Rodrigo Duterte is again flirting with a dangerous change to the rule of law in the Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has again suggested that he may impose martial law in the Philippines to aid his brutal crackdown on the country’s drug trade.

Duterte has broached martial law before, mentioning it in response to criticism of his drug war in August.

He again mentioned it in December, in remarks lamenting the constitutional limits on the president’s power to deal with security threats.

He returned to the subject on January, saying, “no one can stop me,” in reference to the Congress and Supreme Court.

Duterte’s latest reference to martial law came on Thursday, after returning from a trip to Thailand, which is currently under military rule.

In comments to reporters, the Philippine president said he was weighing both martial law and the suspension of local elections in order to deal with what he has described as the pervasive threat from drugs.

“If I declare martial law, I will finish all the problems, not just drugs,” Duterte told reporters in a pre-dawn briefing.

Duterte reiterated his threat to take drastic action against Islamic militants in the country. “I will allow the military to try you and put you to death by hanging,” he said.

He also said he was considering just appointing leaders to 42,000 barangays, the Philippines’ smallest government unit, rather than letting them be selected in elections slated for October. This was needed, Duterte claimed, because so many barangay captains, as they are known, are involved in drugs.

“We are looking for a way to just appoint the barangay captains,” Duterte said, according to AFP. “Narco-politics has entered the mainstream of Philippine politics.”

Barangay elections, which law mandates should be held every three years, are central to Philippine democracy because they are responsible for services like health clinics.

Duterte, who won just under 40% of the vote in a five-way presidential election last May, remains popular in the Philippines, despite his at-times bellicose behaviour and his bloody crackdown on drugs, which has claimed thousands of lives.

A late-September survey found him with a +64% net approval rating (76% satisfied minus 11% dissatisfied). Another survey taken in early December found him with an 83% approval rating.

That high approval level, plus his majority in the Philippine Congress, may insulate Duterte from moves toward impeachment.

But martial law may not be well-received.

It is a touchy subject in the Philippines, which is just three decades removed from the “People Power” revolution that saw Filipinos flood the streets to end Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship — a movement Duterte’s mother took part in.

Bonifacio Ilagan, who was jailed and tortured during Marcos’ martial-law period, has said Duterte’s references to martial law could be a “trial balloon” in order to assess public opinion on amending the constitution to expand his ability to declare martial law.

Ilagan said that assembly would have the power to amend the president’s martial-law powers, but he cast doubt on how that would be received. “I honestly believe the people will resist,” he told AFP in December.

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