Emergency rule

The state of national emergency that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared on Feb. 24, 2006 was supposed to have lasted only one week.  But events in the last six months suggest a different conclusion: emergency rule may have, in fact, become Ms Arroyo’s paradigm of governance.

In various parts of the country today, the military conducts its operations against so-called “communist terrorists” as if the normal rights of citizens are effectively suspended.  Curfews are imposed. Soldiers demand cedulas or identity papers from residents they accost in the streets.  They enter homes and interrogate people without warrants.  They “invite” residents to gather in plazas and community halls to watch video presentations and listen to military lectures identifying the “enemies of the state.”  Leaders of activist organizations are murdered on an almost daily basis by masked men in motorcycles.  Many others are abducted and never heard from again.

The law says the president cannot be sued; that she can only be impeached. Yet any attempt to make Ms Arroyo accountable by impeachment is blocked because she controls the House of Representatives.

The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban sought to restrain executive adventurism by drawing the line on presidential prerogatives.  But its three landmark decisions (on the constitutionality of the calibrated preemptive response (CPR), Executive Order 464, and Presidential Proclamation 1017) have failed to deter Ms Arroyo from exploring the outer limits of the law. Instead, the equivocation inherent in the three rulings gave Malacanang enough ground to justify its controversial actions, and to proceed as if the SC had not ruled at all.

The Court declared that CPR has no place in our democracy, but because it also affirmed the constitutionality of BP 880 (the public assembly law promulgated during Martial Law), truncheon-wielding police forces have continued to block and disperse peaceful rallies. The Court recognized the right of Congress to summon high public officials, including members of the Cabinet and the armed forces, to investigations in aid of legislation.  But it also gave the executive enough leeway to snub these investigations and prevent its officials from appearing in such hearings.  The Court declared as illegal the actions that the police and the armed forces committed under PP1017.  But in affirming 1017 as consistent with the executive’s constitutional right to declare a state of national emergency, the Court also effectively legitimized its basic premises.

The underlying thesis of these premises is that opposition politicians, members of militant groups, and renegade soldiers have conspired with the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army to overthrow the duly-constituted authority. Ms Arroyo’s assumption of emergency powers on Feb. 24 was, according to this thesis, a prerogative that the constitution grants to the president in order to defend the state.  While the Court ruled that the declaration of a state of emergency did not give the president new powers, it tacitly recognized the validity of Malacanang’s assessment of the national situation. By implication, it thus sanctions all actions directed against the participants of this supposed conspiracy, including the crackdown against elements suspected of having any link to the communist movement.

The ambivalence of these rulings perhaps only reflects the general public’s own confused attitude towards Ms Arroyo.  Survey after survey documents the public’s lack of trust in her and the sustained disapproval of her actions. Yet, for some reason or other, the public seems unable to imagine that any alternative could be better.  In a most ironic way, Ms Arroyo, who came to power on the wings of popular outrage, has managed to exploit the people’s yearning for political stability, and their growing aversion to extra-constitutional solutions.  She has deflected persistent challenges against the legitimacy of her presidency by exaggerating the communist threat, and by using the paranoia over terrorism as a cover to shield her own government’s campaign of terror against political dissenters.

By our acquiescence, we contribute to the dangerous institutionalization of an undeclared emergency that allows the police and the military to ride roughshod over our basic democratic rights. When we allow legitimacy to be de-linked from law and public morals, in the mistaken belief that politics is merely about numbers, then we reward political survival at any cost.

There is probably no other way of making sense of the recent impeachment proceedings in the justice committee of the House of Representatives except by viewing them in these terms.  The rules that governed the proceedings were stripped of whatever ethical content they had.  In this impoverished form, they became no more than resources for partisan play rather than as guides to just and reasonable action.

I watched the final hearing of the committee from the gallery with no illusion that the final vote might produce a miracle, but hoping to be surprised by flashes of principled conduct from some of the grizzled members of the majority.  What I saw instead was the sorry spectacle of old men embarrassing themselves in front of their much younger colleagues by their assiduous sophistry and utter disregard of ideals. The nation surely deserves better leaders, but so long as the present electoral system is unreformed, not many good Filipinos will have a chance to enter Congress except as spectators.

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