Where is ‘Dutertismo’ headed?

By “Dutertismo,” I refer to the Filipino incarnation of a style of governance enabled by the public’s faith in the capacity of a tough-talking, willful, and unorthodox leader to carry out drastic actions to solve the nation’s persistent problems.  Trusting almost exclusively in the instinctive wisdom of the leader to determine what needs to be done, the public is concerned less with the rationality of policy decisions than with the leader’s manifest readiness to take full responsibility for all his decisions.

Some call this form of rule “authoritarian.” I have no quarrel with the term, but I prefer to use it as a description for an entire political culture, and not just as a label for the person who becomes the repository of the public’s expectations. Heads of state like President Duterte are not solitary figures that stumble into the political scene by accident. They are, rather, the contingent products of a culture in which decision-making is seen as the duty of the brave and heroic few, rather than as the shared responsibility of active citizens and their elected representatives.

Despite its thick Western democratic overlay, Philippine society has, in many ways, remained fundamentally authoritarian.  This authoritarianism is deeply anchored in the wide gaps separating the country’s wealthy and powerful elites from the impoverished masses.  In this hierarchical system, leaders are expected to be oppressive and/or benevolent, and the people under them to be obsequious and/or rebellious.  The veneer of democracy provided by our formal institutions tends to conceal this premodern authoritarian substructure.

Mr. Duterte is different from previous Philippine presidents in that he not only recognizes this reality, he also thrives in it. He does not care to preserve the appearance of democracy and the rule of law by which previous leaders have legitimized their rule. When he became president, this former mayor from Mindanao brought with him to Manila the dictatorial/populist style of rule that served him well in Davao City.

In his inaugural speech, he immediately made known his wish to be given enough leeway so that he could pursue what he thought had to be done to save the nation from destruction. Over the past year, he has named five major problems that confront the nation: drugs, corruption, criminality, terrorism and armed insurgency, and unequal distribution of power between imperial Manila and the regions. The overwhelming support he has received from the nation’s political class confirms, for him, the correctness of his priorities and the path he has chosen to address them.

One will note that as Mr. Duterte becomes more confident in discharging the powers and duties of the presidency, he also becomes increasingly indifferent to the need to defer to the time-honored constitutional principles of check and balance and separation of powers.  He has no qualms challenging the authority of coequal branches of government, or badmouthing their occupants when he feels like doing so. Indeed, he has come to view the 1987 Constitution—a pillar of hard-won gains from a previous battle against dictatorship—as an obstacle to change. As far as he is concerned, he has an urgent job to do—“to build a nation,” “to protect the youth,” “to unite the country,” etc.—and he will not allow anyone or anything to stand in his way.

All this, ultimately, is what undergirds all the threats he repeatedly verbalizes in his longwinded speeches: to declare a revolutionary government if necessary, or to extend the period and the scope of martial law beyond what the Constitution permits—until the rest of the nation learns not only to live with it but also to accept it as a basic necessity of our times.

But, so complex are our times and the present world in which we live that nearly every decision made by government today poses uncertain risks that are not easy to contain or manage.  Virtually anything can ignite a catastrophe—a war in another part of the world, a huge country defaulting on its debts, a devastating earthquake, a supertyphoon, an epidemic, a prolonged drought, a major terrorist attack, the assassination of a world leader, etc.  Any of these can instantly expose the chronic vulnerabilities of a society.  Suddenly, the public comes face to face with the inability of their political leaders to shield the country from the adverse consequences of unforeseen global developments.

In the face of deeply unsettling events, the fulminations of strongmen cannot take the place of the formed routines offered by strong institutions, professional bureaucracies, and vibrant civil society organizations.  Looking back at those final years of 1984-1985, when the Marcos regime realized to its dismay that it could no longer service its international debts because no bank would lend it the money, one is hard pressed to imagine how a methodical dictatorship such as Marcos’, which was advised by the best Filipino technocrats, could crumble so quickly. But it did. The wounds left by that crisis on our society have not fully healed.

Yet here we find ourselves again, seduced by the siren call of a strongman promising final solutions to our people’s problems, and ready to give up our freedoms in exchange for “real change.”  We can follow any route—a RevGov, a new constitution with transitory provisions that place the entire government in the hands of one man, or a martial law declaration with no limit. If Congress approves it, and the Supreme Court allows it, our people will likely accept it.  Then we will have willfully created another monster in our midst.