Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarian lurch is testing the boundaries of civil-military relations in ways that could have implications for stability if a new balance isn’t achieved soon.

While the tough-talking leader has repeatedly challenged the military to overthrow his elected government in recent weeks, including one speech where he implored “just get it over with”, it’s not clear the top brass intend yet to take the bait.

Yet while the armed forces have so far broadly maintained their institutional independence from Duterte’s at times legally questionable executive commands, there are concerns over politicization and splits emerging within the military’s leadership.

In recent weeks, the military has sent conflicting messages on key security issues, a reflection of its struggle to balance its constitutional duty to uphold democratic institutions with the authoritarian dictates of their often erratic commander-in-chief.

Some observers believe Duterte is now trying to lure the military into a crackdown of a manufactured security crisis that will give him cause to assert greater authority over troops in the name of restoring order.

He has achieved that on a regional basis with the imposition of martial law over the southern island of Mindanao, from where the president hails, in response to last year’s Islamic State-backed months-long Islamic militant siege of the city or Marawi.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte surrounded by soldiers pose to souvenir pictures during his visit to the military camp in Marawi City, Philippines August 4, 2017. Malacanang Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte surrounded by soldiers taking selfies during his visit to a military camp in Marawi City, August 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Malacanang Presidential Palace/Handout

But some believe Duterte is angling to extend that military- enforced martial order across the entire country to consolidate his power amid rising challenges to his legitimacy. Indeed, it seems increasingly the national leader is preparing the populace for such a scenario.

For months, Duterte has accused the liberal opposition, often labeled as “Yellow”, and left-leaning communist-aligned groups, known as the “Reds” of forming an unholy “yellow-red” alliance that aims to overthrow his elected regime.

“They want to unseat [me] from my office in Malacañang,” Duterte said months ago at a press conference in a mix of English and the local Tagalog language.

“Oh, go ahead and give me time to pack my belongings if it’s just that easy to you guys,” he said in taunting the opposition while tacitly reminding the military of its duty to protect the executive office from threats.

He has doubled down since on that conspiracy narrative by claiming his chief opposition rivals, including deposed Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and recently retired Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, were behind “concerted efforts” to topple his administration.

Supporters of Philippine Senator Antonio Trillanes hold a rally in front of the Senate building in Manila on September 9, 2018. Trillanes, who is holed up in the Senate to avoid arrest, has in the past accused Duterte of corruption and his son of involvement in drug dealing, drawing a pledge of revenge from President Rodrigo Duterte who on September 4 ordered the arrest of the lawmaker.Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on September 4 ordered the arrest of a lawmaker fiercely critical of his deadly drug war, the second presidential critic from the Senate to be threatened with detention. Senator Antonio Trillanes, who is holed up in the Senate to avoid arrest, has also in the past accused Duterte of corruption and his son of involvement in drug dealing, drawing a pledge of revenge from the president.
 / AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS
Supporters of Philippine Senator Antonio Trillanes hold a rally in front of the Senate building in Manila on September 9, 2018. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Duterte has accused opposition Senator Antonio Trillanes, an ex-naval officer and top-ranking government critic, of involvement in the same supposed plot.

But the president’s order last month to have him arrested and court-martialed for allegedly not properly applying for a presidential amnesty for his past roles in military mutinies has been resisted by top brass soldiers. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the military would uphold the rule of law, notably amid questions about the legality of Duterte’s arrest order.

In recent weeks, Duterte has reiterated his conspiratorial claims, stating in mid-September that there are “collaborative efforts” by the Left, the “yellow” opposition, and the opposition-aligned Magdalo Party of ex-military officers are all in league in trying to overthrow his administration.

“I said I have no problem with that.…I was elected by the people. I’m not a squatter here. So eventually the military and the police will have to face the crisis, the dilemma,” the president added, raising the specter of near-term political chaos without elaborating. “Now what happens next is anybody’s guess. Your guess is as good as mine.”

The president’s claims have been strongly denied by the opposition, civil society groups and segments of the media as opportunistic fear-mongering designed to condition the public to accept the eventual establishment of a revolutionary authoritarian regime with Duterte at its head.

Photo: Reuters
Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte in military garbs in a file photo. Photo: Reuters

There is historical precedent for such a move. In the early 1970s, then Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos employed the same pretext of a communist plot to declare a decade-long period of martial law which rounded up critics, curtailed rights and extinguished the country’s then fledgling democratic institutions.

Vice President Leni Robredo, the de facto leader of the current opposition, has lashed out at Duterte’s claim of a “red-yellow” plot as “unfounded claims [that] are plainly irresponsible.”

“There is no need to cut ties with communists because the political opposition has no ties with them in the first place,” Gary Alejano, a vocal opposition legislator and ex-soldier said in late September in response to Duterte’s accusations.

Days later, the armed forces cited intelligence reports that confirmed a supposed “Red October” plot hatched by communist insurgents to overthrow Duterte. Some top soldiers, much to the chagrin of human rights groups and civil society, went so far as to accuse several universities, including the prestigious University of the Philippines, of serving as hotbeds of recruitment against the sitting president.

The comments elicited a swift public backlash, with leading university presidents and civil society groups criticizing the military for echoing and endorsing the president’s alleged fear-mongering.

A Filipino member of the communists' armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA) in a remote village on the southern island of Mindanao in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Stringer
A Filipino member of the communist New People’s Army (NPA) in a remote village on the southern island of Mindanao in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Stringer

“This blanket act of red-tagging endangers students and the youth and it may give the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) a license to arbitrarily infringe the freedom of expression, the right to petition government, as well as to assembly,” said Commission on Human Rights spokesperson Jacqueline de Guia on October 4.

It’s still not clear that most top soldiers agree there is a credible internal threat to the president’s security. During a congressional budget hearing on October 2, AFP Chief of Staff Carlito Galvez Jr contradicted Duterte’s claim of a seditious plot to overthrow his government by saying there was no evidence to back the claim.

The military walked back its earlier comments about university-based treachery in a press statement that same day.

By openly questioning the president’s claims of a seditious plot, the defense establishment has again demonstrated its unwillingness to support Duterte’s alleged agenda of leading a revolutionary change of government away from democracy.

But the AFP is at the same time struggling to maintain its institutional independence and hold a unified line against the president’s authoritarian instincts and well-practiced divide-and-rule tactics now targeting its rank and file.