Shortly after Muslim extremists affiliated with the Islamic State laid siege to Marawi, a city in the southern Philippines, on May 23, President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law for 60 days across the island of Mindanao. Citing the presence of foreigners among the fighters and the risk of an “invasion”, he said he might extend martial law to the entire country if that was necessary “to protect the people.”
And just like that, it seems, tens of millions of Filipinos woke up to the twin threat of the Islamic State and of a potential return to unfettered authoritarianism. Democracy in the Philippines seems to be at its most fragile point in years.
What’s more, with the system’s civilian checks and balances held hostage by Mr. Duterte’s popularity, the military seems to be the best, if unlikely, guardian of Philippine democracy today.
In 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos invoked communist and Islamist insurgencies to declare nationwide martial law, and during the decade it stayed in force, thousands of opposition leaders and activists were tortured and killed, with the help of the armed forces.
Mr. Marcos was overthrown after a popular revolution in 1986, and the 1987 Constitution, which applies today, was designed to prevent the Philippines from lapsing into dictatorship again. The Constitution requires, among other things, that both the legislature and the judiciary examine the validity and implementation of any proclamation of martial law.
But Mr. Duterte has a supermajority in the legislature, and partly buoyed by that, he has vowed to defy the Supreme Court if it dares to contradict him.
On May 29, the president’s allies in the Senate affirmed the legality of his martial law declaration. His allies in the House of Representatives promptly followed suit. Last week, a group of legal experts and leading members of the opposition petitioned the Supreme Court to consider the validity of martial law. The court was scheduled to hear oral arguments on the matter this week.
So far, the military is the institution that has spoken out the most audibly. Shortly after Mr. Duterte declared martial law, the Department of National Defense released a memo of “guidance” pointing out that martial law “does not suspend the operation of the Constitution,” affect the functioning of the legislature or the courts, or suspend the writ of habeas corpus. Several security officials, including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, told senators during a closed-door meeting that they had advised Mr. Duterte against declaring martial law in Mindanao.
It took Mr. Marcos years of deliberate planning and economic largess in the 1960s and 1970s to earn the generals’ support for martial law. But then the military played a central role in enforcing repression, including by participating in brutal crackdowns on the political opposition, journalists and democracy activists.
In reaction to that traumatic period, the administrations of reformist presidents like Fidel Ramos in the 1990s and Benigno Aquino III a few years ago worked with civil society groups to professionalize the armed forces, reforming military education to emphasize loyalty to democratic values and basing promotions on merit rather than personal connections. As a result, the military has gradually become far less political.
This change is a challenge for Mr. Duterte. In his first year in office, the president has sought to win over the military by offering its personnel higher salaries, more benefits and better equipment. But these promises will be difficult to keep, partly because of constitutional and budget constraints on defense spending.
Even if they are fulfilled, they are unlikely to compensate for the fact that the president and the military seem to be at odds over sensitive security issues.
In February, in the midst of peace negotiations with communist insurgents, Mr. Duterte half-jokingly warned that they shouldn’t press him too hard for concessions, because then the military might “oust me.” For several decades during the Cold War, communists hoped to bring about a Leninist-Maoist system in the Philippines; they have now shrunk to a force of a few thousand rebels, scattered across forests and poverty-stricken rural areas. Some leaders want a peace deal in exchange for immunity, the release of prisoners or certain political reforms, but they are divided about how to move forward.
While he was mayor of Davao City, Mr. Duterte — himself a former student of the communist ideologue Jose Maria Sison and a self-described “socialist” — struck deals with communists who had been occupying parts of the city. Since becoming president, hoping for a nationwide deal, he has ordered the release from prison of some leading communist insurgents and has invited politicians with communist leanings to join his cabinet.
After decades of counterinsurgency campaigns, however, the military brass continues to treat communist rebels and their sympathizers with suspicion. Whenever peace talks have broken down, the army has promptly resumed all-out fighting against them.
Mr. Duterte has also seemed eager to reorient the Philippines’s policy toward China. He has tried to tone down a major territorial dispute between the two countries in the South China Sea, proposing joint-development projects in the area. He has called for deeper trade and investment relations as well as closer defense ties, including joint military exercises and the purchase of Chinese weapons.
But the Philippine defense establishment, military and civilian, looks upon China as a leading threat.
Shifts in China policy pit the president against the military over relations with the United States. Mr. Duterte has talked a good game about downgrading security ties with Washington, even suspending a longstanding tradition of holding war games together in the South China Sea.
The military establishment, for its part, still views America — its primary source of intelligence, funding, training and equipment for decades — as an indispensable partner against both external and domestic threats.
The battle for Marawi may now be pushing Mr. Duterte up against the limits of his own positions. Despite his bouts of anti-American bluster, U.S. Special Forces are providing the Philippine military with training, surveillance and intelligence in real time. The president has said he didn’t ask for the help. But he has conceded: “Our soldiers are really pro-American, that I cannot deny.”
On the issue of relations with the United States, he appears to be learning that he cannot act without consideration of the military’s views. A similar dynamic may turn out to be true with respect to martial law, and all the more so because the military’s position on that, not Mr. Duterte’s, seems to be in line with the population’s.
According to the latest relevant survey — released in March, before the siege of Marawi and Mr. Duterte’s declaration of martial law — 65 percent of respondents disagreed with the view that martial law might be necessary to resolve the nation’s “many crises.”
Filipinos have expressed concerns about the military, notably about corruption. It was also instrumental in removing two elected presidents during the past three decades, Mr. Marcos and Joseph Estrada.
In both those instances, though, the military intervened in response to mass protests, and then it refrained from fully assuming power, instead paving the way for a return to democracy. By now, according to Ronald Holmes — a political scientist at De La Salle University, in Manila, and the president of Pulse Asia, a leading survey agency in the Philippines — the armed forces have enjoyed “majority approval and trust for quite some time.”
The military is fast becoming again a crucial player in Philippine politics. Now that the force has professionalized, this might be all right — except that it’s also a sure sign that the country’s civilian institutions are failing this troubled democracy.
Richard Javad Heydarian is the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The U.S., China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific and the forthcoming Duterte’s Rise.