Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is fond of waging crusades, with his war on drugs being one of the more renowned endeavors. But his latest crusade against an individual has been particularly captivating for the Philippines. Senator, former vice-presidential candidate, and retired naval lieutenant Antonio Trillanes IV is in the cross-hairs again in a scandal which has dominated Manila for weeks.
Trillanes has a storied history, even by the standards of Philippine politics. While still an enlisted officer of the Navy, Trillanes was instrumental in the 2003 Oakwood mutiny in which members of the armed forces seized a hotel to protest military corruption and demand the resignation of then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Trillanes was jailed for seven and a half years for his part in the 18-hour stand-off.
It did not end there. He spent years campaigning through then-emergent social media and won a senate seat in the 2007 election. Six months later, on November 29, he left his own court hearing, along with 30 others on trial, to take part in what has become known as the Manila Peninsula siege. The attempted coup – again aimed at removing Arroyo – failed within hours.
After his election in 2010, president Benigno Aquino III sprung remaining jailed conspirators from 2003 on a presidential pardon. This allowed Trillanes to physically take his place in the senate for the first time, committing his support for the Aquino government which largely continued through its tenure.
This all changed after the Aquino term ended and the Duterte presidency begun. Duterte has made references to potential coup and threats throughout his term so far, despite reassurances from opposition lawmakers, including Vice President Leni Robredo, and the military. Little surprise then that Trillanes has become a Duterte target in this respect.
Apart from his previous history, Duterte no doubt understands Trillanes’ antipathy for him. Indeed, during the 2016 election campaign, Trillanes told media that then-candidate Duterte should expect the launch of a coup if he was to take his rhetoric too far, particularly given his close ties to communist insurgencies.
“The moment he tries to declare a revolutionary government, that is also going to be the day he will be removed from office. This guy has no respect for democratic institutions,” Trillanes said in May 2016.
Much of this comes down to pre-election swagger. But it does underscore a key existential crisis the Philippines is currently in – the aloofness with which the Philippines’ political leaders discuss political instability, despite the fact that, beyond their personal battles, it has potentially significant effects on the institutions of the country.
With inflation hitting a nine-year high and the cost of living rising, questions about the robustness of the Philippines’ institutions and judicial system are more important than ever. But yet, as they have been in the past, they continue to be readily abused for short-term political aims or other motivations such as vengeance or retribution.
Which brings us to today and the reappearance of the target on Trillanes’ back. Trillanes has continued to criticize Duterte, and those jabs have clearly gotten to Malacañang, which now claims the Aquino amnesty was never valid. The Department of Justice claimed this month that records showed Trillanes did not fulfill the minimum criteria, including admitting guilt and personally entering data into the application form.
Trillanes denies this, and maintains a video proving he filled in his own form is available. He has appealed the result, but has taken a heavy political hit. These developments raise two vital questions – what happens next, and why has this happened at all?
First, it’s hard to see a quiet end to the scandal which has enveloped Manila for weeks. Trillanes’ close ties to the military threaten a face-off between the armed forces and the presidential palace, but the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) does not seem particularly interested in launching the first strike. Duterte has also singled out the Magdalo party, to which Trillanes and some other former service people belong, questioning if the party serves the country or its members.
No institution appears willing to take the incident on. The Supreme Court pushed the Trillanes appeal down to lower courts, while both the police and the military have said an arrest will only be made if a warrant is issued by a court – not the president. As since he is no longer serving in the armed forces, he cannot be court-martialed.
Earlier this week, Duterte announced he would make a special national address. Rumors quickly erupted over the content of the speech, before the entire plan was nixed for a televised one-on-one interview with Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo. During this talk, Duterte denied he had issued a proclamation ordering the arrest of Trillanes at the end of August. This claim has been widely debunked by fact-checking units. He has since back-tracked on the meaning of the proclamation and his legal argument.
Why this mess has reemerged now is a question of some political intrigue. Duterte does not control the armed forces or the police, but as of recently he does have very close links with the Speaker of the House and the brand new Supreme Court Chief Justice.
The State of the Nation Address day coup, which saw long-time Duterte ally and then-Speaker of the House Pantaleon Alvarez replaced by former president and Trillanes target Arroyo, opened a new era in the Duterte presidency. While the president was reportedly annoyed by the politicking, the outcome has seen the Arroyo, Duterte, and Marcos (via the support of Imee Marcos) clans come even closer together. Daughter and Davao City Mayor successor Sara Duterte has made herself particularly integral in the emergent troika, and her husband and brother are currently suing Trillanes for libel. Wisely, Arroyo has chosen to stay mum on the subject, saying that it is best for the courts to weigh in before she does.
In the Supreme Court, the heavily credentialed Teresita Leonardo-De Castro has replaced ousted chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. De Castro’s appointment raised eyebrows immediately, with her term set to last less than two months before reaching mandatory retirement age. She was instrumental in bringing down Sereno, an Aquino appointment and Duterte critic. She will oversee the final stage of the long-running Ferdinand Marcos Jr versus Vice President Robredo case. The Supreme Court pushed the Trillanes appeal further down to the judicial hierarchy, a move which pleased the Trillanes side and no doubt De Castro who is already under a cloud of distrust.
There are few easy resolution options on the table here. Both Trillanes and Duterte appear keen to dig their heels in, but Duterte’s admittedly long-running honeymoon period is finally and definitively over. To spend months obsessing over an issue many Filipinos believed to be firmly in the past could see that support slump even further. That could present Duterte with a longer-term problem even if he gets the continued short-term wins he desires.