11 June 2016
Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte

Philippines’ authoritarian nostalgia

The Philippines’ fiesta politics has drawn another wild card, in the form of its new President, Rodrigo Duterte, writes John West.

Some three decades after overthrowing corrupt “strong-man”, President Ferdinand Marcos, Filipino voters have succumbed to “authoritarian nostalgia”, by electing as President another strong-man, Rodrigo Duterte, also known by sobriquets like “Duterte Harry” and “the Punisher”.

Rodrigo Duterte was Mayor of Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao for over 20 years. Through a zero-tolerance policy against criminals, he has brought peace and security to this city, in the Philippines most violent and unstable region. Davao has thus enjoyed strong investment and economic growth.

However, Duterte’s policies have come at a serious cost. He has admitted to having links to Davao death squads which have conducted extrajudicial killings of over 1000 alleged drug traffickers, criminals, gang members and other lawless elements.

Some have also argued that officials, private warlords and businessmen vigilantes have exacted retribution against people they felt acted against their interests. They also reportedly killed journalists exposing corruption and human rights activists exposing abusive police and military officers. In 2008, a UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings said in his report that “A death squad operates in Davao City, with men routinely killing street children and others in broad daylight”.

The Philippines’ authoritarian nostalgia is also evident in the rise of Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr, the only son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who almost won the Philippine vice-presidency with his revisionist views of his father’s presidency.

In short, it seems that Philippine citizens are now willing to trade some of their hard-won human rights and freedoms for the promise of a brutal crackdown on crime, drugs and corruption in this dangerous country. This is clearly a retrograde step for the Philippines, which together with Indonesia, are the only liberal democracies in Southeast Asia. It is also a big defeat for the Philippine establishment led by outgoing President Benigno Aquino.

How could this happen? And what can we expect?

The Philippines tragic descent

In the 1950s, the Philippines was ranked as one of Asia’s most advanced economies, along with Japan, thanks in part to America’s post-war generosity. But the country’s leadership fell into the clutches of President Ferdinand Marcos from 1965 to 1986. Marcos and his cronies plundered and destroyed the Philippine economy, just at the time that Asia’s miracle economies were taking off.

During Marcos’ term, national debt grew from $2 billion to almost $30 billion, which Filipinos are still repaying to this very day. The Marcos family plundered some $5-10 billion. Human rights abuses were widespread, as opposition figures were murdered and tortured. Democracy was suspended during a decade of martial law.

The Philippines thus became the sick-man of Asia.

The gradual comeback

The People Power Revolution of 1986 restored democracy. And since that time, the country has been slowly clawing its way back.

The economy has been improving, especially during the presidency of Benigno Aquino (2010-2016), when it has been one of the world’s fastest growing economies, with an annual growth rate of close to 6% over the past five years. Key drivers of the economy have been migrants remittances, and the business process outsourcing sector. The Philippines has also experienced a welcome boom in foreign direct investment.

Aquino has won plaudits from the international community for tackling corruption, and improving governance. For example, the Philippines has been rewarded by the major international credit rating agencies – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, Fitch and the Japan Credit Rating Agency – with upgrades in its sovereign credit ratings to ‘investment grade’.

And the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Competitiveness Index, now ranks the Philippines 52nd out of 144 countries covered. “The country’s gain of 33 places since 2010 is the largest over that period among all countries studied,” says the WEF.

Filipinos continuing frustrations

But Filipinos remain frustrated with their political elite, particularly when comparing their country with its neighbors. In 2014, the Philippines’ GDP per capita in purchasing power parity terms was a mere $6,963, compared with Thailand’s $15,735 and Malaysia’s $25,639. Inequality is very high, and has risen over the past three years.

Poverty also remains stubbornly high. In 2012, some 38% of the population (or 36 million people) lived on less than $3.10 (the World Bank threshold for moderate poverty). This represents only a very modest improvement over the past 15 years, as 42% were living below this poverty line in 1997. In sharp contrast, poverty in Malaysia and Thailand has been virtually eliminated. Manila is also home to one of the world’s biggest slums, Tondo, with a population of close to half a million souls.

With the highest unemployment rate in Southeast Asia, the lack of opportunity in the Philippines has driven many of its citizens to find work overseas. Many talented Filipino men and women unfortunately accept jobs well below their skill level, and all too often in dangerous societies in the Middle East. This draining overseas of the nation’s human capital continues to this very day, seemingly unaffected by the relatively better performance of the economy. Overall, some 10% of the national population of around 100 million now work overseas.

The appalling state of the Philippines’ infrastructure is evident to every visitor to the country. As soon as you arrive at Manila airport, you are confronted with masses of hawkers and hustlers, and then you must make your way, at a crawling speed, to your hotel. With the capital’s construction boom outstripping infrastructure development, the traffic and pollution are only getting worse.

It is not surprising that the Philippines comes bottom of the list in the 2015 Global Driver Satisfaction Index.

And the Philippines is quite simply a very dangerous country. Violent crime is a significant problem, especially theft, physical assault, robbery, pickpocketing, confidence schemes, acquaintance scams, and credit card fraud. Carjacking, kidnappings, robberies, and violent assaults also occur sporadically. And as a poor kidnapped Canadian citizen discovered recently, you can be beheaded if your family doesn’t pay a ransom.

Terrorist attacks can occur at anytime, anywhere in the Philippines, including in Manila. Traffic is dense, chaotic, and unpredictable. Transportation safety involving maritime ferries is substandard, with ferry sinkings and accidents happening too frequently.

Drug abuse and drug trafficking are major problems in the Philippines. Reported usage of “shabu,” the street name of methamphetamine, continues to grow as the nation’s most widely trafficked narcotic, and shabu addiction remains the most significant drug problem in the Philippines.

