December 5, 2017 7:00 am JST
Richard Heydarian

Duterte's march to illiberal democracy

Philippine political elite acquiesces in a rebirth of populism

Supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte gesture with a "fist bump" during a rally near the Presidential Palace in Manila on Nov. 30. © AP

Three decades after the downfall of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, the specter of authoritarianism is once again haunting the Philippines, one of Asia's oldest democracies.

On Nov. 30, marking the birthday of Filipino revolutionary leader Andres Bonifacio, thousands of supporters of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took to the streets of Manila, calling for the installation of a "revolutionary government." The rally was organized by pro-Duterte civic society groups, which support the suspension of the existing democratic constitution in favor of an imperial presidency.

A month earlier, Duterte himself warned that he will "not hesitate to declare a revolutionary government until the end of my term" if the political opposition continues to create what he called "chaos" and "destabilization." For the populist Duterte, there is no legitimate political opposition, only saboteurs and oligarchs who oppose his policy agenda and are bent on unseating him.

Under the firebrand president, who took power only last year, the Southeast Asian nation has already witnessed the gradual emasculation of institutional checks on executive power. This structural shift has been facilitated by the president's skillful populist mobilization and an obsequious political elite, which tends to rally around popular presidents.

The upshot is an emerging one-man rule, where executive supremacy has undermined the principle of checks and balances in one of Asia's oldest democracies. Despite uproar among international human rights groups, major global powers, from the U.S. under President Donald Trump to China and Russia, have remained broadly cordial with the controversial Filipino leader.

Many Filipinos, however, see a powerful presidency as the only way to bring law and order as well as prosperity to the Southeast Asian country. Despite diminishing enthusiasm among Western investors, the Philippine economy remains one of the fastest growing in Asia, with China and Japan emerging as leading investors under Duterte's presidency.

The Filipino strongman

In the past year, much of the political class has either defected to the tough-talking leader or, alternatively, adopted a passive, "wait and see" approach. Duterte relishes a "supermajority" coalition in the de facto rubberstamp Congress, which has gone the extra mile to intimidate and denigrate the president's critics.

Duterte can also confidently count on sympathetic members of the Supreme Court, the vast majority of whom the president will be appointing before the end of his term.

On two major constitutional issues, namely Duterte's controversial decision to bury the former dictator Marcos in the Cemetery of National Heroes (November 2016) and his abrupt declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao (May 2017), the Supreme Court overwhelmingly sided with the president.

The country's highest court may well overturn the contested result of last year's vice presidential race, which saw Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., the sole son of the former dictator, narrowly losing the race of Leni Robredo, the de facto leader of the opposition.

The Marcoses, who have deftly traced their path back to the seat of power, are among Duterte's staunchest allies. Duterte, whose father served in the Marcos administration in the 1960s, has regularly praised the former dictator as the "most enterprising president" in Philippine history.

The few, who have chosen to stand up to the president have faced invective-laced defiance, personal insults, threat of impeachment, and, in one prominent case of Senator Leila De Lima, even imprisonment on what critics believe are politically-motivated, trumped up charges.

The latest targets of the Duterte's characteristic vindictiveness are Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, a former Supreme Court justice and distant relative of the president.

Last women standing

The two fiercely independent-minded women have stood their ground. Sereno was among the first high-level officials to openly confront Duterte on his war on drugs campaign.

She reiterated the principle of separation of powers, reminding the president that the executive branch should not breach its constitutional prerogatives by interfering in the functions of a co-equal branch of the government.

In recent weeks, Duterte's congressional allies have moved ahead with an impeachment complaint against her on charges of corruption and abuse of power, which some critics, human rights activists, and legal experts see as politically-motivated.

The Filipino leader has adopted a similarly strident approach toward Morales, who has promised to investigate allegations of widespread human rights violations as well as corruption against Duterte.

As investigations gained pace, the president struck back, accusing the Ombudsman's office of corruption. The Ombudsman, however, has vowed that her "office won't be intimidated."

To be fair, Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino, made similar threats, when the country's highest court struck down a key fiscal initiative, the so-called Disbursement Acceleration Program.

The former president also oversaw the controversial impeachment of the late Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was accused of shielding former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo against corruption charges. In some ways, Duterte has pushed his predecessor's vindictiveness to its logical conclusion.

Into the twilight zone

Under the current president, however, there has been a systematic campaign to weaken democratic checks and balances in favor of strongman leadership. Duterte has skillfully rallied public support by declaring war not only against criminals and drug dealers, but also remnants of the former administration and the broader liberal elite.

Former President Aquino, who has been critical of his successor's policies, appointed both Sereno and Carpio. From the perspective of Duterte, the Aquino-era holdovers are engaged in a campaign of destabilization to not only "sabotage" his controversial policies, particularly the bloody war on drugs, but also end his presidency.

With such conspiratorial rhetoric, the president has taken the fight to his critics. Disenchanted with the country's notoriously inefficient judicial institutions, a large section of the Philippine society has welcomed Duterte as a political deus ex machina to overhaul a broken system.

Democracies are inherently fragile, because there is nothing automatic about the principle of checks and balances. Much depends on the willingness of the elected officials to ensure democratic accountability among themselves and uphold the basic principles of human rights and democracy.

The problem, however, is that, as American pundit David Frum correctly notes, "Ambition will counteract ambition only until ambition discovers that conformity serves its goals better."

The tough-talking president is widely considered as the most powerful Filipino leader since Marcos, largely because of his uncanny ability to coax and cajole other branches of the government to toe his line.

The combination of Duterte's populist style of governance and the attendant acquiescence of the Philippine political elite is gradually drawing the curtain on one of Asia's first liberal democracies. The Southeast Asian country is lurching into a twilight zone of what one pundit aptly called "illiberal democracy."

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author; his latest book is "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" (Palgrave Macmillan).

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