The siren call of strong leadership


“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.


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  1. Driggs Matabaran on

    The culture and sense of discipline of the people in countries you mentioned (US, UK, Australia) is very different to what our society have. Believing that the type of leaders like Reagan, Thatcher or Fraser could possibly solve our socio-economic problems given the overall context of our condition – poverty, criminality, corruption, governance, political and justice system, etc. – may not be realistic. If previous leaders (with the brightest advisers and consultants) were not able to solve Abbus kidnapping, drugs, even the traffic in MM, may be it is time to explore on something not tried before…

  2. Foreign Said: “The Philippines is not short of laws—it is a nation of lawyers, but without the rule of law.”

    DU30 is in now, he will rule the law, he will make sure Filipinos citizens obey the law!
    (Specially who are in the Goverment body)

  3. dyos ko…let the man do his job first. hayaan muna natin. paghindi nya nagawa saka natin bungangain. yung mga nagrereklamo nang maaga ay yung mga yellow turds na naniniwalang si noynoy lang ang greatest pres natin. good god.

  4. What is the alternative ? Who can stop these criminality. Drugs is destroying our society and even senators, congressman , mayors and police are corrupted by the sheer amount of money that drugs bring to very poor Pilipino families that do not have food to eat. A notice to every Pilipinos: do not make friends or go near any drug pusher or drug infested area . There will surely be collateral damage. There will be people that will be assassinated just by mere association with drug pushers. There was already release of names of drug pushers in each barangays. They will be eradicated. Do not go near them.

  5. Duterte may be a strong leader but it does not always translate to success. Instead a defining the traits of a strong leader, we should establish now the factors (at least 10) by which we should measure later whether Duterte administration succeeded or not. Right now is now the time. We can also agree on when we will rate him initially, after 6 months maybe?

    • Do you really know how bad Pilipinos are? Just walk in downtown Quiapo at night, 100 percent you will be mugged specially if you are a female. Just visit Tondo at night, you will see the poor Pilipinos putting a knife in your neck till a little blood starts to seep in your neck. Can you stop them bad Pilipinos ? Can I rescue you ? Heck , I will not because it might cost my life to do that. Do not be sorry for poor criminals, they deserve to die.

  6. This analisis and commentary is very precise and logical. I AGREE with the wise proposal to be a strong leader without disregard with human life. Emergency power is a desperate move.

  7. Thatcher and Reagan drove their countries to high levels of debt (budget deficits) in order to outspend the Russians in the arms race. Reagan killed the labor unions during his presidency, implemented massive industry deregulations, which has resulted in powerful corporations exploiting the U.S. working class. This inevitably caused huge income inequality in the U.S. How you can use Reagan and to a lesser extent, Thatcher as examples of strong leadership is baloney!