"x x x.
And once again, unprompted and unprovoked, President Duterte has raised the specter of martial law. “Kung gusto ko [If I want], and if it [the illegal drugs problem] will deteriorate into something really very virulent, I will declare martial law if I want to. Walang makapigil sa akin (No one can stop me),” he told the Davao City Chamber of Commerce last Saturday.
Unlike previous occasions, when he seemed respectful of the limits the Constitution placed on the president’s commander-in-chief powers, this time he substituted his own understanding of national survival for the Constitution’s express provisions. To prevent abuse, the Charter’s framers had allowed the use of martial law only when at least one of two specific conditions existed, either rebellion or invasion, and additionally only when one of these conditions constituted a danger to public safety.
On Saturday, President Duterte offered a new reason. “If I have to declare martial law, I will declare it, not because of invasion, insurrection, I will declare martial law to preserve my nation, period.”
Aware that the other branches of government had essential roles to play in the imposition of martial rule, he told his audience he couldn’t care less what the Supreme Court did. “Wala akong pakialam diyan sa [I don’t care about the] Supreme Court because of the right to preserve one’s life and my nation. My country transcends everything else, even the limitation.” It is telling that he did not mention Congress; perhaps he thinks he already controls it and it will do his bidding.
But even though the President used two qualifiers to soften the blow (“If I want,” “if it becomes very virulent”), his raising of the specter of martial law was meant as a warning and must still be understood as a threat.
In the first place, the Philippine National Police has called the unfortunately named war on drugs an ongoing success; we have joined our voice to the chorus of protest over the thousands of mere suspects killed in the war, and we include ourselves among those skeptical of claims of success when supposed drug addicts are not rehabilitated but merely warned off. But if the police are right, why is the President even talking about the possibility that the problem will grow worse?
Secondly, the President has not explained how deploying the Armed Forces in the so-called war on drugs would solve the problem—if the PNP, a larger force, cannot solve it. Without this explanation, or indeed a credible definition of the true state of the problem, the declaration of martial law would only mean he would have fewer restrictions to worry about, in prosecuting the war.
Thirdly, for a lawyer who says he has no choice but to follow the rule of law in general and the Supreme Court decision in particular in the matter of the Marcos burial, the President certainly speaks like a politician who does not care about the law or the Court when it suits him. Of all the statements that he unburdened himself of on Saturday, his outright dismissal of the Supreme Court is the most worrying.
There is a reason why the third branch of government is the weakest by design. It does not have a coercive force to ensure that its own decisions are followed, especially by the legislature or by the sprawling executive, because its wisdom is supposed to be compelling enough to guarantee enforcement. If Congress holds the power of the purse, and the instruments of state violence are in the safekeeping of the presidency and his alter egos, the Court is meant to be the apolitical seat of reason.
For its decisions to be followed, the Court must depend on the willing cooperation of the executive. (It must also ensure that its rulings are driven by the Holmesian ideal of the logic of experience, rather than political accommodation.)
The President’s expression of blithe indifference, then, to the role of the Supreme Court in the imposition of martial law represents a new low in our history: It marks the first time that the chief executive has threatened to use his commander-in-chief powers against the Court itself.
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