Handbook for dictators

My good friend, Dodong Nemenzo, professor emeritus of politics and former president of the University of the Philippines, recently gave me an intriguing book. The title alone, “The Dictator’s Handbook” (2011), is sufficiently beguiling, and I couldn’t wait to read it.  But, halfway through the book, I realized it is not just about tyrannical regimes; it is also about democratic rule. In short, it is about the practice of politics in general—how leaders come to power, how they keep power, and how they keep control over money.

How leaders stay in power is the most interesting section. The book’s authors, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, argue that leaders do not rule unilaterally or monolithically. No ruler is ever in full control of his or her people. For, not even the most incorrigible autocrat has everything figured out. All leaders find themselves adjusting to a contingent process to ensure their survival.

President Duterte is no exception.  No one expected him to win the presidency in May 2016. He had no political organization or a nationwide network to back him.  Outside of Mindanao, voters hardly knew him.

But it took only a few months to introduce him to an electorate that had grown weary of politicians and of politics itself. He came to the national stage at the perfect time. Filipinos seemed primed for the entry of another maverick. He was rough in his manners, crude in his language, and indifferent to the need to please voters in order to get their support.  He cursed and fought mainstream media, and insulted every conceivable figure of authority that incurred his ire.  His success validates one of the book’s counterintuitive theses—“bad behavior is more often than not good politics.”

His speeches, which social media abundantly carried, were rambling stream-of-consciousness monologues.  Clearly, it wasn’t his message that captivated audiences; it was his persona. He came out as anti-elite, anti-Establishment, anti-American, anti-intellectual, anti-religious, and, yes, anti-politics.  He railed against the drug menace, mass poverty, corruption, and a myopic Manila-centric government, but offered no concrete program to solve these.  He was content to tell his audiences that he was the nation’s last card, and they believed him.

How does such a leader govern?  Having won on the back of an amorphous movement rather than of a party, Mr. Duterte has cobbled together a broad coalition of individuals who have very little in common in political orientation and background.  There are leftists, neoliberals, environmental activists, Christian democrats, capitalists, labor organizers, and provincial politicians in his Cabinet.

That coalition is bound to shrink as soon as key issues begin to divide its members.

Mr. Duterte will have no choice but to let go of some erstwhile allies and rely on an increasingly smaller core group of people he implicitly trusts.  These are friends he grew up with, or associates who served him faithfully from the time he was mayor of Davao City.

To the would-be dictator, the Handbook offers this rule: “[N]o matter how well a tyrant builds his coalitions, it is important to keep the coalition itself off-balance…. As noted, the best way to stay in power is to keep the coalition small and, crucially, to make sure that everyone in it knows that there are plenty of replacements for them.”

Nowhere is this more applicable than in the handling of the police and the military. Mr. Duterte has played a clever game with these two security institutions, keeping their key officials guessing whether they will be rewarded with promotions, or shamed by revealing their connections with the illegal drug networks and other criminal syndicates.

Notes the Handbook: “The police are crucial to a regime’s survival. Police officers are charged with maintaining civil order—which often boils down to crushing antigovernment protests and bashing the heads of antigovernment activists.  Surely inducing such behavior requires either great commitment to the regime or good compensation.  But as elsewhere, the logic of corruption takes a more complex turn.”

Complex is indeed the word.  It is difficult to imagine how the deadly war on drugs can be so unrelenting in its viciousness unless one factors in the probability that police officers are under pressure to deliver on assigned quotas. If they are involved in drugs, they will have to assume that the higher-ups know about this.  Their names could be on anyone of those lists that the President repeatedly waves at various speaking events. The more implicated they are, the more these police officials will try to cover their tracks with the dead bodies of suspected pushers and drug dealers.

Anyone who has made enemies on so many fronts and taken a controversial position on such a wide range of crucial issues, as Mr. Duterte has in the brief period he has been president, must know that he needs the loyalty of the military to keep going.

“If the people find a way to take to the streets en masse, the incumbent will certainly need very loyal supporters willing to undertake the decidedly dirty work of suppressing the masses if he is to survive.”

We have, so far, seen no sign that this administration intends to suppress public protests.  President Duterte himself has said that martial law achieves nothing. But, things could change dramatically if mass actions turn from protests against policies to a general strike against the leader himself.  We shouldn’t wait for the national situation to come to that. By actively checking authoritarian tendencies early, we may be able to dissuade elected leaders from taking the shortcut to tyranny.