Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte takes questions while wearing surgical mask on April 8, 2020. Photo: Facebook

MANILA – The Covid-19 pandemic has been a boon for authoritarian leaders in Southeast Asia who have leveraged emergency rule provisions for their own political ends.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte has fully exploited the ongoing public health crisis to consolidate more power.

With a soldier-backed nationwide lockdown and bans on protests in the name of social distancing, critic say the Filipino leader is arguably trying to impose a permanent state of emergency in the democratic nation.

For years, the tough-taking president has warned for various reasons he would impose martial law in Manila and other major cities, similar to the hard curbs on civil liberties he imposed on the southern island of Mindanao in the name of fighting terrorism.

Since gaining emergency powers to combat the Covid-19 crisis in March, Duterte has presided over a broad crackdown on critical voices, shut down the country’s largest news broadcaster and is now railroading through Congress a sweeping anti-terror bill which would allow for warrantless arrests and curb free speech.

With the Philippine legislature now in recess, Duterte is angling to extend his emergency powers for the foreseeable future.

The Philippines has recorded nearly 23,000 Covid-19 infections and just over 1,000 deaths, putting its outbreak in the middle of the pack in Southeast Asia in terms of severity.

As the Philippines moves closer to 2022 presidential elections, the Filipino leader is in an ever-stronger position to hammer and harass the opposition and install a successor to his liking, including possibly his daughter or son in a dynastic handover.

Under the Covid-19 combating Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, Duterte was handed unprecedented  powers to “move, decide and act freely for the best interest of the Filipino people during this health crisis.”

Workers in hazmat suits disinfect a road in San Juan City, Philippines on March 19, 2020. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum/Lisa Marie David

Section 6(6) of the new law greenlighted heavy penalties, including two months imprisonment and up to US$20,0000 (1 million peso) fines, for anyone who dared to “create, perpetuate, or spread false information” without clearly defining the term.  

A wave of warrantless arrests has followed, with as many as 41,000 Filipinos facing various punishments Some have even been forced into animal cages and others forced to sit under a scorching sun for allegedly violating the lockdown regulations.

Dozens of netizens have also faced subpoenas by intelligence and other state agencies for supposedly spreading false information, which has increasingly come to cover mere criticism of the president and his government’s policies.

Duterte’s extraordinary special powers were supposed to last for only three months under the emergency law. Despite easing lockdowns in Metro Manila and other major cities, his government is seeking to extend emergency measures set to expire on June 24.

“It’s not a preference. But I think it definitely is necessary to give us at least 90 days,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque told the media in late May, arguing that the virus crisis will persist without the discovery and distribution of a vaccine.

“Of course, extraordinary power is something that is reserved for extraordinary circumstances. But the problem here with Covid-19 is without the vaccine, we’ll never go back to normal and it’s still extraordinary,” Duterte’s spokesman added.

The presidential palace has claimed that without emergency powers and additional funds it will struggle to provide economic assistance to distressed communities, compensate and protect health workers, and step up its public health campaign.

Security personnel hold up placards reminding people to stay at home amid concerns of the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Manila on March 31, 2020. Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

As such, Duterte’s legislative allies have pushed for various bills which would not only extend emergency rule but also expand the president’s powers.

In the Senate, the Bayanihan to Recover as One bill is set to augment up to 30 special powers already granted to the president, as well as allocate an additional $2.8 billion (140 billion pesos) to support his government’s policies. 

The senators, however, have made it clear that new powers will be conditional upon improvements in public health policies, most especially the need for mass virus testing to be “conducted immediately” in priority areas.

The proposed legislation also calls on the government to improve and expand its performance in at least 15 different areas, including economic assistance to small and medium enterprises, students and teachers, as well as health workers.

Crucially, however, senators also want punitive provisions contained in the existing emergency measures to be struck from the books. Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, for one, has accused the government of abusing its special powers.

“The Bayanihan Act is not a penal statute per se, the principal purpose of the law is to address an emergency and not punish a crime,” Drilon said while decrying the surge in warrantless arrests and excessive punishment against alleged violators.

“They are violating the quarantine rules by looking for food, they are looking for jobs. The quarantine violators are motivated and driven by reasons of hunger and by reasons of income and not because they are criminals,” he added.

A woman waiting for relief goods to be placed on chairs designated for households in a low income community in Metro-Manila. Photo: EPA via AFP Forum

The Senate adjourned on June 4 after a second reading of the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act’s second bill, meaning it’s passage will have to wait at least until Congress reconvenes in July.

That raises questions about whether Duterte’s emergency rule can legally continue after June 24. His supporters argue that the government can temporarily extend his special powers until legislators reconvene next month in the name of containing the virus.

Constitutional experts have questioned that rationale, however.

Leading legal scholar Dan Gatmaytan, for one, has argued that the Philippine Constitution “does not provide for an [automatic] extension of powers” and that if “an emergency measure is still needed, Congress can always re-enact such a law when [it] reconvenes.”