“EMERGENCY powers” and “martial law” constitute the reflex response of both the political class and the citizenry to every major and intractable crisis that the nation must confront today.
In the face of the depredations wrought by the Abu Sayyaf in the South, politicians and top military brass have oddly joined together in calling for the proclamation of martial law in Sulu, so that the government can crush once and for all this band of brigands who have made kidnapping for ransom their way of life, and have blighted so badly the country’s international image
In the face of the horrendous traffic in Metro Manila, the incoming administration of President Duterte, with the support of members of Congress (notably former President and Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo), is seeking from Congress the grant of emergency powers, so that the new government can forcefully and effectively resolve the traffic gridlock.
I ask this: how can the traffic and a small band of rebels reduce this nation of 100 million into a rabble demanding desperate measures that deviate from the norm?
This is an example yet again of our people being lulled by the seductive and deceptive appeal of strongman leadership, ironically at a time when we are poised to replace the ineffective leader who has reigned over national life for six years running.
I agree with those who say that the country urgently and desperately needs a strong leader who will put the national interest above personal interest. Our people want change—even wholesale transformation—in the way the country is run.
But why should such transformation require us to leap into the arms of dictatorship or into the drastic solution of martial law?
I submit that what we need, and what we can have if Duterte will supply it, is strong leadership—the kind that has raised countries to stability and progress in recent history.
A model of strong leadership
During the closing decades of the 20th century—in the 70s and 80s—there emerged a trend or model of political leadership that became known as “strong leadership” because it denoted the successful administrations of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, Ronald Reagan in the US, and Malcolm Fraser in Australia. They espoused remarkably similar ideas and pursued similar policies in domestic and international affairs.
Their brand of leadership became the flavor of the times because of the way their ideas and their policies caused the Soviet Union and communism to collapse in 1989.
In a book on this leadership model titled Strong Leadership (Oxford University Press, 1988), professor and author Graham Little distilled the leadership styles and ideas that Thatcher, Reagan and Fraser embodied in common.
The three leaders, Little wrote, “have put their stamp on a political era, rewriting the political agenda virtually from their own personalities….
“ Strong leadership is strong because it can master the constitutional powers at the disposal of high office and the democratic political processes. It cajoles and coerces, but any impact it has is on people whom it cannot arbitrarily punish without public questioning and possible legal redress. It reveres will and authority in a world of due process, and in the context of established morality and customs.”
To achieve their great successes in office, Thatcher, Reagan and Fraser never had to resort to martial law or special powers.
Key features of strong leadership
Little went on to list the key features of Strong leadership as exemplified by Thatcher, Reagan and Fraser. The features are compelling, and each deserves a brief note here:
1. Crisis orientation. Strong leadership announces itself with warnings. A threat looms, ultimately to the survival of nation, organization or person, and the dangers will grow unless hard-headed thinking is begun, and some tough decisions are made. The strong leader promises that decisive leadership will transform the situation and avert the crisis.
2. Realism and results. Strong leadership spurns idealistic aims, considering itself above wishful thinking. It prides itself on its realism, its practicality, and the concreteness of its goals.
3. Action and decisiveness. Simple, tangible goals, minimal entanglements and reluctance to compromise allow strong leadership to act decisively. Decisive action can be an end in itself because the worst thing is to be inactive, passive or confused.
4. Boundaries, division and hierarchy. Crisis, results, decisive action all require clarity and choice, the sheep separated from the goats, friend separated from foe, and the strong distinguished from the weak.
5. Technique and values. There is a strength that belongs to elites, and there is mass strength. The recipe for the efficient management of crisis in constitutional strong leadership is an obedient and productive work force.
This discussion by no means encompasses fully Little’s observations and conclusions about strong leadership as a model.
I mean only to suggest here a framework whereby the new administration can approach the task of governing and study various policy choices. Indeed, some of the announced policies of Duterte already reflect some of the tenets of strong leadership.
The proposal for the limited proclamation of martial l aw in Sulu, if adopted, would be similar to President Arroyo’s limited proclamation of martial law in Maguindanao after the infamous Maguindanao massacre.
With respect to the traffic emergency, we should remember this: until the MRT broke down from total mismanagement and neglect by the Aquino administration, it was efficient enough to serve some 600,000 commuters every day. And traffic was not as nightmarish as it is today.
I warn here only of the reflex tendency to adopt extraordinary measures, when normal and ordinary measures will do, or to resort to martial law, when full enforcement of existing laws should be adequate to achieve law and order.
End of Aquino era, start of the age of Duterte
One foreign resident and observer has put it to me in a stinging criticism: “The Philippines is not short of laws—it is a nation of lawyers, but without the rule of law.”
To say that we need martial law and extraordinary powers in order to achieve the rule of law is a cop-out. It is the product of desperation and laziness.
What our country desperately needs is a leader who will stand up for the nation, and will not just work for the oligarchs. I agree that Mr. Duterte can be this kind of leader for the Philippines at this watershed moment in national history.
Our history today stands divided between the end of the Aquino era, and the beginning of what could be the age of Duterte.