Two faces of despotism

When Ferdinand Marcos proclaimed martial law on Sept. 21, 1972 (the actual date of implementation was Sept. 23), he had only about a year left before the end of his second and final term. But by declaring a state of emergency, he was able to extend his stay in office indefinitely.

First elected in 1965 for a four-year term, he sought and won reelection in 1969. Under the then prevailing 1935 Constitution, the president was subject to a two-term limit. Rather than step down from office in 1973, Marcos invoked the martial law powers given by the Constitution to the president as commander in chief to gain full control over the levers of government.

Thus began a mode of rule he termed “constitutional authoritarianism.” Issuing presidential decrees, executive orders, and proclamations one after the other, Marcos assumed powers belonging to the other branches of government. More significantly, he hijacked the work of an ongoing constitutional convention to produce a charter tailor-made to his requirements.

The Marcos dictatorial path was thus deftly paved in the mortar of law—or what passed for it. He was aware that he had to go beyond the restrictive language of emergency powers in order to justify the building of what he called a “New Society.”

A complicit Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of this new political order in the 1975 Aquino Jr. v. Comelec ruling: “We affirm the proposition that as Commander-in-Chief and enforcer or administrator of martial law, the incumbent President of the Philippines can promulgate proclamations, orders, and decrees during the period of Martial Law essential to the security and preservation of the Republic, to the defense of the political and social liberties of the people and to the institution of reforms to prevent the resurgence of rebellion or insurrection or secession or the threat thereof as well as to meet the impact of a worldwide recession, inflation, or economic crisis which presently threatens all nations including highly developed countries.”

Had there been a pandemic during that period, chances are the Supreme Court would have cited it as one more reason for extending the scope and duration of the President’s emergency powers. Today, under the 1987 Constitution, it would be difficult to justify such an encompassing pronouncement as this. Which is not to say it can’t be attempted.

When Rodrigo Duterte was elected to the presidency in 2016, he told the dignitaries attending his inaugural address in Malacañang not to worry about his unorthodox methods when he was Davao City mayor. He assured them: “As a lawyer and a former prosecutor, I know the limits of the power and authority of the president. I know what is legal and what is not. My adherence to due process and the rule of law is uncompromising.”

But in the paragraph before that, Mr. Duterte said something that seemed ambiguous then but has become clearer today: “In this fight (against illegal drugs and criminality), I ask Congress and the Commission on Human Rights and all others who are similarly situated to allow us a level of governance that is consistent to our mandate. The fight will be relentless and it will be sustained.”

Unlike Marcos who made sure that every move he made had a legal cover, Mr. Duterte started his presidency with a plea for some leeway (“a level of governance”) in carrying out what he understood to be his mandate. As mayor of Davao, he had been known to take reckless shortcuts to achieve quick results. We now know that he brought to the presidency this pernicious disregard for due process and the formal limits of the law.

As a populist authoritarian, Mr. Duterte reveled in the public acclamation he got for the short-term impact of his draconian policies and spectacular pronouncements. What he lacked in vision and long-term direction, he tried to make up for by setting simplistic goals and unrealistic time frames. “In six months, I will end the drug problem. In six months, all corruption will stop.” Etc.

Confronted by the complexity of the nation’s problems, he measured the success of his presidency by the amount of fear he could elicit among the targets of his public outbursts. Sensing that this capacity to intimidate is beginning to wane in the final year of his presidency, he is now often heard mouthing the unadorned confession of someone who came totally unprepared for the nation’s highest office.

In one of his recent midnight telecasts, he mused: “Kung sabihin ninyo ako ang nagkukulang, sorry. Ginawa ko ang lahat. Kung ang lahat ay kulang pa, patawad po, ’yan lang talaga ang kaya ko.” (If you say I’ve come up short, sorry. I did everything. If everything that I’ve given is not enough, I beg your forgiveness, more than that is beyond my capacity.”)

Mr. Duterte belongs to that breed of premodern despots who feel shackled by institutions and the rule of law. Rulers like him have little understanding of the demands of modern leadership in a complex globalized world. One cannot excuse this kind of ignorance and incompetence by appealing—as Sen. Bong Go does—to populist sentiments rooted in a provincial identity. “Mga probinsyano lang po kami,” he told his fellow senators at the last blue ribbon committee hearing.

To his credit, Marcos planned his authoritarian rule carefully. However repressive and murderous the martial law regime he presided over turned out to be, only a few will deny it had a vision, a plan, and a method. Marcos not only had the military behind him; he also had some of the best technocrats that a developmentalist state could possibly assemble. He was a modern despot who failed mainly because of the corruption he had spawned.