The ‘romanticism’ of revolutionary government

It is hard to say what prompted President Duterte to brandish the threat of a revolutionary government. Some people may have mentioned it to him as a bolder option than declaring martial law, citing President Cory Aquino’s rule by decree under a “Freedom Constitution” during the first year of her presidency.  It is clear that he means to frighten the independent branches and agencies of government that may be poised to investigate him or clip his powers. He boasts that under a revolutionary government, he will fire people at will, jail critics, and run the government by decree.

I do not doubt Mr. Duterte’s capacity to install himself as the nation’s ruler in a revolutionary government. I think he has increasingly convinced himself that only by bold action can his presidency cure the country’s persistent problems.

I do hope, however, that he has more sense than that. To declare a revolutionary government, he will have to throw away the 1987 Constitution — the very document under which he was elected president. He will then have to reformulate the basis of his legitimacy, making sure the rest of the Filipino people, particularly those who did not vote for him, will accept his action. If he thinks he can do this by riding on current plans to amend the Constitution, he overestimates his popularity.

Even Marcos, whose pronounced intention was to launch his own revolution in the early 1970s, had to make use of the existing martial law provision in the 1935 Constitution to ground his seizure of emergency powers in law. He then formalized his permanent assumption of extraordinary powers by inserting these in a clause in the new 1973 Constitution. Throughout his dictatorship, he tried to maintain the illusion of a government under the rule of law. But he could not fool the people all the time. Once they had the opportunity, they threw him out.

The political situation in which President Cory Aquino found herself after the 1986 People Power Revolution (Edsa I) was vastly different from the crisis that Marcos concocted in 1972. The rubber-stamp Batasang Pambansa had proclaimed Marcos the winner of the snap presidential election of Feb. 7, 1986. That election was declared by Filipino voters and foreign election observers alike to be fraudulent beyond measure. So brazen was the attempt by the Marcos camp to rig the results that the computer technicians assigned to do the tabulation at the national level walked out in full view of the media to protest the manipulation of the outcome.

Although Cory Aquino was thought to have actually won anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of the vote, Marcos’ complicit legislators at the Batasang Pambansa ignored the clamor in the streets and proceeded to confirm his victory. This left Cory with no other option but to take her oath as president on the basis of the mandate directly handed to her by the people at Edsa. It was a crucial moment that the whole world watched in admiration.  Despite US President Ronald Reagan’s personal fondness for the Marcoses, he had no choice but to affirm what had just happened.

Part of the US government’s official statement read thus: “The President is pleased with the peaceful transition to a new Government of the Philippines. The United States extends recognition to this new Government headed by President Aquino.  We pay special tribute to her for her commitment to nonviolence, which has earned her the respect of all Americans.”

To all intents and purposes, it was a validation of the Edsa narrative. There was no mention of the snap election as the basis of the transition. Cory and her advisers felt it was just as well that her presidency did not draw its legality from the 1973 Constitution, a document that had been expressly crafted for Marcos. This permitted her to shred that piece of paper without regret. She proceeded to rule under a so-called “Freedom Constitution” — until a new constitution, reflecting a new political order, could be written and properly ratified by the Filipino people in a nationwide plebiscite. In that brief interim period, Cory exercised powers that technically paralleled, or even exceeded, Marcos’ martial law powers.

Periods of transition like this are always filled with danger. Indeed, despite her global popularity, Cory faced several coup attempts from sections of the disgruntled military and the political class loyal to Marcos. Those who accompanied her on this perilous journey justified her exercise of revolutionary powers during this period as a necessary tool to dismantle the institutional ramparts of the Marcos dictatorship. That she managed to oversee two national elections, including the presidential election of 1992, became an achievement in itself.

Today, 30 years after the promulgation of the 1987 Constitution, a number of our people who thirst for comprehensive change are again drawn to the romanticism of revolutionary rule — this time for the purpose of putting an end to the political order established at Edsa.

It’s not going to be easy, and I doubt if the majority of our people will allow it. It will usher in another period of instability from which we may not recover for a long time. Ironically, the one state institution that perhaps separates us today from the imposition of dictatorial rule is the Philippine military. Martial law nearly destroyed the professionalism of the armed forces. The Edsa uprising and the failed coup attempts that followed turned brother officers against each other, narrowly avoiding a slaughter in their ranks. It is a lesson they will not forget — that partisan politics is not a game in which the man in uniform must ever get involved.