Reflections on April Fools’ Day: Rule of law, not rule of a President



First read
IT’S all coincidence and not planned that this column sees print on April 1, 2017, April Fools’ Day. I have no wish to call anyone a fool. I will only say that my thoughts were turned toward reflection on our national life by two items that I read in the papers and online yesterday:

1. A story by CNN Philippines on President Rodrigo Duterte’s “formula of fear” in ruling Davao City as mayor and now the entire country as President.

2. An Agence France-Presse story on Duterte offering a return to authoritarian rule as a solution to all the
problems that democracy has failed to fix in the country.

Rule? Why does the man talk of ruling? He is not a king.

On May 9, 2016, 38 percent of Filipino voters voted for Duterte to become the President or head of the Philippine government for six years, from June 2016 to June 2022.

Duterte was fairly elected to head the government of the day, not to rule the country or the Republic.

Democracy under the rule of law

I looked up my copy of the 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines, and I read word for word its provision in Article VII on the Executive Department. The word “rule” is not mentioned once in the entire article. Even the term “rules”, in the sense of rules and regulations, is not used.

We find the word “rule” in the very first paragraph of the Constitution, the Preamble, which reads:

“We, the sovereign Filipino people, imploring the aid of Almighty God, in order to build a just and humane society and establish a Government that shall embody our ideals and aspirations, promote the common good, conserve and develop our patrimony, and secure to ourselves and our posterity the blessings of independence and democracy under the rule of law and a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace, do ordain and promulgate this Constitution.”

The term cited is democracy under “the rule of law,” not the rule of an official.

The grave error here lies in misunderstanding the word rule, as distinguished from the word govern. A monarch (king or queen) rules. A president governs as head of government.

Limited presidential executive

Our Constitution defines in Article VII the duties of the President in his oath of office (Section 5, Article VII). He swears that:

1. He will faithfully and conscientiously fulfill his duties as president;

2. He will preserve and defend the Constitution;

3. He will execute its laws;

4. He will do justice to every man; and

5. He will consecrate himself to the service of the nation.

One charter framer and author, Jose N. Nolledo, has elaborated on the oath as follows: “The word consecrate means ‘dedicate to a sacred purpose or service’ and sacred means holy and inviolable. In no case must the President violate the sacred duties of being the head of state and government. His service belongs to the people.
And that he holds the highest and most exalted position of the land as a trust. For if he becomes unworthy of that trust, he must resign because he becomes a disgrace to the presidency.”

Elsewhere, we find in William Safire’s Political Dictionary that the term “rule of law” was developed to check the assumption of extra-legal authority or inherent power by the Executive. Rule of law asserts that a nation’s leaders must abide by a written Constitution or unwritten common law.

Under the other sections of Article 7, our Constitution enumerates the powers of the President, which are substantial. It also made explicitly clear that the presidential powers are limited by various checks and balances.

As I recall from my studies incomparative government, our constitutional system decrees a limited presidential executive, unlike the parliamentary executive in a parliamentary system.

The limited presidency is the most common form of political executive in the world today; 52 states, embracing 25 percent of the world population, have adopted it.

There are four key features of a limited presidential executive:

1.The president is elected for a fixed term to perform the dual role of head of state and head of government. As head of state, he occupies a mainly ceremonial position. As head of government, he leads the executive branch of government, and is usually the head of the armed forces and the state civil service.

2. The president’s tenure is secure unless he commits a grave unconstitutional act. In the Philippines as in the US, the president cannot be removed except by impeachment.

3. The president governs with an advisory cabinet of non-elected departmental secretaries, who are fully responsible to him.

4. Presidential powers are limited by the need for the approval by the legislature of certain executive actions.
It is this balanced relationship between the president and Congress which makes the presidency, although powerful, a limited executive.

Additionally, the third branch, the judiciary, has the power of judicial review over the actions and decisions of the legislative and the executive.

In his usually extemporaneous public speeches, Duterte has sometimes talked as though the president works in a “straitjacket.” He feels constrained by the separation of powers. This is why he hankers for authoritarian rule.

The unlimited presidential executive

The term unlimited is used in political science to describe the executive presidency in one-party, non-communist states.

In communist systems, the party is the ultimate source of power.

Political executives in these systems have certain features in common, particularly greater authoritarianism.
Authoritarianism results mainly from the absence of competition and choice, which a multi-party political system provides.

Strong, personal leadership is typical of an unlimited presidency and one-party government.

Filipinos should get used to the idea that this is where Duterte means to take the country when he talks of all the changes he envisions, through federalization, the death penalty, and authoritarianism. Critics are right to suspect that Duterte covets the powers that Ferdinand Marcos wielded when he was the authoritarian leader.

Formula of fear

Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, “it is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”

It’s not likely that DU 30 was thinking of the Venetian when he spoke of “the formula of fear” in his political philosophy. He had personally reached the awful conclusion that illegal drugs constitute the root problem of the country. And killing without mercy is the solution. For this, he was prepared to use the police and the military—the state’s monopoly of violence—to do the killing.

Discussion of the killing spree has been constrained by ambivalent thinking that it may not be all bad, or that it may be doing some good in bringing down crime in society. It has blinded many, especially Duterte supporters, from seeing that worse crimes are being committed in the name of stopping drugs.

Is this what our country, just four years away from its quincentennial, has become in the era of its first Mindanao President?

The nation we really are

I think this is the time to discuss up front and frankly what President Duterte is telling us in all the suggestive talk and hints about martial law, authoritarianism, “I will kill you”, and “formula of fear.”

I figure that by bringing all this up front, we can strip the subject of its creepy and manipulative character. If we Filipinos openly debate the issue, we will keep our heads.

We can contrast sharply 1) the constitutional system that we already have, and 2) the political system that President Duterte and his political cohorts want to install. We will see the nation we really are and has become – by dint of sacrifice and effort.

By naming the choice before us, we will be like a young lady who has finally been proposed to. We can say, “yes” or “no.” We will make our choice with no illusions.


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  1. The only way to stop the drug problem is to arrest the addicts and pushers, put them to jail forever and no bail. This will stop the drugs and will stop the killings.

  2. Amnata Pundit on

    When the law protects drug pushers more than it protects society, then we have a serious problem. Your rule of law always sounds good but it is only manmade and you have to go to school to really understand it. There is another law for which man is born with the instinct to know because it was made by God and that is the universal moral law. This faculty is an integral part of us like our eyes and ears but Im afraid this instinct is dimmed by relying too much on manmade rules and by thinking like a lawyer. Priests love to say vox populi vox dei (only when it their candidate wins) and God spoke when Duterte, in spite of his well known record as a killer (of criminals), won as president against all odds (read Smartmatic). Today despite of all the opprobrium he has received for his war on drugs his approval rating stands at more than 80%. The people instinctively know God’s Moral Law. Your dissertation on the rule of law will merit high marks in law school, but how come they don’t impress the people? Don’t the people’s voice count anymore? Do they know something that you don’t?

    • Amnuta Pundit, I find your comment more interesting and enlightening than Yen’s column.

    • God spoke when Duterte, in spite of his well known record as a killer (of criminals), won as president
      Lol, Spoken like a true believer and fanatic that you are Amnata Pundit.

      God didn’t speak, the uneducated masses spoke like they always do with their empty pockets.
      Aquino’s administration stole from the people for 6 years so after they sold their votes like they always do enough voted for a change (any change ) other than the thieving liberal party.
      The masses also reelected a bunch of pork barrel thieves just to show that they deserve they government they get.