Revolutionary government, palace coup and democratic options

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

PRESIDENT Rodrigo Roa Duterte promised change when he was running for office. He campaigned on the platform of structural reforms in our mode of governance. He proposed a shift to the federal system of governance, even as he promised to get rid of crime, drugs and corruption.

More than a year has passed, and while there has been some progress in the war against drugs and crime, and
even corruption, the promise of constitutional change is yet to be fulfilled. The President is also facing a recalcitrant Congress that has delayed action on his tax reform agenda, and on granting him emergency powers.

Congress has yet to pass his proposals on the return of the death penalty, and is poised to reject the bill to lower the age of criminal liability.

This delay is not lost on his supporters, whose frustration can be felt and has emboldened them to call on the President to declare a revolutionary government.

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While the frustration is understandable, the call for a declaration of a revolutionary government is not only theoretically untenable but also practically infeasible.

A revolutionary government requires a revolution. Cory Aquino’s revolutionary government was an outcome of a coup that was staged in 1986 by Juan Ponce-Enrile and Fidel Ramos against the government of former President Ferdinand Marcos, and which was popularly supported by a substantial segment of the urban population in Manila. The coup leaders, instead of establishing a military junta, yielded to Aquino who formed a government where she exercised both executive and legislative powers, and who reconstituted the Supreme Court. Cory Aquino exercised revolutionary powers. It is clear that even as EDSA was not a revolution as defined by theories of political violence, the overthrow of the constitutional government is an objective historical reality.

However, revolutions are not planned events. They just come when conditions are ripe. Dissatisfied and unhappy people deciding to mass up in EDSA or in the Luneta may not necessarily lead to a revolution. Social movements do not necessarily end up in a revolution. Revolutions entail rapid, massive and oftentimes violent transformation of the social structures of society, including an overthrow of the fundamental ideologies, worldviews and philosophies upon which a political order is founded.

While revolutions are always possible, they are absolutely not declared, nor can they be planned, not even by people who possess revolutionary aspirations.

Thus, the only way the President could declare a government where he will possess sweeping revolutionary powers is for him to launch a palace coup against his own government, where he can overthrow the Constitution, abolish Congress and the courts, replace officers of the local government units and civil service with appointed officials, and thus monopolize the powers of all the three branches of government.

In fact, if the President wills it, this may be the best time to launch a palace coup. He has the support of the armed forces. He has also a wide base of support from the people. The opposition, while noisy, is for all intents and purposes a weakened political force.

However, the President may face the risk of political isolation from important allies. Despite the political noise generated by his critics, both locally and abroad, trying to undermine his political standing, the President’s legitimacy in the global community remains unsullied for the simple reason that he remains committed to the rule of law and constitutional processes. Launching a palace coup, overthrowing his own constitutional government, and concentrating all powers in his hands may not sit well with our global political and economic partners.

Launching a palace coup will necessarily turn the President into a dictator and a tyrant, who even if benevolent, will still end up with him becoming exactly as that his critics are accusing him of. His benevolence notwithstanding, launching a palace coup will always be seen as an assault on democracy.

The other risk is the weak political and structural base that will be required to sustain and enable a one-man rule of the President, should he declare a coup. He will require a cohesive ideological base and a well-disciplined army of enablers and implementers on the ground, which unfortunately does not exist. His social media army is in fact showing signs of fracturing. His political party is now populated by turncoats and former stalwarts of the party dominated by the oligarchic elites.

The President can launch a palace coup. But it faces the risk of imploding on its sheer weight, taken down by the likely scenario of infighting and rivalries in the rank and file of his political base.

It is in this regard that a third, and more democratic, option can be entertained. The President holds a wide popular base, by poll estimates ranging from 70 to 80 percent. A support base as wide as this can be deepened and turned into a potential force that can overhaul Congress and local government units in the 2019 elections.

People have always been complaining about corrupt, traditional politicians who are enemies of reform and change. Yet we keep on sending them back to their seats every election for them to continue to inflict on us their retarded brand of politics.

It’s about time we use the ballot, and the power of suffrage, to affect a political transformation that does not require a revolution, or does not push the President to commit undemocratic acts. Supporters of the President have been brandishing his popular base as the source of his power. The challenge now is to use his popular base to convert the 2019 elections into a cleansing process of getting rid of traditional and change-resistant politics.

We should make change an issue in the 2019 elections. We should elect people who would be our democratic alternatives to a revolution or to a palace coup. These are people whose power will not be in their popularity but in their knowledge and capacities to be harbingers and enablers of change.

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