SALVADOR Panelo, President Rodrigo Duterte’s legal counsel, is the latest Malacañang functionary to try to ease people’s concern about the President’s pronouncements on the declaration of martial law. The Palace official’s line is to downplay the seriousness of the President’s intention. To a certain extent, I tend to agree with them.

“The President’s statement that he would declare martial law should the problem in the illegal drug trade become virulent — effectively threatening the existence of the institutions of the Republic, and putting in grave peril the integrity and survival of the nation — is but a dramatic and graphic presentation of an exercise of a presidential power and duty imposed on him by the Constitution,” Panelo was quoted as saying by the Inquirer.

Panelo’s stress was on the condition set by the President: should the problem of illegal drugs turn “virulent,” which the lawyer qualified as one that would “effectively threaten the existence of the institutions of the republic and put in grave peril the integrity and survival of the nation.” So will the problem on illegal drugs turn “virulent”? Not if one considers the claim of the Duterte administration itself that it is winning the war against it.

But there’s a deeper reason to that. Implementing the declaration of military rule, especially if it is one that would ride roughshod on the provisions of the Constitution, won’t be easy. That’s why martial law can’t be declared on a whim but is planned. The President needs the cooperation of all governmental institutions more importantly the military and the police to do what he wants. If there is no unity of purpose among his people, the plan crumbles.

For an example of this we need not go far. Former president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972 but planned the assault on the country’s democratic institutions months before. He knew the move would be opposed forcefully by the existing democratic forces at that time so he used the element of surprise. For example, he only announced the signing of the proclamation on Sept. 23, or two days later.

A ruler can’t make the element of surprise work if there is no unity among his circle. Remember the so-called “Rolex 12,” named after the military and civilian personalities who advised Marcos on the martial law declaration? They got their name from the Rolex watches that Marcos supposedly gifted to each of them although a US official said that what was given were actually gold Omega watches.

Without intricate planning and the element of surprise, any declaration of military rule would be dangerous to the President and to the nation. Instead of solving the problem of, say, illegal drugs, it could plunge the country into civil war. This time around, opposition to a martial law declaration would be stiff considering the lessons from the past. What if, for example, the police and the military would be split and a faction throws their lot with the opposition?

Declaring military rule is not as easy as signing a piece of paper. It is It is such a complex matter I doubt if the Duterte administration is capable of executing it successfully.