Administrations — or governments, as they are called in Europe — may come and go, but even the worst of them do not leave lasting damage on society if the institutions are strong. Institutions are the formed routines of collective living that are protected by society’s system of norms and rules. They are the basic foundation of societal cohesion, and constitute the last bastions against chaos.
The components and architecture of this institutional order are typically laid out in a country’s basic charter and customary laws. The charter is shielded from any threat of abuse or dissolution by constitutional mechanisms like the separation of state powers and a system of checks and balances. An autonomous judiciary, a nonpoliticized bureaucracy, a deliberative legislature, and a professional military that recognizes the primacy of civilian authority — these are the major checks on presidential powers in our system of government.
Indeed, it sometimes happens that the major branches of government and the key agencies of the state are hijacked by an elected leader who decides to expand his powers or extend his term, and write his own constitution. In other instances, a civilian-military junta may seize state power and impose its own system of laws.
But hijacking institutions or seizing state power is not as easy as it may seem. Securing legitimacy remains the main problem of dictators and autocrats. Social theorists like Amitai Etzioni have concluded that control of coercive power is not nearly as crucial as the ability to mobilize normative commitments and fundamental values in support of a regime.
As the fate of the Marcos dictatorship abundantly shows, legitimacy is an unceasing concern for heads of states who deviate from the norm. If its original basis is the ruler’s charisma — i.e., the public’s belief in the leader’s overall ability to solve society’s problems—there is no assurance that it will last in the face, for instance, of the dictator’s failing health. Can charisma be “routinized” (to borrow from Max Weber), or passed on to a designated successor?
My own thinking on this subject draws from observations of our own recent political past. I am convinced that the durability of institutions resides, in the final analysis, in the community’s determination to uphold its basic norms and in its capacity to call for an accounting of everything that is said and done in the regime’s name. This usually finds expression in the public’s readiness to confront not just the dictator but all those who encouraged or enabled the regime, or went beyond their duties in order to carry out the autocrat’s orders.
We know who they are. They are the individuals who, seizing the opportunity for personal power and fame, knowingly violated the codes of ethics governing the practice of their own professions and ignored the customary rules of decency and fairness that are operative in our families, organizations, and communities.
They chose to keep silent, and clung to their positions — even when the nation’s highest official was making a mockery of his office, demeaning people’s religious beliefs, ordering the killing of drug offenders, and deploying the powers of the presidency to persecute those he considers his enemies. They offered all kinds of excuses to rationalize their principal’s behavior.
In 2016, 39 percent of Filipino voters disregarded the modest achievements of the previous administration and swallowed the lie that only a strongman with a reputation for his unusual way of governing an unruly city could solve the nation’s persistent problems. They were impatient for change — and were prepared to cast their lot with anyone who would disrupt the perceived continuity of elite rule.
Rodrigo Duterte launched an improbable candidacy by tapping into the people’s need for a social outsider, an expletive-spewing enforcer who didn’t mind taking shortcuts and using intimidation to produce results. The rich voted for him in the hope of eradicating criminality, terrorism, and corruption. The poor chose him to protect them against the rich.
This legend has had an extended shelf life, and its beneficiaries are hoping to routinize it for another six years. Many continue to ignore the hard issues by which every presidency must be measured, hoping that things might still get better. The COVID-19 pandemic has become a blanket excuse for everything that is worse in the current state of the nation.
As in 2016, Filipino voters may again close their eyes to reality and reduce the next presidential election to a choice between the conventional and the nonconformist, the predictable and the plucky. It’s not certain if the regime’s anointed successor will prevail.
But one thing is sure: In the remaining one year of the Duterte presidency, we will be witnessing the quiet departure from public office of some of those who had joined this administration and shamelessly allowed themselves to be used to buttress the powers and burnish the image of an unworthy leader. Some of them may be appointed ambassadors or justices, or rewarded with sinecures in government corporations. Others may simply retire from public life.
Whatever path they take, they should not expect to triumphantly return to their communities as though they had done the nation a great service. At the minimum, the public should ask them to give an honest account of why they stayed. Only by doing so can the Filipino nation hope to uphold its core values and protect its institutions from erosion.