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MANILA — In democracies, governments have a constitutional right, even an obligation, to protect the democratic order against the enemies of the state. In line with this basic principle, Philippine President Gloria Arroyo recently justified the imposition of emergency rule as a preemptive action against what she termed “the historical enemies of the democratic Philippine State.”

Presidential Proclamation No. 1017 provides the legal basis for the emergency. It defines these enemies as a coalition of “elements in the political opposition (who) have conspired with authoritarians of the extreme Left and the extreme Right, represented by military adventurists, who are now in a concerted and systematic conspiracy, over a broad front, to bring down the duly-constituted Government.”

Information regarding the people behind the alleged conspiracy and the events that led to the imposition of emergency rule remain sketchy. So far, the government has not presented credible facts on the exact extent of the alleged “concerted and systematic conspiracy.” Not surprisingly, this in turn has fanned suspicions that the stated conspiracy is but a ploy with the prime motive to justify repressive policies and intimidate the opposition. Adding to this scenario have been inconsistent statements from government and security officials regarding the exact degree and also the quality of the threat.

While the president’s handlers spoke of power-hungry rebels who were about to take over, the top military official disputed that. “This is not an organized group. This is an action of an individual officer,” said Gen. Generoso Senga, the chief of staff of the armed forces of the Philippines. “There is no coup,” Arroyo’s top military official added. “There is (only) an attempt by some soldiers to join the people in the protest rallies.”

Among the first to come out in public decrying Arroyo’s decree was former President Fidel Ramos. Until recently, Ramos was considered the president’s most crucial ally. Less than a year ago, he helped Arroyo survive a concerted call for her resignation from the opposition and a sizable portion of the business community.

“It is an overreaction, an overkill,” an irritated Ramos said in a television interview, suggesting that the president could and should have confronted the challenges to her rule by using the existing political and legal means at her disposal.

The appropriateness of state actions is one of the central canons of democratic governance. The less government infringes on the rights and liberties of the citizens, the better the democratic quality of governance may be called. From a democratic vantage point, it is always problematic if governments say they need to curtail democratic rights to protect democracy. Usually, this is the rhetoric of dictators and other authoritarian rulers.

Public statements that pay lip service to democratic ideals have little relevance as long as conditions exist that curtail basic freedoms. One such freedom, and a cornerstone of every democratic society, is the freedom of expression. The mere fact that the chief of the Philippine National Police went on record and threatened to take over media organizations that don’t follow government standards indicates serious democratic decay. A raid on a pro-opposition newspaper and arrests of parliamentarians and other government critics are further symptoms of highly illiberal government intentions.

As the so-called fourth estate media play a crucial role of public control, they become even more important considering the specific Philippine setting, where the traditional system of checks and balances has been weakened — some Filipinos even say neutralized — by a power-obsessed executive branch.

During her five-year reign, Arroyo has done little to strengthen democratic institutions. The political parties remain weak and have hardly any impact. The Lower House of Parliament is under full control of the president’s allies. Efforts to confront the president in a constitutional manner are more or less confined to the Senate. The Upper House’s oppositionist role may also explain why in the government’s blueprint for a new constitution there is no room left for that chamber.

For some time, Arroyo and her allies have been pushing for constitutional change from the presidential to a parliamentary form of government. But this project has also been tainted politically, as many Filipinos perceive it as a scheme of the president to hold on to power until 2010.

For many of her critics, Arroyo’s imposition of emergency rule comes as no surprise. They have repeatedly lamented that infringements of the freedom of assembly and the investigative powers of Congress decreed by the president are harbingers of impending emergency rule or even martial law.

The state of Philippine democracy has once more become an international issue. In its recent annual report on the global state of human rights and democratic freedoms, the U.S. think tank Freedom House has downgraded the Philippines from a “free” to a “partly free” country. The institute said that the negative status change was “based on credible allegations of massive electoral fraud, corruption, and the government’s intimidation of elements in the political opposition.”

Such words may be termed a kick in the face for a nation that has been celebrated (and has celebrated itself) as a beacon of democracy in Asia and beyond. Recent events in Manila have further tarnished that once shining image. It is an irony and a tragedy that Arroyo chose to declare emergency rule on the very day that the Filipinos prepared to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the people power revolution that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

In stark contrast to Arroyo’s move, the 1986 display of Philippine people power will be remembered as one of the proudest days in the annals of global democratic history.

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