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Duterte’s illiberal democracy

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Catholic students protesting against the extra-judicial killings occurring under President Duterte's 'war on drugs' in Manila, 18 July, 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco).

In Brief

After just one year in office, President Rodrigo Duterte has established an illiberal democracy in the Philippines.


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Because Duterte was elected in May 2016 in free and fair elections with media freedoms still in place, his regime differs from others in the region such as those of Malaysia and Singapore in which regimes play the electoral game while systematically violating principles of fairness. Deploying a populist ‘order above law’ narrative during his presidential campaign, any remaining institutional barriers to this illiberalism were quickly sidelined through mass defections in Congress and the timidity of the Supreme Court.

In his recent State of the Union address Duterte gave further indications of his growing authoritarianism. He accused major online newspaper Rappler — known for giving space to opposition views — of being foreign owned, which is illegal in the Philippines. Rappler has vigorously denied the charge. Duterte has also threatened to abolish the constitutionally mandated Commission on Human Rights for criticising his violent drug crackdown and has warned the Ombudsmen not to investigate police or military involvment without seeking his permission first.

Duterte first constructed this strongman political model at the local level as Mayor of Davao before ‘nationalising’ it as president. The drug war allowed Duterte to quickly erect an illiberal democracy in which he took advantage of the systemic crisis of a once dominant liberal reformist order. Despite the personal popularity of his predecessor Benigno Aquino III, the liberal order’s ‘good governance’ narrative had been undermined by a pork barrel scandal. Key elite groups backing it were discredited (particularly the Catholic Church through a series of scandals) and institutions remained weak (particularly a broken criminal justice system). Walden Bello points out that Duterte has not ‘feared to transgress liberal discourse [which] not only does … not trouble a significant part of the population, they’ve even clapped for it’.

The drug war has resulted in thousands of deaths, with one estimate as high as 9000. The Philippine Commission on Human Rights charged that the anti-drug campaign has involved ‘summary executions, corruption, and abuse of power’. An Amnesty International investigation claimed the drug war has created ‘an economy of murder’ with hundreds of US dollars paid for each extrajudicial killing. The most recent high profile killing — the result of a controversial police operation — was that of Ozamiz City mayor Reynaldo Parojinog, who Duterte had tagged as a narco-politician. But most ‘hits’ have been on poor and defenceless people — mainly users not big time dealers — making the war against drugs appear more like a war against the poor.

Before being forced to apologise, the Philippine president once even compared his violent campaign with Hitler’s Holocaust, saying he would gladly murder the country’s three million drug dealers and users. This showed Duterte to be a poor political mathematician. A 2015 survey by the president’s Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) revealed the Philippines has little more than half the number of drug users Duterte asserted: 1.8 million, with only a third taking illegal substances in the past year. Duterte fired the DDB head for sticking with these official figures.

Given Duterte supporters’ efforts to defend his record through the old political ruse of the ‘principle of deniability’, it is difficult to tie Duterte to particular deaths during the anti-drug campaign. The deniability argument is particularly widespread in the political class dominated by lawyers, since Duterte is an experienced former prosecutor. But such a strategy is unsustainable given Duterte’s repeated threats to kill drug dealers and users, telling Filipinos to ‘forget the laws on human rights’. John Collins has predicted that based on evidence from similar coercive anti-drug efforts around the world ‘the Philippines’ new “war” will fail and society will emerge worse off from it’.

As the first Philippine president from Mindanao, it is ironic that Duterte has faced his biggest security challenge from within his own region. As of July 2017, over 500 people have been killed (including civilians) and tens of thousands displaced since the Maute group, which claims Islamic State connections, seized large parts of Marawi city in late May. Distracted by the drug war, earlier chances to target the group were missed. Duterte’s declaration of, and now his request to extend, martial law in Mindanao is seen by critics as a first step toward declaring martial rule nationwide.

Upon taking office, the Duterte administration entered into peace talks with the Communists who have been waging an insurgency for the last half century. Duterte appointed three of their allies to his Cabinet and was also seen to have a warm relationship with the head of the Communists, Jose Maria Sison, who was Duterte’s former professor. But angered by several ambushes of government troops despite a ceasefire, Duterte broke off the talks. He and Sison have now entered into a war of words, with the latter calling Duterte the country’s ‘number one drug addict’ for his use of the opioid Fentanyl.

Duterte’s rapprochement with China has been read as a reaction to Western criticism of the violent drug crackdown, although his anti-US nationalism has deeper roots in the legacies of colonialism and can be linked to an attempt to equibalance foreign policy between the United States, China and other regional powers — particularly Japan but also Russia and India. But the impetus for the change was clearly Duterte’s illiberal realignment.

Although a nascent opposition to Duterte — led by Senator Leila de Lima, jailed on flimsy drug charges, and Vice President Maria Leonor ‘Leni’ Robredo — has emerged, it remains largely powerless and much mocked on social media. The social media landscape has become saturated with ‘Dutertards’ — fanatical Duterte supporters, some of whom have now been appointed to government positions.

