Martial law again
As expected, President Duterte’s spokespersons have walked back his astonishing remarks, made last Thursday, that he wanted to remove the constitutional safeguards on the use of the presidency’s so-called commander-in-chief powers, so he could impose martial law without having to collaborate with Congress and the Supreme Court.
“If you have martial law, only one person should be in control,” Mr. Duterte had said, triggering a barrage of criticism or statements of concern even from some of his political allies. Vice President Leni Robredo called the President’s trial balloon the “worst Christmas gift” to Filipinos, prompting the presidential spokesperson, Ernesto Abella, to attempt to place the remarks in the right context.
“In context, the President was saying that if martial law was taken for what it was supposed to be, which is to protect and preserve the safety of the people, then it should be facilitated,” Abella told reporters. “However, the Vice President Leni seems to have amplified her concerns and seems to make it appear as if President was actively planning to do it. But if you read it in context, it was not in that way.”
But how should any responsible official respond to the President openly flirting with the idea of absolute power?
Let us be clear. Because of our tragic experience with one-man rule, the 1987 Constitution limited the scope of the president’s use of the commander-in-chief powers — essentially, the mandate to use the military to protect the country and ensure the work of the government. In the case of martial law, the Constitution now provides just two grounds for its declaration: rebellion or invasion. Learning from the excesses of the Marcos dictatorship, the Constitution also provides that Congress must confirm, extend, or revoke the imposition of martial law within a matter of days. Within 48 hours, the President must make a report to Congress, justifying his action. Congress, if not in session, shall convene within 24 hours of the imposition “without need of a call.”
At the same time, the Supreme Court can review the factual basis for the imposition in an appropriate case, and must decide within 30 days of filing.
Not least, the Constitution explicitly states that a “state of martial law does not suspend the operation of the Constitution, nor supplant the functioning of the civil courts or legislative assemblies, nor 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 of habeas corpus.” In other words, what Ferdinand Marcos did under cover of martial law can no longer be allowed. If Mr. Duterte were to declare martial law, he cannot dissolve Congress, usurp the authority of the courts, or suspend the Constitution itself. This is not, as the President implied last week, a reckless reaction to the excesses of the Marcos regime but a calibrated one. This is not government inefficiency, but checks and balances in action.
We are reminded of the President’s outburst last August, when after Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno responded deliberately and cautiously to Mr. Duterte’s inclusion of a few judges in one version of his narco-list, he replied with an intemperate challenge: “Would you rather I declare martial law?”
Does President Duterte think that the martial law option is a way to override criticism, or counter the initiatives of other politicians with a national mandate, or circumvent the restrictions placed on government conduct precisely to prevent the concentration of power?
Prescinding from any discussion of whether the President enjoys the same level of understanding of and control over the Armed Forces as he obviously does with the Philippine National Police, we must join our voice to those imploring the President to learn from the tragedy of our recent history. As he himself said only a month ago: “We had martial law before. What happened? Did it improve our lives. No.”
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