The Philippines flawed democracy

The regrettable reality is that the Philippines is neither a mature nor an effective democracy. The EDSA People Power Revolution only returned to power the old Philippine oligarchy which is mainly interested in its protecting privileges. Too many monopolies and oligopolies live a sheltered existence behind restrictions on foreign investment and market competition.

The Economist Intelligence Unit classifies the Philippines as a “flawed democracy”, ranking it 54th out of 167 countries surveyed. The Philippines scores very poorly when it comes to political culture and the functioning of government. For its part, Freedom House classifies the Philippines as being a “partly free” country, with only modest scores for civil liberties, political rights, and press freedom.

Philippine political scientist Richard Heydarian has also argued, the Philippines is a dysfunctional democracy, dominated by the country’s oligarchic elites. “Today, about 178 political dynasties dominate 73 out of a total of 80 provinces. The vast majority of legislators (70 percent) hail from political dynasties, dwarfing even comparable Latin American countries like and Mexico (40 percent) and Argentina (10 percent),” said Heydarian.

And the Philippines’ elites have also milking the economy dry in recent years, as Heydarian notes -- ”76% of newly-generated wealth was swallowed by the 40 richest families, the worst kind of growth concentration in Asia”.

The Duterte appeal

It is perhaps not surprising that the Philippine population should be attracted to a candidate like Duterte who promises quick solutions to the nation’s perennial problems.

For example, he has promised that he will bring an end to criminality and corruption within his first six months in office. He has also repeated threats to dump the bodies of 100,000 criminals into Manila Bay.

This “Donald Trump” of the Philippines is also a loose canon, with reckless ways with his words. As a counter to China’s appropriation of vast swathes of the South China Sea, he once promised to ride a jet-sky through the Sea and plant a flag on the contested land features.

He also has a foul-mouth, which was most evident in his jokes about the gang rape and murder of an Australian missionary in the Philippines. And when the Australian and United States ambassadors protested about his joke, Duterte told the two Ambassadors to “shut their mouths”, and threatened to sever diplomatic relations if elected. In this staunchly Catholic country, he also insulted the Pope.

But, like Donald Trump, this man of the people, with his tough-talking style, seems much more authentic and entertaining than the representatives of the establishment. In this feudalistic nation, with an uncaring elite and disenfranchised masses, personalities have always mattered more than policies in national politics.

At the same time, while Duterte has not announced a coherent program of government, he has offered many interesting ideas. He would to implement decentralization to make the Philippines a more federal country. He would also like to change government from a presidential to a parliamentary system. He plans to stamp out the “imperial-Manila-centered” culture of corruption, and vows to reduce power of the Manila’s economic and political elites.

Duterte also intends to bring an end to the decades-long wars with insurgents in Mindanao. He promises to have more balanced relationship between China and America.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, Duterte has a lot on his plate.

The ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the Philippines’ case against China’s massive claims in the South China Sea will soon be delivered -- most likely in the Philippines’ favor. China has already made clear that it will ignore the ruling. The Philippines will require deft diplomacy in managing the follow-up.

But there has recently been positive movement on both sides. Duterte has indicated that he would like to develop a constructive relationship with China. He sees China as a potential economic partner, especially for the infrastructure development. The Chinese also seem to be taking advantage of the change in Philippine leadership to reset the relationship. There is already talk of joint exploration of the South China Sea.

The Philippines will be chairing ASEAN in 2017, at a delicate time when ASEAN is stressed by China’s attempts to divide and rule this fragile grouping, especially over the South China Sea.

Hopefully, Duterte will at some point in the near future adopt a more statesmanlike demeanor. But regrettably there is still no sign of that.

For example, Duterte has been recently taken to task by the United Nations. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently said:

"I am extremely disturbed by recent remarks by the President-elect of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. I unequivocally condemn his apparent endorsement of extrajudicial killing, which is illegal and a breach of fundamental rights and freedoms. Such comments are of particular concern in light of on-going impunity for serious cases of violence against journalists in the Philippines.".

In addition, two United Nations independent experts on summary executions, and on freedom of expression today urged Philippines president-elect Rodrigo Duterte to stop instigating deadly violence immediately. The experts strongly condemned Mr. Duterte’s recent statements suggesting that journalists are not exempt for assassination.

Lastly, Duterte will have to bear in mind that he has a very weak mandate. In the Philippines’ first-past-the-post system, Duterte was able to win the presidency with only 38.6% of the national vote, meaning that over 60% of the electorate did not vote for him. Moreover, the combined vote of two establishment candidates, Manuel Roxas and Grace Poe, was 45% of the electorate.

This means that there will likely be very many establishment politicians waiting for Duterte to stumble, with the risk of political instability and another possible coup.

What the Philippines really needs

An authoritarian figure like Duterte has much naive appeal to citizens of the crime-ridden and lawless Philippines. And Duterte may achieve indeed some results, despite much collateral damage along the way.

But what the Philippines needs is a strong and effective state, as Richard Heydarian has argued.

This means a state that is capable of raising taxes, and delivering services and infrastructure to its citizens. The Philippines needs much stronger institutions, especially those which are vulnerable to corruption. Cronyism in public institutions must be combatted vigorously.

The business environment must stop favoring entrenched elites, and open economic opportunity to all. The Philippines needs the rule of law, not the rule of President Duterte. Laws must not only exist, they must be implemented and enforced. For this, the police and military need substantial upgrading.

We can only hope that over the course of his six-year mandate President Duterte will invest some of his well-known energy in this endeavour.
Tags: asean, philippines, duterte

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