outlook of the Philippine political class, which has always viewed the Bill of Rights as a nuisance it would savage if provided with an excuse to do so.

The February 24 proclamation of a state of emergency– vastly different from similarly-titled proclamations during the Fidel V. Ramos regime and the early Arroyo years– was unprecedented since the declaration of martial law 34 years ago. But the threat to Philippine democracy has never really waned despite the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 primarily because the authoritarian option has always been a resident virus in the entire political class.

Proclamation 1017 was nevertheless doubly unique in that it also served as the cover under which the regime tried to hijack martial law powers. If there indeed was a military coup in the offing last February, Proclamation 1017 was on the other hand the counter-coup in which the regime would have discarded the Constitution, shut down Congress, arrested tens of thousands of its perceived enemies, and consolidated power with its police and military henchmen. PP 1017 would have created the regime’s own version of a civilian-military junta.

The intent of PP 1017 as a palace-sponsored coup was evident not only in its reference to Mrs. Arroyo’s issuing presidential decrees, which is a power conditioned on the abolition of Congress. It was equally clear in the raid on the Daily Tribune offices, the harassment of and threats against other media practitioners and groups, the arrests without warrants and threats of arrest against members of Congress, and the wave of intimidation against regime critics. All indicating indifference to and contempt for the Constitution, these acts were premised on its suspension and even immediate revision via a “People’s Initiative” of the Marcos type.

But the counter-coup failed for a number of reasons, the primary one being the divisions within the politicized police and military establishments. The intensity of public and press reaction—which in the 1972 declaration of martial law was preempted by the arrest of journalists and the padlocking of media organizations—was another factor against it.

Quite probably of even more weight, however, was United States reaction. In place of previous pledges of support there came warnings from the US Embassy in Manila about the need to respect the Bill of Rights. This was followed by meaningful silence from the White House, whose current resident had not hesitated before 2004 in applauding such regime policies as its support for the invasion of Iraq and its welcoming US troops back on Philippine soil.

But what sent the loudest message—at the time primarily unremarked, except by a nervous Malacanang– was the new US Ambassador, Kristie Kelley’s, visiting Senate President Franklin Drilon, a key figure in the campaign for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation.

It was thus not regime concern for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that led to the lifting of the would-be counter-coup instrument, Proclamation 1017, but a host of factors hostile to its eventual conversion into a palace-led, pro-Arroyo coup against the Constitution.

If a national emergency has been re-proclaimed, not only would the regime be gambling that the police and military clique under its control can contain any response from the police and military factions hostile to it. It will also mean a virtual regime break with the United States, which has looked at the Arroyo presidency with grave reservations since Mrs. Arroyo pulled out the Philippine military contingent from Iraq in 2004, and, in the same year, signed an agreement with China on joint gas explorations in the contested Spratlys.

US geopolitical and economic concerns over its emerging Chinese rival, and Mrs. Arroyo’s obvious readiness to deal with anyone regardless of ideology and principle in the context of the political crisis and her vast unpopularity, are at the core of recent warnings from both the US media as well as the right-wing think-tank Heritage Foundation that Mrs. Arroyo is endangering Philippine democracy. The re-imposition of a state of national emergency– and its logical consequence, further repression, which will destabilize the country for years–will thus force the US, if it has not already done so, to look for alternatives to Arroyo and company.

The re-imposition of a state of national emergency would mean a regime decision to implement its aborted counter-coup of February. But even if it succeeds, the possibility that the regime would last any longer than the remaining half of the year would be practically zero. If the regime still has its wits about it, it would not re-impose a state of emergency. But that may be giving it more credit than it deserves.

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