Criticised by the former Obama administration for human rights violations during the drug war, Duterte seems to have found a new political friend in US President Donald Trump, who has praised the crackdown. Still popular at home and finding new allies abroad, Duterte promises national salvation by claiming that only violent strongman rule can bring political order to the country.

Mark R. Thompson is a Professor of politics and Head of the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong, where he is also Director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre.

One response to “Duterte’s illiberal democracy”

  1. Lest the writer conveniently forgets, the current chaos and abject poverty in the Philippines are the direct consequences of the egregious colonization by the “holy” crusaders from Catholic Spain (circa 1571 to 1898), the liberal democracy of the United States (circa 1898 to 1942, 45, and 46) and the co-prosperity sphere of Imperial Japan (circa 1942 to 1945).

    President Duterte only wants to reverse the chaos and abject poverty in the Philippines to bring prosperity to the people by conducting a war on drugs, which is a cancer in the Philippines society, affecting millions.

    The writer claims that the deaths in the war on drugs initiated by President Duterte, has reached 9,000 since May 2016. This is tragic but it is really small beer compared to over 200,000 of Filipino patriots who were killed by the better-armed American invaders in 1898, when Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States, without consulting the Philippines, after the Spanish-American War.

    During the Seven Years’ War, arguably the real WWI, fought between 1756 and 1763, every great European colonial power was involved. It spanned five continents, affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, Asia (India, and the Philippines). The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by Britain,, Portugal, and Germany on one side and France, Spain and Sweden on the other.

    The Battle of Manila was fought from 24 September 1762 to 6 October 1762, between Britain and Spain, killing thousands of people. The British won, leading to 24 months of occupation. Once Manila fell, British troops “turned to pillage” like they shamelessly did to the treasures in China after British and French troops destroyed the Old Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) in 1860. The Old Summer Palace area was seven times the size of the Vatican City. Today, it is still in ruins.

    When Japan invaded the Philippines, with a false promise of co-prosperity, General MacArthur fled to the safe haven in Australia on the night of 11 March 1942, leaving behind 76,000 starving and sick American and Filipino defenders. They were forced to endure the deadly Bataan Death March during which at least 10,000 men died or were murdered by cruel Japanese troops.

    Subsequently, cities such as Manila (arguably the second most destroyed Allied city in WWII) were reduced to rubble. By the time war ended in 1945, an estimated 1,000,000 Filipinos were killed because of indiscriminate bombings by Japanese bombers, unspeakable atrocities by Japanese troops, of which 131,028 Filipinos were listed as killed in 72 war crime events.

    Tens of thousands of young Filipino women were kidnapped and forced to serve Japanese troops as sex slaves, a crime against humanity Japan also committed in Korea, China, Malaya, Indonesia and other parts of Asia but still refuses to admit, compensate and apologise, even though Japan claims to be a Western Liberal Democracy.

    Western Liberal Democratic ideals also precipitated the Vietnam War, after General Giap defeated the French colonial masters at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in March 1954.

    Then based on Kissinger’s flawed ‘Domino Theory’, the US started the Vietnam War, with a lie that Vietnamese patrol craft allegedly attacked US Navy Warships in the Tonkin Incident. That war killed over 3,000,000 innocent Vietnamese. About 21 million gallons of carcinogenic Agent Orange defoliants were poured into Vietnam and they are still causing cancer and deformed births.

    Using the same Western Liberal Democracy ideals as a pretext and a lie that Saddam Hussein had WMD, George W. Bush and Tony Blair invaded Iraq in March 2003, killing an estimated 1,000,000 innocent people and displaced another 5,000,000, after practically destroying the country’s infrastructure.

    The war in Iraq has still not ended with the emergence of al Qaeda, ISIS and Al Nusra in 2014, aided and abetted by some of the United States’ Middle Eastern allies.

    Is it any wonder that Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey described ‘Western Values’ as egregious and destructive? See my comments below:

    China and Russia have not adopted a Western Liberal Democratic political system but at least they are trying their level best to bring peace to Planet Earth.

    China could have colonized the Philippines in 1405 when Admiral Zheng He set sail with 22,000 men and over 300 big ships but the Ming Emperor gave him no such Mandate. The year 1405 was 46 years before Christopher Columbus was born and 87 years before he set sail to the New World (Cathay) in 1492.

    Even today China has not colonized any country and she has a peaceful rise and a no first-use of nuclear weapons policies.

    With an alignment with China and Russia, the Philippines will prosper with investments in new infrastructure, high speed trains, hospitals, schools, universities, malls, industrial parks and the creation of millions of high paid jobs. An alignment with a Western Liberal Democracy like the United States will bring more bombs, endless wars, drug addictions and more decades of abject poverty.

    Please don’t underestimate President Duterte. As a former lawyer and prosecutor, he is a lot smarter than most of his predecessors. He also intuitively knows which country can be trusted and which cannot.

    He told Russian media ahead of his visit to Moscow in May this year that “I have nothing against America but my foreign policy has shifted. I want to deal with China and Russia, because in (the) Western world, it’s double talk.”

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