ON DISTANT SHORE
By Val G. Abelgas
A feeling of uncertainty has deepened in the Philippines as coup rumors and martial law talk ushered in the New Year. Both talks about the possibility of destabilization moves and a coup attempt and speculations about the possible declaration of martial law were started by President Duterte himself and his allies.
As early as two months ago, the tough-talking President accused the Liberal Party of plotting to oust him and allow Vice President Leni Robredo to take over as president. Of course, leaders of the Liberal Party, including Robredo, vehemently denied such a plot and warned that Duterte may be setting the stage for the declaration of martial law.
Communications Secretary Martin Andanar later revealed plots by some Filipino community leaders to destabilize the Duterte administration through massive demonstrations in 2017 and to instigate the military to launch a coup against him.
Duterte later warned these Filipino-Americans, ostensibly led by the widow of wealthy black businessman, that such moves would not be tolerated. Businesswoman Loida Nicolas Lewis, obviously the wealthy woman identified by Duterte, denied such a plot, saying that “the President was being given misinformation designed to divide the country and advance the interests of a certain political group while casting Filipino Americans in an unfavorable light”.
And then just four days before the onset of the new year, Manila Times publisher Dante A. Ang, a public relations adviser of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, wrote a news story datelined Lisbon, Portugal that revealed an alleged document wherein former US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg supposedly recommended actions that would destabilize and ultimately remove Duterte from office.
The US State Department denied the existence of the alleged Goldberg document, but it triggered rumors of an impending coup against the Duterte administration.
There can only be two reasons why the Duterte camp has been insisting that the opposition and other groups are plotting destabilization moves and coup attempt. Either this administration is too insecure about its ability to stay in power for six years, or it is setting the stage for its own coup from within – a declaration of martial law in the coming months.
Opposition leaders, particularly Robredo, and Senators Leila de Lima and Antonio Trillanes IV, have been warning about a possible declaration of martial law by Duterte. The President cannot blame the opposition and other groups for such speculation considering that Duterte himself has been insinuating that he would declare a revolutionary government, if necessary, to ensure the changes that he wanted in the country.
Even while campaigning, Duterte said he would abolish Congress and form a revolutionary government if the Legislative and Judicial branches of government blocked his reforms. He said a revolutionary government was necessary because the current Constitution can no longer address the many problems besetting the country.
Trillanes warned then: “The moment he tries to declare a revolutionary government, that is also going to be the day he will be removed from office. This guy has no respect for democratic institutions.”
In August, Duterte threatened to declare martial law if Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno would continue to block his war against drugs. This was the time when Sereno questioned the police’s arrests without warrant.
After Duterte declared a state of national emergency in early September, presidential legal adviser Salvador Panelo said his office is toying with the idea of giving Duterte expanded powers under a “constitutional dictatorship,” wherein the President would have powers over both the executive and legislative branches to speed up reforms.
Duterte had insisted that he would not declare martial law, but the idea advanced by Panelo, one of his closest advisers, seemed to show otherwise. Duterte would repeatedly deny any plans to declare martial law.
But just three days before Christmas Day, Duterte seemed to contradict himself again when he said that he wanted to amend the provisions of the 1987 Constitution that check a president’s power to declare and implement martial law. He noted that he could not proceed on declaring martial law as such authority is subject to review by both Congress and the Supreme Court.
These provisions were included in the 1987 Constitution precisely to prevent the Chief Executive from abusing the power to declare martial law and to prevent a repeat of the country’s experience under the late dictator President Ferdinand E. Marcos, whose greatest fan is Duterte himself.
Remember that Marcos repeatedly denied he would declare martial law after successively declaring a state of lawlessness and suspending the writ of habeas corpus prior to declaring martial law a few months later in 1972.
“This is ridiculous,” Marcos said then. “Who would want to declare martial law?”
Here’s what Duterte said in November when concerns were raised about the possibility of his suspending the writ of habeas corpus and ultimately declaring martial law: “I am not a fan of Martial Law. I am a lawyer. People are afraid of Martial Law but if ever, Martial Law is a contingency to meet widespread violence.”
Duterte said he was a lawyer as if to insinuate that he had respect for the rule of law, but so was Marcos, an even better lawyer who topped the Bar even while under detention for the murder of his father’s political rival Julio Nalundasan.
A few days before declaring martial law, Marcos announced that the communists were now using “sex, pornography and drugs, among other techniques,” to destroy the moral fiber of the youth.” Sounds familiar, except that instead of the communists, Duterte is now talking of how drug syndicates are destroying the nation’s moral fiber.
And so the people enter the new year with new hopes, but also with renewed concerns about turbulent times ahead as rumors of an impending coup or martial law pervades the political atmosphere.
Whether or not either a coup or martial law happens this year or in the coming years, we must keep our vigilance so that a repeat of dictatorial rule does not happen again to our beloved country.