Crisis after crisis, Duterte still on top
After a year of sound and fury, the Philippines' tough-talking president has firmly consolidated his controversial rule
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, elected on a tough-talking populist platform, enters his second year in office from an unrivaled position of strength.
While confronting his biggest political crisis in Mindanao, where Islamic State-affiliated groups have stepped up a campaign of terror, he has managed to rally all relevant domestic and international partners, including China and the United States, to his government’s side.
At home, the Philippine Supreme Court gave Duterte a crucial nod this month by constitutionally upholding his controversial declaration of martial law well beyond Marawi City, the epicenter of clashes between militants and government forces, to across the entire southern island of Mindanao.
Only one of 15 justices opposed the declaration by siding with petitioners who questioned the constitutional validity of the president’s decision to assume draconian emergency powers in the name of upholding national security.
According to the petitioners, Duterte’s decision lacked proper consultation with relevant sectors, particularly the military, which implements emergency powers, and the Congress, which has the mandate to review and nullify any martial law declaration.
The petitioners also argued that the crisis in Marawi doesn’t meet the threshold of ‘rebellion’ or ‘invasion’, the two constitutional requirements for declaring martial law, but instead represented an act of terrorism.
Solicitor General Jose Calida, who argued on behalf of the government before the Supreme Court, maintained that the presence of foreign fighters and the scale of the militants’ attack during the siege of Marawi met both the definition of rebellion and invasion.
Senior defense officials, namely Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Eduardo Ano, were lukewarm if not opposed initially to the declaration, arguing that existing legal instruments were sufficient to tackle IS’ threat.
Later the military released a specific set of guidelines, reassuring the public that the implementation of martial law would not come at the expense of citizens’ basic constitutional rights. It was a deliberate attempt to reassure the public against fears of a return to the days of dictatorship under the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos.
Congress, meanwhile, dilly-dallied on convening a joint session to examine the validity of the proclamation. Duterte’s allies, who dominate both houses of the legislature, eventually passed separate resolutions endorsing the martial law declaration.
Ahead of the Supreme Court’s decision, both the executive and legislature turned up the heat on the judiciary, pressuring the weakest branch of the government into acquiescence.
“The Supreme Court has no right to dictate the Congress what to do,” warned House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, a key ally of Duterte, in early June, as the battle in Marawi took a particularly bloody turn.
Apart from threatening to shred any unfavorable ruling by the Supreme Court, Alvarez, who also comes from Mindanao, suggested the possibility of extending Duterte’s martial law declaration beyond its 60-day limit until the end of his term in 2022.
In early July, just hours before the Supreme Court’s decision, Duterte, with typical chutzpa, warned against any opposition to his declaration.
“It’s not dependent on the whim of the Supreme Court. Should I believe them? When I see the situation is still chaotic and you ask me to lift it? I will arrest you and put you behind bars,” warned the Filipino president, leveraging growing public support for his hardline position in Mindanao.
“We can talk of anything else and make compromises, maybe, but not when the interest of my country is at stake,” he added.
At the same time, Duterte is enjoying significant support from both new and old international partners. The United States has deployed intelligence-gathering drones, a unit of Special Forces to provide advanced urban warfare training, and a new batch of equipment to aid counter-terrorism operations in Mindanao.
The two countries also conducted joint patrols on June 30 in the Sulu Sea, a traditional stronghold of other IS-affiliated elements, particularly the Abu Sayyaf Group, which is notorious for its kidnap-and-ransom operations in the area.
The maritime exercise saw American Littoral Combat Ship USS Coronado operating side-by-side the Philippines’ flagship warship, the Del Pilar Class Frigate BRP Ramon Alcaraz, a retrofitted former American coast guard vessel.
Promising to pursue an ‘independent’ foreign policy, however, Duterte has also welcomed defense and development assistance from China, which has warily watched the US’ growing military presence in Mindanao.
The two neighbors, often at loggerheads under the Benigno Aquino administration, have dramatically improved their bilateral relations under Duterte.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently described Philippine-China relations as entering a “golden period” of “fast development”, vowing extensive counter-terrorism support to its newfound ally in Manila.
In that spirit, China has provided a historic defense package, amounting to US$16 million in weapons and ammunitions, to aid the AFP’s operations in Mindanao.
Back in May, on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Beijing, Beijing also offered a US$500-million loan to the AFP for the purchase of Chinese weapons. The two sides are already discussing the prospects of joint-military exercises as well as a bilateral intelligence-sharing arrangement with a focus on counter-terrorism.
As the Duterte administration shifts its focus to the reconstruction of Marawi city, with US$400 million already promised, Beijing is expected to play a key role in post-conflict development in the area.
After a year of sound and fury, the Philippines’ tough-talking president has found himself not only in clear command of domestic political institutions, but also at the receiving end of generous assistance from major international powers.