If a military takeover or a declaration of martial law as in Thailand seems unthinkable today in the Philippines, it seemed equally implausible in 1972. But that didn’t prevent it from happening then; and there’s no guarantee that it won’t happen again.
The key element in that possibility is that, when their monopoly over political power is in their view in danger, the political dynasties that have ruled the country in behalf of domestic and foreign interests since 1946 will take that recourse or something similar to it. We have seen the latter happen in 2006, when the country came close to the restoration of authoritarian rule through the Arroyo administration’s declaration of a state of emergency.
The semblance or reality of a crisis would be the immediate excuse. Despite the seeming political stability of the Philippines compared to Thailand, for example, that stability is built on the fragile foundations of limited democracy, widespread injustice, and the poverty of millions despite economic growth.
The Philippines has been in constant crisis over the last 50 years. The intensity of that crisis assumes dangerous proportions whenever the contradiction between democracy and repression, between extreme poverty and extreme wealth, or the promise of justice and the reality of its absence become so obvious they provoke protest and social and political unrest.
The diversion of pork barrel funds to fake NGOs with the collaboration of dozens of senators and congressmen—a truly successful example of Private- Public Partnership!—has the potential to drive that crisis to breaking point. So has the ongoing disclosure of the political elite’s shamelessly bargaining away in exchange for illusory advantages the country’s sovereignty through the so-called Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
For that matter, the Philippine dispute with China over the Spratlys can easily escalate, or can be made to seem to have escalated, thus requiring extraordinary measures.
The crisis need not even be real. The crisis that Ferdinand Marcos used in 1972 to justify Presidential Declaration 1081— the “leftist-rightist conspiracy” that he said was putting the Republic in grave danger—was mostly in his mind, despite the turmoil in the country’s streets, factories and farmlands.
Across the country workers, farmers and students among other sectors were challenging such iniquities as the archaic land tenancy system and the monopoly over political power of a handful of families, both of which still persist. The turmoil was indicative of mass awakening to the possibilities of an authentic democracy in which the majority would be making the political decisions needed to lift the entire country out of the poverty that has been its lot for centuries.
Nevertheless, the perception in academic and other circles was that those institutions of limited democracy such as the courts, Congress and the press were too much a part of the country’s life to be uprooted overnight. Wasn’t the country after all “the show window of democracy in Asia,” its periodic elections and relatively peaceful transfer of power models for the region, as was its press, which for decades had been labeled the “freest” in Asia?
And yet Marcos declared martial law anyway, driven by both his personal lust for power and the instincts of his class, the bureaucrat capitalists who were trembling at the prospect of finally surrendering power to an awakened people.
Through PD 1081, Marcos abolished Congress, suspended the Bill of Rights, padlocked media organizations, and caused the arrest of over a hundred thousand people between 1972 and 1986. In committing this outrage he had the support of a clueless middle-class that thought the rallies and demonstrations mere inconveniences rather than expressions of democratic rights, and of a military establishment with a colonial and feudal tradition as an internal pacification force.
Marcos’ rise to one-man rule was not coincidentally also consistent with the US policy of funding and installing dictatorships across the third world.
Only of incidental significance, although it provided Marcos with the legal justification for PD 1081, was the provision in the 1935 Constitution that was then in force that allowed the President of the Philippines as commander-in-chief of the armed forces to place the Philippines or any part of it under martial law. If no such provision had existed, Marcos would have invented some other ruse.
The current Constitution still empowers the President of the Philippines to do the same, but requires him or her to report to Congress within 48 hours of a proclamation of martial law. Congress may revoke such a proclamation by a majority vote, while the Supreme Court is empowered to review the factual basis for the proclamation, among other safeguards against abuse.
Despite these safeguards, the country came close to a state approaching martial rule in 2006, when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of emergency because of an alleged plot to overthrow her by force, but which was evidently meant to stop the demonstrations against her rule from escalating into a popular movement for her resignation as a consequence of accusations that she had rigged the vote in 2004.
But in the aftermath of the 2009 Ampatuan town massacre, Mrs. Arroyo did place Maguindanao province under martial law, regardless of criticism that the government was not under threat from lawless violence or an invasion in 2006 and that there was no rebellion in Maguindanao province in 2009.
These were trial balloons meant to gauge public reception. But they demonstrated that regardless of what the Constitution says, any President can do a Marcos or an Arroyo to stay in power, so long as an excuse, no matter how tenuous, is available.
Benigno Aquino III could be a special case in that open repression during the last two years of his office may not be a personally acceptable option to him, given his parentage, and the fact that, for all the human rights violations, EDCA, the pork barrel scandal and the continuing poverty during his term, the crisis has so far not been acute enough to justify it. But that does not mean that whoever else will come after Aquino, if convinced that he and the political dynasties that rule the country are under threat, will not take the authoritarian path.
The Philippine Constitution may contain a number of safeguards to prevent another Marcos from arising, while, in Thailand, a 100-year old law empowering the military to declare martial law has made it extremely easy to impose military rule there on an almost regular basis. But despite the difference, the possibility of authoritarian rule is nevertheless still ever-present in the Philippines, because it is built into the very nature of the political system.