The declaration of martial law on May 23 by Filipino President Rodrigo R. Duterte, while only for 60 days and on the southernmost island of Mindanao, has begun to crystalize growing doubts about Duterte’s commitment to democracy and started to remind his constituents of unsettling resemblances to Ferdinand Marcos, who pretty much wrecked the country during his 21 years in power, 14 years of it under martial law.
Duterte, on a visit to strongman Vladimir Putin in Russia, declared martial law in response to a still-flaring battle in Marawi City between the Maute terror group, which has publicly aligned itself with the Islamic State and Abu Sayyaf, and the Philippine Army and the national police. So far, with the rebels still on the loose, Duterte has vowed to pursue them into the Visayas island group in the middle of the country if they escape, and to declare martial law there. At various times he has threatened the suspension of habeas corpus, as Marcos did.
Political observers in Manila believe the announcement and the threat to extend martial law into the Visayas is more political – a gambit to strengthen his authority – than anything done out of concern for security. They point out that his predecessor, Benigno S. Aquino III, faced a similar situation in Zamboanga City with as many as 200 insurgents, and resolved it without resorting to martial law.
Stratospheric popularity ratings continue
The Social Weather Stations polling organization gives Duterte a net 66 percent positive rating during the first quarter of 2017. It is the highest rating of any president since polling began during the administration of Corazon Aquino in 1986 although her son enjoyed high ratings for four of his six years. The other major polling unit, Pulse Asia, reported his performance has slipped slightly, by 5 percentage points to 78 percent in March from 83 percent in December. (the two use different polling methods, accounting for the discrepancy in numbers)
Anyhow, his popularity has created a situation in which leading political figures who might oppose his agenda have backed away from challenging him, either because of his popularity, or out of fear. The congress, which might act as a brake on his more impulsive actions, has simply abdicated its responsibility as a check and balance.
If Duterte were to extend martial law to the Visayas, where terrorism and security are not an overriding issue despite an April attack on Bohol, the impact on the economy could be dire, with international investors already nervous about the rule of law and the legitimacy of the business and investment environment. If martial law were to expand to Luzon, the biggest and most populous island and the home of the capital Manila, that would mean serious trouble. Until the situation is clarified, the outlook for potential new investments and business expansion, especially by western multinationals, remains uncertain, especially given Duterte’s erratic behavior.
In the wake of the Marcos ouster, the government under Corazon Aquino pushed through a new constitution that theoretically made it extremely difficult to declare martial law. It would take ratification by the Congress and it was limited to 60 days. The way the legislature has simply folded on the Mindanao declaration is an indication that it is toothless.
Promise starting to tarnish
Duterte’s promise – built on what was said to be a corruption-free government in Davao City – to clean up the federal government, is starting to look tarnished. He has begun to discard the allies who helped him get elected, trading them in for allies of the disgraced and deeply corrupt former President Gloria Arroyo, who was in office from 2001 to 2010. He has accused the departed of corruption but they say they have been cashiered because they challenged him. He himself has not been involved in any corruption scandals, unlike Marcos, but he is deep into conflict-of-interest situations. He has admitted accepting gifts and money from friends when he was mayor and says he doesn’t see anything wrong with it. He has brushed off an accusation by Sen. Antonio Trillanes that he has PHP2.2 billion (US$44.34 million) in his personal bank accounts, far above his declared assets statements.
Especially controversial, at least for environmentalists, is the loss of Gina Lopez, the aristocratic former Environment Minister, whose appointment was turned down by the Senate. Ostensibly Duterte sought to save the appointment of Lopez, who ordered the suspension of several mining licenses over pollution, but given his sway in Congress, it is difficult to believe he could have been thwarted if he had wanted her in his administration. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez accused her of arbitrarily shutting down mines on the basis of unseen audits, which she denied.
Other controversial decisions include engineering Marcos’s burial in the National Heroes’ Cemetery against overwhelming evidence that Marcos falsified his WWII record, and easy acquiescence in the pardon of Gloria Arroyo as well as rejection by the courts against kidnaping charges against Janet Napoles Lim, charges that kicked off the so-called Pork Barrel scandal of 2015. Lim was the alleged bagwoman for dozens of lawmakers diverting government development funds into their own pockets.
No dissent allowed
Saying he wouldn’t put up with dissention, Duterte barred Vice President Leni Robredo from cabinet meetings after she criticized his war on drugs, which has been almost exclusively waged against the poor, and jailed his longtime adversary and critic, Sen. Leila de Lima, who also demanded an end to the war on drugs, on charges that human rights activists say were spurious.
More ominously, Duterte postponed local barangay (village-level) elections, originally to be held last October, claiming that 40 percent of the country’s 42,000 barangay captains were involved in illegal drugs. In March of this year, he followed that up with a threat to cancel the elections altogether and instead appoint all 42,000 positions “with people he could trust.” A bill to do so has since been introduced in the Assembly.
“The President is openly disdainful of journalists and the press, and regularly accuses the media of bias,” according to a report by a Philippines based think tank. “In a page borrowed from the White House of US President Donald Trump, the Duterte administration labeled media coverage of the drug war’s civilian death toll as ‘fake news.’ In a presentation to the United Nations Human Rights Council this month, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said the President’s enemies fed false statistics to the domestic media, which were ‘gobbled up’ by the foreign press.”
He has also threatened to block the renewal of the legislative franchise of the broadcasting network ABS-CBN, the country’s largest, and to confiscate government land leased by the owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer – arguably the strongest of the country’s print media.
“Duterte is ruling by fear. His threat to impose martial law in other parts of the country has given us the jitters,” said a senior journalist who remains unnamed.
Drug problem wildly overstated
The fake news, however, stems from Duterte’s own administration, which has overstated the drug problem in the Philippines, more than doubling the number of addicts. As Asia Sentinel reported in January, the government says there are 4 million drug addicts in the Philippines. But according to a 2015 study by the Dangerous Drugs Board, a Philippine government agency, the prevalence rate of current drugs users 10-69 years is 2.3 percent (1.8 million people). Marijuana users comprise 72.3 percent of total drug users, whereas shabu (methamphetamine) users make up 48.9 percent (the overlap is because some use both). Duterte has evidently ignored the facts provided by his own government to propel society into action and in fact fired Dangerous Drugs Board Chairman Benjamin Reyes for “contradicting your own government” by using a much lower figure than Duterte’s.
In fact, his drug war is a war against the poor, with more than 7,000 people murdered by police or vigilantes, with very few of the drug lords he promised to bring down. In fact, there is as much cocaine – a drug of the rich – floating around haute Manila as there ever was.
He has received an approving call from Trump, who congratulated him on his drug war, and he has disported with dictators in both Russia and China. But Marcos’s original proclamation of martial law was also enormously popular, with the citizenry applauding what appeared to be an initial fall in violent crime. But eventually 30,000 opposition figures, journalists, students and labor activists were detained, more than 3,200 were murdered and an estimated 35,000 were tortured. Marcos closed the legislature and either closed or tightly monitored the press – while funneling millions for questionable contracts to his cronies, taking over some of the country’s best businesses.
Duterte connects well to the public with his folksy style, dirty and in-your-face jokes, shows decisiveness unlike Noynoy Aquino, but he hasn’t really responded to the pressing problems of some of the worst traffic problems in Asia. He simplifies solutions to problems, making them one-dimensional, which goes well with the masses. Many dismiss his controversial comments – joking during the siege of Marawi City that soldiers could rape with impunity, for instance – and his threats of martial law, but the jokes are starting to wear thin.