IT may not be entirely accurate to describe it as sounding the death knell for Philippine democracy, but the ouster of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes A. Sereno by the Supreme Court through a quo warranto petition filed by the Office of the Solicitor General, instead of through an impeachment trial, in the Senate shows very clearly that we’re lurching dangerously close to authoritarianism.
Despite stout denials by Solicitor General Jose C. Calida that President Duterte had anything to do with the quo warranto petition, the fact that Duterte had categorically described Sereno as his “enemy” would show that Malacañang had a direct hand in Sereno’s ouster.
If the declaration of nationwide martial law in September 1972 and with it the arrest and detention of thousands of political dissenters, the abolition of Congress and the concentration of power in the hands of one man is the template for dictatorial rule, circa 2018, then we cannot say that former town mayor turned Chief Executive Rodrigo Duterte is already a dictator. But there are deeply disturbing signs that he is well on the way to usurping all power and turning himself into a strongman that Time magazine said he already is despite Malacañang’s protestations to the contrary.
First, the rising number of casualties in the brutal war on drugs. The Philippine National Police admits to the killing of more than 4,000 suspected drug traffickers who it said fought back rather than surrendered to police operatives. But human-rights groups here and abroad cite figures of as many as 12,000 to 20,000 may have already died throughout the country since Duterte launched his war on illegal drugs. The police classifies all other killings, quite possibly by vigilante groups, as “deaths under investigation,” but since two years ago they have not released their findings, giving rise to widespread suspicion that these are extrajudicial killings or summary executions by state security forces.
Second, the arrest and detention of Sen. Leila M. de Lima on what appears to be a trumped-up charge of conspiracy to traffic in illegal drugs based on testimonies of convicted drug lords in the New Bilibid Prison is evidence of her political persecution after she raised a hue and cry over the killings in the current war on drugs and during Duterte’s stint as Davao City mayor.
Third, the clampdown on legitimate media, such as the online news site Rappler, whose Malacañang reporter has been banned from covering the beat after writing reports critical of the Duterte administration. Rappler also faced investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for having received foreign funding in violation of the constitutional ban on any form of foreign ownership of mass media.
Fourth, the virtual abolition of the checks and balances crucial to the working of a vibrant democracy by using the Legislative and the Executive branches to run after perceived enemies of the Duterte administration, as in the case of Sereno, who faced an impeachment complaint in the House of Representatives where five Associate Justices testified against her. Sereno incurred the ire of Duterte when she began to speak out against what she felt were orchestrated moves to remove her from office.
All this points to a breakdown of the rule of law in the country that can lead to political instability.
Surveys show that the majority of Filipinos still support the Duterte administration. The economy grew 6.8 percent in the first quarter of this year, with the economic team expecting GDP growth of 7 percent to 8 percent for the whole year, which economists say makes it the third fastest-growing in Asia after Vietnam and China.
The other side of the economic equation, however, is not so bright. The latest survey also shows that Filipinos want the government to address rising prices as a result of the implementation of tax reform that would raise more revenues for the administration’s aggressive infrastructure-development program. Workers are also demanding higher wages to cope with rising inflation rather than the Charter change and the proposed shift to a federal system of government that the administration wants to fast-track. If these immediate concrens remain unaddressed, then we may yet see various sectors taking to the streets to ventilate their grievances and to demand that the administration should uphold the Constitution and the rule of law and strengthen rather than weaken our democratic system.