Philippine democracy at peril: the creeping authoritarianism of Mr. Duterte

Is populism which is reportedly sweeping the world anathema to democracy or to be strictly correct about it–democratic capitalism?

Populism according to one scholar is a “thin ideology” which is predicated to the belief that the people is the right determinant of their state or status. Another scholar defined it as a simplistic framework which bases its arguments on the ascendancy of the people over the state.

Such a murky operational definition of populism is causing discomfort and leads to a discombobulation of current affairs. An example is the classification of neo-nazism as a “populist movement.” Since when neo-nazism became a populist or people-oriented ideology? Or, describing the authoritarism of Philippine president Duterte as “populist”? Yes, Mr. Duterte is popular according to various surveys. It remains however, to validate such survey findings because most surveys in the Philippines are questionable. I don’t think such a President who allows the free fall of the Philippine peso, the rising prices of gasoline and food and services, still maintains a high trust and performance rating? That is a sociological phenomenon that needs study.

Supporters of beleaguered Philippine leader Duterte describes him as a populist leader with about 16 million voters behind him. Wrong. During the last 2016 elections, more than 50 million voters casted their votes. If 16 million favored Duterte, there are about 34 million who did not. Duterte is a plurality winner. He won because he got a bigger share of the votes; not the entire number of votes. It does not necessarily follow that because 16 million favored Duterte, the rest of the 100 million Filipinos who did not favor him, would suffer from the wrong policies of the current administration. That is an anomaly of our democracy that needs refinement if not total overhaul.

What Duterte is promoting is not an extreme form of democracy because nothing in his actions even approximate the operational definition of democracy, if there is such a creature. He implements a tokhang policy which is basically killing drug pushers and suspected drug dependents. Under a democracy, such an action should already be restrained because according to surveys more than 90% of Filipinos want arrested drug offenders to be put behind bars, not in caskets. If Duterte is truly leading a democratic state, he should have heeded the survey, however, questionable that is.

Duterte is leading a group of aristocrats who wanted nothing more than build an authoritarian regime–which in the estimation of R.J. Rummel (1993)– promotes a higher than average probability of democide–deaths of democracy– than democratic regimes. His recent acts betray his authoritarian bent— he wants Congress to pass his pet project Federalism, inspite of popular disapproval, he jails opposition figures especially the ones whom he personally hates, and curtails press freedoms and civil rights.

Is the US intelligence community correct in portraying Mr. Duterte as a threat to democracy in the region? Yes. Why?

Mr. Duterte is destabilizing his own country by de-liberalising its government. By concentrating power to him and his corrupt associates, Mr. Duterte is creating an illiberal state which could heighten and encourage anti-government feelings. His acts are leading to the creation of an illiberal environment which, based on empirical findings, normally increases frustration and aggression among citizen actors.

Such illiberal atmosphere places the country in a radicalized situation which could drive youthful elements among the citizenry into a revolutionary frenzy. His explosive war rhetoric, his threats against insurgents and would-be insurgents, his actions against legitimate civil society organizations and the wanton disregards of his police force against hapless citizens are hallmarks of an authoritarian regime. If Duterte succeeds in his witless enterprise and wins in the Federalism battle with liberal segments of the Philippine population, the possibility of the Philippines getting itself into a long drawn out civil war is entirely possible.


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