The Ailing Rodrigo Duterte – Authoritarianism’s Future In The Philippines
Rodrigo Duterte, the sixteenth President of the Philippines since 2016, has become one of the most internationally reviled world leaders of the decade. Amidst a spate of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug users and traffickers by law enforcement officers at the direct instruction of the president, many commentators around the world have warned of his future as a potential dictator in all but name, akin to Vladimir Putin of Russia or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Of Turkey. Other writers have been more cautious to predict Duterte’s political future due to the unusual nature of his presidency – he acts outside the law yet retains a good deal of support from the electorate. In light of the reports of ill health made this month, it seems that this latter group of theorists may have been proven correct – it is not customary for someone seeking autocratic power to announce their weakness to the world. It does, however, place the Philippines at a critical juncture: what is the future of government in the nation, and what role will authoritarianism play in any successive regime?
The natural and most democratic successor would be Vice President Leni Robredo, but the transition would not be seamless. First and foremost, is the issue of the party – Robredo being chairman of the Liberal Party and therefore, across the aisle from the enduringly popular PDP-Laban party that Duterte heads. Further problems have arisen since Duterte gave a speech in which he criticised Robredo’s strategy as weak, words that, coming from a populist leader, will no doubt serve as a severe blow to Robredo’s credibility.
Duterte has, instead, opted to endorse the option of a military junta, potentially similar to the National Council for Peace and Order which currently controls Thailand. While constitutional experts have called into question the legitimacy or even the possibility of such a takeover, the precedent Duterte has set over the last two years would provide for, if nothing else, the allowance of legal transgressions for totalitarian goals. Military coups in the Philippines, though numerous, have, however, almost always failed, and have always ended with the transition of power back to the citizenry.
As a country that experienced colonial oppression under the Spanish, American and Japanese rule, the Philippines is no stranger to despotic governance. Deeply ingrained in the culture is a biblical respect for authority, which goes a long way to explain Duterte’s popularity, as well as, the rampant poverty which has engendered a distrust of the traditional ruling class of politicians: a group that Duterte made great efforts to set himself apart from in speeches that have led to comparisons with United States President Donald Trump, a similarity compounded by his followers’ tendencies to make excuses for his inflammatory rhetoric.
These competing social factors leave the future ambiguous. If Congress prevents the inauguration of Leni Robredo, but state institutions prevent the ascendancy of the junta, then the options become less clear. Duterte previously, though indirectly, endorsed Ferdinand Marcos Jr - known as Bongbong, son of the infamous dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, the kleptocrat and his wife, Imelda. Whether Bongbong would assume leadership of the junta or make a separate democratic bid for power remains unclear, but observers almost universally agree that the return of the Marcos dynasty would herald yet darker times for the Philippines than any seen in this century.
Perhaps the most frightening potentiality lies in the President’s daughter, Sara Duterte, the incumbent mayor of Davao City – a position previously held by her father. Although to many Filipinos her accession would seem natural, the continuation of Duterte family reign would no doubt mark the dawn of a new period of history, characterised by enshrinement of unaccountable power and normalisation of violence. Though Sara’s indifference to the law, is not on the same level as Rodrigo’s, she is still notably illicit in her activities, which range from personal assault to cooperation with the very drug trade her father has murdered thousands in an attempt to curtail.
The search for a politically healthier candidate wanes yet again in the face of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Speaker of the House of Representatives and former President of the Philippines. Despite the obvious controversy surrounding the reclamation of office by a former president, her history is marred by criminal charges of electoral fraud and accusations of corruption. Further suspicion stems from her current alliance with Duterte in their opposition to Robredo, and questions abound as to whether Arroyo would be a continuation not only of her presidential legacy but Duterte’s as well, although her supporters have been keen to highlight the difference in leadership styles and policy directions taken by the respective presidents.
At a moment of critical uncertainty, the options available to restore dignity and legality to the much-marred presidency seem meagre at best. A Duterteist military junta, or his daughter Sara, would advance a deepening hold of the current tyrannical regime; while either Arroyo or Marcos would further cement the dynastic nature of the nation’s democracy, as well as serving to retain residual Duterteist facets of rule. The best hope, as of now, would seem to be the Liberal party, as led by Robredo, though her chances for office seem to be decreasing by the day due to machinations and sabotage by Duterte and Arroyo and ensuing public opposition. Other parties suggested as potential successors include the Communist Party Of The Philippines & the National Democratic Front, revolutionary organisations which could presage a different kind of political uncertainty to the type being experienced now: though in any event, these parties seem unlikely to gain control due to their relative fringe status. Surrounding all of this have been implications of American and Chinese meddling in recent elections, signalling a threat of authoritarian control being exercised beyond even the presidency. All things considered, without a work of diplomatic and political genius, authoritarianism looks set to remain an integral part of Filipino government for the foreseeable future.