Populism 101

In the final months leading to the 2016 presidential election, when a Duterte victory had become not just a possibility but a near certainty, political and economic risk analysts began to ask what the key policy directions of a Duterte-led government might be like.

Up to that point, all that was known about Davao’s legendary strongman was that he did not allow legalities to interfere with his obsession to rid Davao City of drug peddlers and other criminal elements. For this, he was widely feared and adored by a submissive public.

No one knew how he might govern an entire country, or where his priorities lay apart from his passionate campaign against illegal drugs. Investors were keen to know where he stood on economic matters. Would he be business-friendly and leave economic policy-making to professional economic managers? Would he retain the nationalist restrictions on foreign investments or relax them? Would he nurture his own business cronies the way Marcos did?

These questions were largely put to rest the week after Mr. Duterte became president. The appointment of Carlos Dominguez III as finance secretary, of Ernesto Pernia as socioeconomic planning secretary, and later of Benjamin Diokno as budget secretary, did a lot to allay initial apprehensions. These individuals lent the new government the credibility it needed to assure the business community of a stable economic environment under the rule of law.

The 10-point economic agenda announced by the incoming administration, though cryptic, sent a strong message that there would be no radical change in the country’s neoliberal economic direction. Indeed, it sounded so conventional it could have come from any of the contenders in the last election. But, coming from a hitherto unknown factor like Mr. Duterte, even the most prosaic statements acquired a certain resonance to those who were anxious to hear what he had in mind for the economy.

It has never ceased to amaze me how we can always invent reasons to feel hopeful over what is about to happen. Overnight, the old refrain about rapid economic development needing a forceful leader acquired some novelty. To a people that, for a long time, have felt demoralized over the country’s seeming inability to ride the tide of prosperity that has been sweeping across the region, the appearance of a tough-talking strongman at the nation’s helm was a cause for great rejoicing. Suddenly, everything seemed solvable by sheer political will.

Here at last was a leader who could fearlessly say he was ready to lose the presidency, or even his life, for the chance to tear down all the barriers to what needed to be done to solve this country’s persistent problems. To him and his followers, those barriers implicitly included all existing constitutional, legal and ethical checks on the exercise of presidential power.

This would explain why there was so much talk of proclaiming a “revolutionary government” during the initial years. That clamor, ironically, offered no easy path, because it could only conceive of exemption from constitutional restrictions by way of a formal declaration of an emergency as provided for by the Constitution. Only a few saw that authoritarianism could be put in place without the need for a formal declaration. It is what the Duterte presidency has succeeded in doing, and it is where we are today.

To begin to understand how this happened, we have to know what “populism” is about. Its root word is “the people.” Because sovereign power in a democratic system belongs to the people, there is nothing unusual about politicians claiming they represent the people’s demands and interests. But they know that they do so in the context of the existing institutional order.

Populism emerges when the existing state of things more or less loses its legitimacy. It represents itself as the starting point of a radical reconstruction of society. The populist leader claims to speak for the people against the entire old order — including all the political parties, the politicians and the powerful elites, some of whom may, in fact, identify or align themselves with the leader. Harnessing the power of all unmet demands emanating from society, the populist authoritarian leader feels sufficiently justified to overturn everything. Overwhelmed by the leader’s popularity, and fearful of their own vulnerability, the other branches of government lose their voices. The more they show timidity, the more the President shines with his populist rhetoric.

The other day, Mr. Duterte continued his tirade against the owners of Manila Water and Maynilad, totally ignoring their meek offer to renounce the P11 billion that had been awarded to them by an international arbitration tribunal in connection with a suit they filed against the Philippine government. In harsh intemperate language, the President told them: “You sons of bitches, you’re not an entity to me. If you fool with me, you fool with the Filipino people. I will suspend the writ of habeas corpus and I will arrest all of you because I want to see billionaires in jail.” Note the classic populist equation between the leader and the people.

It seems futile for those at the receiving end of such fulminations to seek redress from the courts for any grievances they might have. They know it will only fuel more tirades from the man himself, even as the courts will think twice before they contradict the President. So long as populist authoritarianism draws approval from the people who feel betrayed by their past leaders, so long will we have institutions that, instead of checking the executive, permit themselves to be weaponized by it.