Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had the limits of his executive power exposed after a recent botched attempt to imprison without an arrest warrant his chief opposition critic, ex-soldier Senator Antonio Trillanes.
The incident has put the populist leader at dangerous loggerheads with his security forces and could later legally redound on him through counter charges of executive abuse of power for ordering an illegal arrest.
On August 31, Duterte signed Proclamation 572 while traveling in Israel and Jordon to void an earlier amnesty granted to Trillanes, a former naval officer, for his role in two past failed coup attempts, including a chaotic 2007 mutiny staged from the downtown Peninsula hotel.
The previous Benigno Aquino administration issued the amnesty in 2011. Duterte ordered the military to arrest the coup plotter-turned-statesman and form a court martial to try and re-imprison him on the basis he didn’t lodge the proper paperwork to apply for such an amnesty.
In the past year, Trillanes emerged as the president’s chief opposition critic, accusing him of abuse of power through dictatorial policies and selling out the country to China through his soft stance on South China Sea disputes.
He has also accused Duterte’s family, including his son and former Davao vice mayor Paolo Duterte, of engaging in the illegal drug trade at a time Duterte is under international scrutiny for a drug war that has killed thousands of suspects.
In response, an outraged Duterte lashed out at the senator last September, saying, “He’s bent on destroying me, so I destroy him or he will destroy me.” Trillanes retorted that, “President Duterte wanted me killed” but couldn’t do it because of his high level ties to the military.
Trillanes, who launched two separate failed coup attempts against then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, now a key Duterte ally and Speaker of the House of Representatives, challenged Duterte’s proclamation for his arrest as unconstitutional and a violation of due process.
In a political circus scene, he took refuge in the Senate’s building, where the upper house’s leadership refused to grant entry to army and police officers that were dispatched to place the former soldier under arrest for court martial.
What followed was a days-long standoff, which saw even Senate President Tito Sotto III, a political ally of Duterte, reluctantly granting refuge to Trillanes in order to preserve the “integrity and the sanctity” of the legislative body.
While holed up inside the Senate’s chambers, the media-savvy Trillanes organized press conferences where he presented multiple documents showing the validity of his amnesty.
With his characteristic vigor and conviction, Trillanes called on his colleagues in the Senate, his former classmates in the military and the broader public to stand up to Duterte’s dictatorial order.
Ex-Marine Congressman Gary Alejano, a Trillanes ally and former coup-plotter who was likewise granted a presidential amnesty, made an impassioned appeal to security services to defy Duterte’s order.
“I’m calling on the Armed Forces and the Philippine National Police that they should not follow illegal orders,” Alejano said at a press conference. “I’m reminding them that they are not the private army of this president. They are the army of the people.”
Both Trillanes and Alejano warned military officers that they could face future punishment if they follow illegal orders, “just because of one person’s [Duterte] wishes.”
After a several-day standoff, one which provoked widespread outcry of executive overreach and stirred public sympathy for Trillanes over social media, Duterte backed down to avoid further political fallout and a potential showdown with his own security forces.
Trillanes is known to have top contacts in the armed forces who often leak the senator information they want exposed in the public domain.
That includes sometimes sensitive materials on China’s unseen actions against the Philippines’ sovereign claims in the South China Sea that cast Duterte’s pro-Beijing policy in an unfavorable light.
The Philippine leader is already grappling with fast falling approval ratings amid a surge in inflation and a general deterioration of the economy.
Local pollster Social Weather Station’s recent survey showed that Duterte’s approval rating plummeted by 8 percentage points in the second quarter, falling to a new low of 57% from a high of almost 80% soon after his mid-2016 election. The Trillanes affair, critics say, has underscored his weakening grip on power.
One week after Duterte issued his proclamation against Trillanes, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque announced that, “After a long discussion, the president says he will abide by the rule of law. He will await the decision of the regional trial court if they will issue a warrant of arrest.”
Upon his return from abroad, Duterte tried to wash his hands of the incident by corroborating Trillanes’ claim that the mastermind behind the proclamation was Solicitor General Jose Calida.
Calida engineered the ouster of another staunch Duterte critic, former Supreme Court chief justice Maria Lourdes Senreno, earlier this year through a controversial and potentially illegal quo warranto complaint.
Trillanes claimed that Calida sought to block the senator’s investigations into the solicitor general’s alleged abuse of power in the case as well as allegations Calida’s security firm has benefitted from various multi-million-dollar government contracts.
On September 9, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Carlito Galvez Jr warned “every soldier, airman, sailor, and marine not to meddle or take part in partisan politics. Our loyalty is to the constitution,” he said. “I command the troops to adhere to the rule of law and always obey the chain of command.”
The military reportedly played a critical role in sabotaging Duterte’s warrantless arrest effort by leaking a series of documents to the media which showed the legal validity of Trillanes’ amnesty.
The military position was in line with the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, which characterized the proclamation as running “roughshod” over the constitutional guarantee against double jeopardy whereby no person shall be held to answer twice for the same criminal offense.
The influential legal body accused the government of “mischief” and abuse of power over the incident.
Similar accusations were made over the February 2017 arrest of another critical senator, former justice minister Leila de Lima, who was an early vocal critic of Duterte’s drug war and is still languishing behind bars on what many view as trumped up drug charges.
De Lima, however, lacked Trillanes military connections and protection. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana claimed on September 10 that he wasn’t consulted by Duterte on the proclamation against Trillanes and confirmed that Calida was behind the controversial order.
Lorenzana said in relation to the contested proclamation that “anything that doesn’t follow due process should be rectified.”
Time will tell how the courts respond. In a September 11 ruling, the Supreme Court rejected Trillanes demand for a temporary restraining order against any arrest, but made it clear that the senator cannot be arrested without a warrant issued by lower courts which are yet to decide on the issue.
So far Duterte has been the clear political loser in the tussle with Trillanes, who despite his controversial personal history of trying to overthrow elected governments has won the hearts and minds of Filipinos for his strong defiance of Duterte’s authoritarian and some say lawless ways.