Does Philippine Constitution Allow Presidents to Assume Absolute Power?

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Does Philippine Constitution Allow Presidents to Assume Absolute Power?

by Manuel L. Quezon III

When it was still in force, the Philippines’ 1935 Constitution was held to contain two major flaws. The first was the broad definition of the conditions that justified the imposition of martial law, which did not specify any limitations as to its duration or extent.

In general, the understanding of the martial provision seemed to be, that it was a list of options a president could use depending on the circumstance. Furthermore, the assumption seemed to be, that the options stemmed from the local, with the national as a last resort.

Others argued that these options were too vague, and too tempting for a president not to use whole hog.

The late journalist Vicente Albano Pacis believed this provision on martial law was copied word for word from the Jones Law (which served as our constitution from 1916 to 1935), but minus the Jones Law’s provision requiring the governor-general to submit, for approval or disapproval, his action to the president of the United States.

According to Pacis, this was done deliberately, precisely to offer presidents a means to establish absolute power.

Pacis, among others, was convinced that was what Filipino presidents wanted, in their heart of hearts, since the 1930s.

And while only President Jose P. Laurel, under different circumstances and another constitution, proclaimed martial law in 1944, that didn’t mean that postwar presidents weren’t suspected of harboring the same instincts.

President Quirino, for one, argued, in 1949, that he still possessed controversial special powers granted his predecessors on the eve of World War II. The Supreme Court said no. That didn’t stop Quirino from sending a tank to chase Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson. And it didn’t stop Ramon Magsaysay from being accused of dictatorial tendencies.

Claro M. Recto did make a speech in the 1950s, cautioning the public on how susceptible to abuse the provision on martial law was; that no one bothered to amend the provision, despite Recto’s warning, revealed how it never occurred to the people that such an abuse was likely to happen.

After all, there was no sense in worrying about incipient dictators when no incumbent president was ever able to secure a second term in the first place. But then Ferdinand Marcos defeated Diosdado Macapagal and Raul Manglapus in 1965. And then in 1969, he defeated Sergio Osmena Jr. and made history.

Marcos became only the second president to be re-elected. And the first, ever, to be elected to a full second term.

However, by 1970, things had turned ugly. That year saw the First Quarter Storm where students got as far as ramming a fire truck into the Malacanang Palace gates. President Marcos warned the country that he would be forced to consider suspending the writ of habeas corpus and if necessary, proclaiming martial law. On Aug. 23, 1971, the writ of habeas corpus was suspended, and 20 people were arrested. On Sept. 23, 1972 people woke up to find no newspapers, and the radio and TV off the air. Press Secretary Kit Tatad appeared that evening, followed by Marcos himself, to announce martial law had been imposed. 8,000 people had been rounded up early that morning.

Marcos then proceeded to threaten though mostly to cajole and corrupt the members of a sitting constitutional convention into drafting a new constitution that he had already written down and which imparted to him absolute power.

In 1976, he amended the constitution — the infamous Amendment no. 6 — that gave him the power, as president, to legislate.

Essentially Marcos wiped the floor with Congress, using it as a dishrag while he took upon himself the serious work of lawmaking, particularly for his benefit and that of his wife and their cronies.

That left, from 1972 onward, only the Supreme Court as the lone self-respecting institution separate from an executive with no sense of limits or of shame.

Although described by one US authority as “the least dangerous branch,” because it cannot act on its own initiative nor does it have the physical power to effect change, the highest court can stop the other two branches dead in their legitimate tracks if it chose. They could ignore the court, of course, but they would proceed thenceforth with little or no legitimacy — and legitimacy is what government is all about.

In 1974, the Philippine Supreme Court could have, at the very least, refused to rule on the issue of martial law, on the basis of the old saying that when the guns speak, the laws fall silent — which was true but did not absolve the court from doing its duty to issue a ruling. Instead, it went a step further and validated martial law. And it would do so repeatedly so that, as one jurist put it, martial law was erected stone by stone by the decisions of a craven Supreme Court. Marcos declared martial law but it was the court that said it was right.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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