By Perry Diaz
President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte won the presidency hands down by 39% plurality and 16.6 million votes. His closest rival, Mar Roxas, got 23.4%, which is only 9.9 million votes. Not only did Duterte win the presidency, he also took control of the House of Representatives when a vast majority of congressmen from other parties – there were only three from Digong’s party – abandoned their parties and joined Digong’s party, the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (Philippine Democratic Party-Power of the People) or PDP–Laban for short.
Known in the local parlance as “balimbings” (political turncoats), Duterte’s followers in the House provide him with an ironclad defense from any attempt to impeach him. In the Senate, while there are only three (out of the 24 senators) who are affiliated with PDP-Laban, Digong’s personal influence over the senators is unquestionable. Except for two or three senators, most of the senators wouldn’t dare oppose Digong. They respect and fear him.
In essence, one can say that Digong is a “strongman” like Russian President Vladimir Putin; but he is not a “dictator” like the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos who had absolute power over everything. And this begs the question: Why would Digong want to declare martial law, when his grip to power is strong? Would it be fair to presume that he might have been thinking of the day when his grip weakens and loses control of Congress? And the specter of that happening could give him sleepless nights, insecurity, and paranoia. Could this be the reason why he is not comfortable sleeping in Malacañang Palace protected by the elite Presidential Security Group?
Indeed, he’d rather commute by plane everyday working between Malacañang and his modest home in Davao City, which consumes several hours thus shortening his productive time in running the country. But his long commute time doesn’t seem to bother him. He probably feels safer sleeping in his private home secured by his personal Praetorian Guard, and surrounded by his “loyal” constituents… and the safety of his mosquito net, which protects him from dengue-carrying mosquitoes while he sleeps.
It’s probably this feeling of insecurity — compounded by paranoidal mood swings –that has driven him to consider declaring martial law. But there are two impediments: the 1987 Constitution and the Supreme Court. Declaring martial law is not as easy as in 1972 when Marcos with the support of the powerful “Rolex 12,” a group of the most influential military generals and defense officials including a rich business tycoon, imposed martial law and ruled by decree.
It all began last August when Digong included several judges – he called them “narco-judges” – on a “narco list” of alleged drug lords and users. He threatened to have them arrested to which Supreme Court Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno reacted by issuing a statement, saying that “law enforcers must first secure warrants of arrest from judges before judges allow themselves to be ‘physically accountable to any police officer’ as she warned of a constitutional crisis.” This did not bode well with Digong who responded angrily, “I’m giving you a warning. Don’t create a crisis because I will order everybody in the executive department not to honor you,” he said referring to Sereno. He added, “Please, don’t order me. I’m not a fool. If this continues, (that) you’re tying to stop me, I might lose my cool. Or would you rather I declare martial law?”
But there is one obstacle: the Constitution. Section 18, Article VII says that the President, as commander-in-chief, may “in case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it” suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or place the country under martial law.” However, the martial law period or suspension of the writ of habeas corpus should not exceed 60 days. The writ safeguards individual freedom against arbitrary state action. It also specifies “that a state of martial law cannot override the function of both the judiciary and legislative branches of the government.” It also doesn’t “authorize the conferment of jurisdiction on military courts and agencies over civilians where civil courts are able to function, nor automatically suspend the privilege of the writ.”
But his allies quickly defended him. Presidential Chief Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo said, “The imminent danger brought about by the proliferation of illegal drugs is enough basis for Duterte to place the Philippines under martial law.” The question is: Can Digong declare martial law like Marcos, abolish the Constitution, and rule by decree? Can he abolish the civilian government all the way down to the local executive levels? And who would help him administer martial law? Would it be the 160,000-strong Philippine National Police (PNP) under the leadership of the controversial General Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa? With the PNP’s record of killing suspected drug pushers and allegations of “kidnapping for ransom” operations using the PNP’s Oplan Tokhang anti-drug campaign, the PNP is now suspected of extrajudicial killings (EJK) or “salvaging.” This is reminiscent of the dark martial law days of the Marcos era.
And this brings to mind Digong’s ardent desire to have Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the late dictator’s only son and namesake, succeed him as president. Duterte is presumably indebted to the Marcoses who contributed large amounts to Duterte’s presidential campaign. But the problem is that Bongbong lost the vice presidential election to Leni Robredo who took over the vice presidency at the same time as Digong. Bongbong protested Leni’s election, which was by a small margin, by submitting a 20,000-page document before Supreme Court (SC), which sits as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET). According to former SC Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, it would take more than three years before the PET reaches a decision.
Well, for some reason, Digong couldn’t wait that long to turn over the presidency by way of a “resignation due to poor health.” He said that he could be stepping down sooner, in which case he’d like Bongbong to persistently pursue his electoral protest. Which makes one wonder: How can Bongbong’s electoral protest be expedited?
My crystal ball shows that there is one Associate Justice who is actively “lobbying” the other justices to rule in favor of Bongbong. Not three years, not one year, but very soon! The word is that majority of the PET has already been convinced to rule favorably for Bongbong by abbreviating the process and calling for a vote immediately. How did the “lobbying” work? Is it by friendly persuasion or gentle pressure… or bribery? But if it works one way or the other, then we’re looking at a decision very soon. However, it also rumored that a group has been formed to resist martial law and stop Bongbong from taking over the presidency.
Ultimately, a Bongbong presidency could attract a hostile consortium of foreign governments who would impose economic sanctions against Bongbong and his government, just like the way the U.S. and her allies sanctioned Russia after she invaded Crimea. But Russia is barely surviving the sanctions only because she has a sovereign reserve currency of $500 billion dollars; the Philippines doesn’t have that kind of wealth.
But if for some reason, the Supreme Court justices come to their senses and for once demonstrate their loyalty to the Constitution that they were sworn to defend and uphold, then Digong might just do what he had threatened to do.
Sad to say, all the gains that have brought the Philippines out of the economic doldrums during the Marcos era may be wasted by Digong’s irresponsible and disgraceful act of destroying the collective efforts of the Filipino people in the past three decades. And this brings to fore the question: Is martial law just a matter of time?