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Dr Lorraine Carlos Salazar
On 24 February, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a State of Emergency after the government uncovered a new coup plot. Arroyo has been battling for political survival over the past year as her legitimacy has been questioned over allegations of election rigging in 2004. However, efforts to impeach or unseat her via popular protests, thus far, have failed.
The new coup plot, allegedly the result of an alliance between military rebels, communists and some members of the Opposition, was timed to coincide with actions to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the first People Power, a four-day peaceful uprising that deposed former President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. The plot was reportedly uncovered on 22 February with the capture of a junior military officer who was involved in a previous attempt to oust Arroyo in 2003. The officer, who escaped from detention, was supposedly captured during a meeting with communists.
In response to the foiled plot, Arroyo declared a State of Emergency. Under Proclamation 1017, she ordered the Armed Forces to maintain law and order, prevent or suppress all forms of lawless violence, as well as any acts of insurrection. She reiterated that the declaration was a warning to those threatening the duly elected government. Arroyo claimed that these actions were being recklessly magnified by some members of the media, and were adversely affecting the economy and sabotaging confidence in the government.
Given the uncanny timing, the government emphasized that the military would 'adhere to the constitutional supremacy of civilian authority over the military at all times and help maintain public order, peace and safety, secure vital installations, and ensure the unhampered delivery of services'. The proclamation banned rallies, allowed warrant-less arrests, and the government takeover of key privately owned utilities and businesses that could affect national security - including the media.
The declaration caused confusion and concern. While Arroyo cited constitutional provisions regarding executive authority, she did not refer to such exercise of constitutional power as a state of martial law. Some lawyers say she is merely describing the existing situation rather than invoking the use of extraordinary powers. Others claim that she has declared martial law without calling it as such. The 1987 Constitution states that congressional approval is needed before the President can exercise emergency powers, including arresting people without a warrant and detaining them indefinitely. Thus, the declaration was actually more a show of strength and a warning to her opponents and their potential supporters.
The police arrested at least 16 people including three top-ranking military officers, a retired general, a former police deputy director, and a leftist opposition congressman. Reportedly, about 100 people in total were to be arrested over the plot. In addition, the offices of a Manila-based anti-Arroyo newspaper, the Daily Tribune, were sealed. Media practitioners criticized the Arroyo declaration as reminiscent of Marcos' martial law.
Elements of civil society along with the Opposition have, it seems, joined hands with restive members of the middle and lower ranks of the military, who are on the frontlines of the campaigns against the communists and the Muslim separatists. These officers are unhappy with corruption in the military and government as well as the politicization of promotions and appointments amongst their ranks.
In spite of this, the military top brass reiterated their commitment to obey and respect the civilian chain of command and the Constitution. This stand was a restatement of their declaration in July 2005 at the height of protests against Arroyo. As of 23 March, about 20 military officers have been recommended to face court martial for their alleged involvement in the foiled coup.
Meanwhile, the powerful Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines called for calm and sobriety, urged Filipinos to reject violence from any quarter, and proposed a dialogue among the key players. Similar to the military, the Church has chosen not to withdraw support from the Arroyo government, although it viewed the proclamation with concern.
Arroyo's strongest base of support came from congressmen, governors, mayors and other local government officials. Many have released statements of support on the President's move and expressed their commitment to stand by the President as the duly elected leader of the country. Local businessmen also supported Ms Arroyo's move, calling it 'stabilizing'.
However, former President Fidel Ramos expressed dismay at Arroyo's proclamation, describing it as 'unjustified' and 'overkill'. Ramos, a well-respected former general and one of Arroyo's most crucial allies, stood by Arroyo at the height of the political crisis that nearly unseated her in July last year. This time, however, Ramos stated that his support for the President was waning - a statement which does not bode well for Arroyo.
As can be expected, Opposition legislators and civil society leaders challenged the edict at the Supreme Court, filing seven petitions seeking to declare the proclamation unconstitutional. The Court started hearing oral arguments on the petitions on 7 March but is yet to rule on the matter. The Executive is hoping that the Court will rule in line with an earlier decision on a similar declaration by Arroyo in May 2001 when supporters of deposed President Joseph Estrada stormed the President's palace. Due to the attack, Arroyo declared a 'state of national emergency', which the Opposition challenged at the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that such a declaration did not add or subtract a whit to and from the powers of the Presidency, and thus merely constituted a statement of fact, a description of prevailing conditions that require the Commander-in-Chief to call out the military to suppress lawless violence.
A week later, on 3 March, Arroyo lifted the proclamation saying that threats had been minimized, although the government would remain vigilant as long as residual threats to her administration are present.
With regards to the market, the response was less alarming than could be expected. It seems that investors have learned to ignore the endless coup rumours and have factored political instability into their calculations. In fact, records show that foreign investors' buying in the stock market soared during February. On 21 March, the Philippine Stock Exchange recorded a seven-year high, on the back of strong corporate earnings and improvements in the government's fiscal position. Meanwhile, the Peso continues to strengthen, hitting around P51 to the US Dollar due to large remittance flows, which in turn help keep consumer spending buoyant. In effect, the political and economic pictures are disjointed.
The declaration of a State of Emergency, while already lifted, points to the seriousness of the latest, albeit failed, attempt to unseat Arroyo Nonetheless, the President continues to face an uphill battle in stabilising the political situation. Although dissatisfaction with Arroyo remains high, a 'People Power' protest to unseat her is unlikely.
WATCHPOINT: It can be expected that the Opposition will continue to try to unseat Arroyo who, in turn, has made it clear that nothing can make her resign. Given the political standoff, political and economic reforms and the public's welfare are the clear casualties.
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