Rumors of Duterte's Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

9 MINS READDec 5, 2016 | 09:15 GMT
Rumors of Duterte's Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated
Despite the rumors of a prospective military coup that have dogged him since even before his election, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (C) will not have to worry about an uprising anytime soon.
(TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Rumors of a coup in Manila will not bear out unless a broad swath of society mobilizes against President Rodrigo Duterte.
  • The Philippine military will be too fragmented to act unilaterally against the president.
  • The sustainability of Duterte's coalition in Congress will become clearer as he implements his contentious agenda over the coming year.

For all his outsize ambitions, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has spoken in remarkably pessimistic terms about his presidency. Duterte has said repeatedly that he does not expect to complete his six-year term — hinting darkly at assassination plots, brewing coups or attempts at impeachment. He has even suggested that he would be willing to step down as soon as he fulfills certain campaign pledges. Duterte is responding, in part, to the rumors of a prospective military coup that have dogged him since even before he was elected — over issues ranging from his outreach to communist rebels to promises to weaken long-standing defense ties with the United States.

During the week of Nov. 21, talk of a mutiny resurfaced after Duterte issued an order restricting military personnel to their barracks. (The directive was ostensibly meant to prevent members of the armed forces from joining mass protests against former President Ferdinand Marcos' recent interment in the national heroes' cemetery.) The incident drew renewed attention to the state of civil-military relations in the Philippines, where rumors of a potential military coup are a perpetual feature of politics. But despite its well-earned reputation for political agitation, the Philippine military is too divided and disorganized to overthrow presidents on its own. Cutting Duterte's term short would require a coalition drawing from the country's political class, civil society and security forces to rise against him — a prospect that is not yet in the cards.

A Meddlesome Military

The Philippine military earned its reputation for political adventurism in the 1980s during the waning days of Marcos' 22-year dictatorship. In 1983, Sen. Benigno Aquino was assassinated in a plot likely devised by senior military officers. A few years later, a cabal of midlevel officers called the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) attempted to oust Marcos, frustrated that the president could not pacify the country's communist insurgency and neutralize other threats. The plot failed, but shortly thereafter, RAM's members and other factions of the military played a decisive role in ending Marcos' reign when they joined the 1986 demonstrations known as the People Power revolution and left the leader defenseless.

RAM, fancying itself the guardian of the republic, soon turned against Marcos' successor, President Corazon Aquino (wife of the assassinated senator). Over the course of Aquino's four-year term, the movement, which believed that only the military could stabilize the country, made several failed efforts to oust her for her alleged communist sympathies and corruption. Pro-Marcos military factions carried out at least two other attempted coups, the most violent of which included assassination plots and attacks on Manila's airport, the presidential palace and the military headquarters. Scores of soldiers died in open fighting between rebel and loyalist factions.

Since then, nearly every Philippine president has had to contend with rumors of coups or outright mutinies, though the pace and intensity of military agitation has fallen off. The most notable period of revolt occurred under former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who stared down at least three coup attempts. In 2003, more than 300 junior military officers seized a luxury hotel in Manila in an attempt to spark a popular backlash over the corruption allegations dogging the Arroyo administration, to no avail. An apparent coup plot in 2006 compelled Arroyo to declare a state of emergency, and the next year, a small group of rebel officers once again seized a hotel before quickly surrendering.

Why Philippine Coups Fail

The post-Marcos period offers one lesson: In contrast to nearby Thailand and Myanmar, Philippine military interventions are unsuccessful. The failures stem from several factors. First, dissident military factions cannot muster enough support among the officer corps to achieve the critical mass they need to prevail. The Philippine military has historically been divided along ethnic, socio-economic and ideological lines — a reflection of the country's political fractures. These rifts make it difficult for rival cliques to put aside their conflicting interests and organize coherent, decisive operations in pursuit of common political goals. At the end of the Marcos period, for example, RAM was only one of several military factions trying to amass power in the dictator's wake, and most of the other groups were reluctant to join its camp.

Second, coup plots have generally lacked the popular support necessary to gain legitimacy and buy-in from the country's key institutions: the police, the Roman Catholic Church, labor organizations, business leaders and provincial oligarchs. Though RAM won a massive amount of legitimacy when it joined the anti-Marcos movement, it lost this goodwill when it tried to unseat a popular, democratically elected leader. Its coup failed because other military factions did not step in to support such an unpopular revolt.

