Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Duterte: Foe of Liberal Democracy
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is known for being one of those rare leaders who speak their mind without hesitation but more importantly, without regard to either domestic or international norms or sensitivities. This propensity towards blunt candor is pronounced when Duterte seethes against the entrenched structures of liberal democracy. Coming to power in what are unsettled political times around the globe, the last things that Duterte has expressed any sympathy for are the once-seemingly predestined universalism and absolutism of liberal democracy.
President Duterte has been an exemplar of the populist strongman narrative that has taken hold in several countries around the world including the Philippines. His approach to liberal democracy has been fused with nothing less than willful disdain and contempt. Fed up with liberal democracy’s qualitative and quantitative flaws and failures in the Philippines, Duterte has treated democracy as no more than a regrettable experiment, some of the elements of which are being manipulated by him in the service of his creeping authoritarianism.
Duterte is following the standard of other anti-democratic figures and leaders such as Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. No matter what they say in their public assurances to uphold the rule of law, these authoritarians if given enough opportunity, will strip democracy in their respective countries to the bone if they haven’t already.
Why such widespread antipathy for democracy? Some 25 years ago, it was easy for one to have thought that liberal democracy was the premium socio-political and economic path left to mankind after the collapse of communism at the end of the Cold War. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama triumphantly told us so back then what with his judgment that we had reached the figurative “End of History.”
But Fukuyama’s End of History, while ushering in an era of tremendous benefits for millions around the planet, would also drag a comparable number over the precipice of deprivation and disillusionment. Liberal democracy and post-Cold War capitalism have proven to be what Plato might have called a “pharmakon”: something that is both a cure and a poison at the same time. While the liberal democratic and capitalist ethos has brought democracy and prosperity to so many who previously could never have dreamed of such ideals coming to fruition, it failed to take into account the swathes of populations that would be left behind socially, economically, and politically.
The presidency of Rodrigo Duterte is a political product of that monumental failure as it expanded its scope in the Philippines. Duterte emerged as a viable presidential candidate amidst the interminable despoiling of the Philippine economy and political system. The 1986 EDSA phenomenon was supposed to put an end to rampant economic corruption and fundamental abuse of the political system, as well as pull lower class Filipinos out of poverty and give them a chance for a better future.
But the lofty promise of EDSA 1986 was outrun by the hard realities on the ground. For one thing, self-identified defenders of freedom and equality among the Philippine elite showed their true colors by working to preserve and strengthen their economic and political monopoly throughout the whole post-EDSA 1986 process leading up to Duterte’s election.
As a result, whatever advantages that emerged out of the popular revolt were tilted heavily towards the elite. Inevitably, the Filipino masses would find it hard to believe the EDSA reformers whenever the the pledges of February 1986 were invoked. In reflecting the disenchantment of the masses, Duterte stated that EDSA did restore democracy but that today, more than a quarter century after the fact, “the economic and social structure remains a lopsided equation in favor of the few and the many are poor and neglected.”
Therefore those among the intelligentsia and educated segments of Philippine society should not have been astonished by Duterte’s rise to the pinnacle of Philippine politics. Open to the influence of a big-talking, expletive-laden, recalcitrant autocrat whose political career has been defined by blood and murder, millions of Filipinos have formulated some general socio-political truths about their lives, truths about how their Job-like patience in their leaders has gone for naught. Or truths that say the game of life in the Philippines is perpetually rigged against them, the needy and underprivileged of society. Or truths that conclude that their political leaders never have and never will come clean for them.
In looking through the magnifying glass, it’s easier to see how that simply asserting that many ignorant and uneducated Filipinos voted Rodrigo Duterte into the presidency does not get to the deeper issues surrounding the foundation of his ascendancy. The magnifying glass tells us that it was ultimately the mistakes, the neglect, and the exploitation on the part of the Philippine elite that spawned the vain and sadistic overlord Filipinos now see at the helm before them. Now it is too late: all Filipinos will have to reap the real world consequences of his anti-democratic and dictatorial message and actions.