The imperial presidency (or the self-castration of Congress)

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LITO MONICO C. LORENZANA

Part 1
THIS column will attempt to interpret and understand President Duterte’s martial law declaration and his comportment after the fact and compare it to similar assertions by past Presidents—as seen from a combination of several points of view.

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First, as an observer of presidential politics spanning five administrations with particular emphasis on Ferdinand Marcos and Gloria Arroyo (GMA) who likewise declared martial law during their administrations; second, as a student of politics learning through experience from within government and extracting such lessons and concepts that could modestly add to the growing literature of Philippine political technocracy; and third, as an amateur historian drawing comparable features that are common to both the Philippine and American presidency, spotlighting the latter’s evolution from its creation in 1776 to the Nixon period. To this end, some reference therefore is made to the American author, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. in his book Imperial Presidency published in 1974.

Also, this exercise could reinforce a hypothesis that the Deegong’s role as a “strongman” President is inevitable given a weak state populated by weak leaders. If a Duterte failed to appear in the political scene, it would have been imperative to create one like him. The declaration of martial rule, the constitutional mandated “last resort” is the matrix upon which a “strongman” President is examined. I differentiate the “strongman” President from the strong presidency. The former simply describes the sheer tough personality of the President; the latter is a component of the majesty and institution of the presidency. I am making a case therefore of a “strongman” President, the Deegong, within an institutionally weak presidency.

Martial law comparisons
On May 23, 2017, the Deegong declared martial law covering the whole of Mindanao, triggered by the attack of the Maute/IS/Abu Sayyaf terrorists on the Muslim-majority city of Marawi. This elicited comparisons the December 5, 2009 declaration of martial law in Maguindanao province by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, which was precipitated by the Ampatuan massacre. This only lasted for a week and was lifted upon the recommendation of GMA’s cabinet. There is not much to be discussed of GMA’s Proclamation 1959.

Proclamation 1081 of President Marcos on September 21, 1972 was a much more convoluted decision, ushering in martial rule lasting for nine years and formally lifted in January of 1981. The residual consequences of martial law were felt up to the overthrow of Marcos in 1986, but its reverberations on the political culture of the Filipinos is felt even up to now.

Historians and political pundits will continue to opine over the advantages and disadvantages of martial law, but the facts are now clearer: Marcos’ immediate trigger was the so-called attempted assassination of his defense chief (later declared as untrue by the defense chief himself). The declaration was likewise to stop in its tracks the drive towards the so-called leftist-communist conspiracy. The legitimate opposition was incarcerated; the writ of habeas corpus was suspended; newspapers were closed; both houses of Congress were padlocked; the Supreme Court was eviscerated; military tribunals were constituted; and the whole Philippines was placed under martial rule, among others.

Nothing of this sort happened under Proclamation 216 of the Deegong.

Section 18, Article VII of the Constitution empowers PRRD to declare martial law in any part of the country not exceeding 60 days within which the two houses of Congress have the responsibility and authority to review the declaration. PRRD also has the duty to report to Congress within 48 hours after the proclamation and Congress in turn has to convene within 24 hours to deliberate on the proclamation. Congress may then subsequently decide on whether to revoke or not the proclamation and lift martial law. This also did not happen.

The DU30 presidency may well be defined by his comportment on what transpired after his martial law declaration. He disregarded Congress and initially threatened to defy the Supreme Court. While it is true and justifiable that the President holds vital information about what is happening on the ground, it is still the primary role of the legislative body to check the constitutionality of the action taken by the President in this crucial situation. Despite this clear constitutional mandate, leaders of both houses of the legislature advanced the lame excuse that since the majority of members of each House anyway already supported the President’s declaration, then the constitutional protocols could be set aside. It is suspected by many however that perhaps the build-up and hype towards the “strongman” image of the President, his undisciplined language, his volatile temper and the “damn the torpedoes” attitude are intimidating to leaders of this co-equal branch. Some in the opposition likened this act by the legislative body as political self-castration by Congress.

Contradictory statements
And the Deegong went on to declare that he might extend martial law to encompass the whole country after the 60-day period; taunting the Supreme Court to determine otherwise. Some of the major assertions from the President himself are now known not to have been pre-processed by his Cabinet or his close advisers. In short, there is no “complete staff work,” the famed “CSW” that became the hallmark of the Ramos presidency.

Speaking to his troops, Duterte said: “During martial law, your commanders and you can arrest any person, search any house. There is no more warrant needed”. This contradicts what was earlier stated by the government information agency that warrants of arrest and search warrants should be issued and that “no person may be arrested and detained without orders coming from these civil courts”. It is simply alarming how PRRD blurts out unstudied statements with his communications officers trying to fix the damage subsequently. One from the military is its prediction contradicted by the civilian leadership that hostilities will end by the Philippine Independence Day, June 12.

This cacophony of contradictory statements emanating from the center of power suggests a core in conflict with itself reflecting negatively on a “strongman” President. It is a symptom of disarray in the office of the President when each subaltern, with good intentions no doubt, discerns or second-guesses the President’s body language and passes along these conjectures as official statements. The presidency is not served well if the President’s men are held back, perhaps driven by fear of the wrath of the President or much worse, there are no dissenting voices to counter the President’s. These are the circumstances that are the breeding grounds of an emerging anomaly in high political leadership – the imperial presidency.

(Next Thursday, Part 2 – The imperial presidency)

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