The Philippine military's attempts to change the country's political leadership have succeeded only when they have been part of a broader movement. In 2001, for instance, the military helped bring down President Joseph Estrada, who was embroiled in corruption scandals, by temporarily resigning their commissions and making public appearances alongside the leaders of mass anti-government protests. Military leaders made it abundantly clear that they did not intend to take power themselves, but rather were simply supporting a transition to new civilian government apparently free of corruption and headed by Arroyo, then the country's elected vice president. 

Civil-military relations have changed dramatically since the turbulent 1980s. The attempts to oust Marcos and Aquino were garden-variety coup plots of the sort that recently rocked Turkey. They involved coordinated operations to seize power by taking control of key buildings and infrastructure nodes before neutralizing opposing forces. To justify their actions, the military cliques behind the coups generally invoked their status as protectors of the republic with a mandate to commit violence when necessary. The plots prompted the government to implement reforms to prevent future coup attempts and give the military an outlet for its political frustrations. New laws gave the president more power to nominate senior officers and created avenues by which military factions could amass power through peaceful, democratic means. Former Gen. Fidel Ramos served as president from 1992 to 1998, and RAM leader Gregorio "Gringo" Honasan later became a senator. Their examples inspired other officers to seek political office to preserve the interests of their military associates from within the system. And though this shift hindered the development of a meritocratic, apolitical military — and distracted from internal combat operations — it ensured that the military would be too divided into competing factions with rival political patrons to unify against civilian rule.

Nonetheless, the coup threats and occasional mutinies have persisted. Over the past few decades, though, disaffected military factions have had little expectation of taking power unilaterally, making their goals much narrower and their methods subtler. Now, coups are used as political tools to express displeasure over specific policies, test the waters or protect the interests of a given faction. When a group of generals threatened an uprising under the Estrada administration, for example, they were trying to ward off a corruption investigation. 

Duterte's Army

Today, the military is unlikely — and unable — to intervene unilaterally. Duterte is relatively safe in his position unless a sizable popular movement arises or government institutions turn against him. Given the whispers of financial impropriety between Duterte and the Marcos family, the recent protests against the longtime strongman are a thorn in the president's side. Even so, they do not signal a broader uprising. Despite the increased dissent over Duterte's war on drugs, the president still has high approval ratings and the support of a broad coalition in Congress. Dissenters in the opposition and judiciary have yet to gain traction, and the upcoming 2017 budget — the Duterte administration's first — will give him new sources of patronage with which to shore up support. In January, moreover, he will appoint a new military chief and oversee a reshuffle of senior officers, further consolidating his control.

Certain issues could unite the military against him. Duterte is weakening critical defense ties with the United States, reorienting the military's modernization drive and reaching out to communist and Muslim rebels, to the military's dismay. But in implementing these initiatives, he has tried to prioritize the military's material interests while working to sustain his popularity with the rank and file through salary increases and support for operations against Islamist militants in the south. His shift away from the United States, meanwhile, has slowed and is less likely to leave the troops feeling stripped of support for their counterinsurgency operations in Mindanao.

This does not mean that Duterte's fears of a coup are entirely unfounded. A revival of military adventurism in Philippine politics is perpetually a threat, as evidenced by the efforts against Estrada and Arroyo — both of whom took office with sky-high approval ratings before becoming embroiled in scandals. Coup plotters in the Philippines also generally pay little price for their misdeeds. In fact, the main leader of the 2003 and 2007 attempts, Antonio Trillanes IV, is now a senator for the opposition — and a prominent Duterte adversary. The low stakes of political agitation and the potential payoff creates incentive for disaffected military factions to seize the moment when a broader movement begins to form. 

Duterte's administration is still in its early days. He faces the daunting challenge of ruling a geographically fragmented nation with weak institutions and rampant corruption. Governing in such a context is no easy task. The president's ambitious domestic agenda, which is focused on establishing federalism and imposing economic reform, will pit him against powerful interests and oligarchs. Many of them have the loyalty of military factions or command their own private militias. The sustainability of Duterte's popularity and coalition in Congress will become clearer over the next year as he pushes to implement his contentious agenda — and as the bodies from his drug war keep piling up. At this point, coup threats may be little more than canards, but the move to keep the military out of the anti-Marcos protests highlights that the Philippines' latent potential for instability is not to be taken lightly.

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