The making of a tyrant

When Rodrigo Duterte was elected to the presidency in 2016, he thereby assumed the powers inherent in the nation’s highest office. Those powers were not granted to him in his personal capacity. They belong to the state, and therefore to the Filipino people. Their exercise is subject to certain rules of procedure and requires the consent and cooperation of other agencies of the state.

Most of all, these powers were intended by the Constitution to be used to achieve the nation’s collective goals.

It is important to keep this in mind in order to see the alarming extent to which the powers and prerogatives of the presidency have become the personal tools of the occupant during Mr. Duterte’s term. He has openly used these powers not only to reward his supporters and win over sectors that could potentially challenge his rule, but also to punish, intimidate, and immobilize his perceived enemies.

This he has managed to do with the acquiescence of the other branches of government. With few exceptions (like the Commission on Audit), the latter have failed to stand up to him. The reasons vary. Some have turned a blind eye or complied out of gratitude, others in expectation of future rewards, but many out of fear of reprisal. Some may think this to be not unusual: Previous presidents have been known to resort to the same calculative means to advance their personal agenda. But Mr. Duterte is of a different sort altogether.

What sets him apart is his predisposition to boldly use the presidency as a platform from which to browbeat his critics and enemies, or whoever happens to incur his ire at any given moment. Without any provocation, he insults, curses, disrespects, and threatens anyone he identifies as the enemy, whenever he chooses.

Worse, beyond the verbal threats, he has succeeded in jailing, on fabricated charges, an outspoken senator who once investigated him when he was still Davao City mayor. He has caused the removal of a sitting chief justice of the Supreme Court who had refused to bend to his will. He has managed to shut down the country’s largest media organization for airing political advertisements that were critical of him during the electoral campaign.

The owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which had been critical of Mr. Duterte’s violent drug war from day one, were forced to give up a lease on a government property they had developed, in addition to being subjected to tax investigations. The two water concessionaires that provide water service to Metro Manila were threatened with cancellation of their franchises and with unspecified charges of economic sabotage; they had backed the wrong candidate in the last election.

The pattern in all of these acts of persecution has been uniform. Dossiers on the vulnerabilities of the chosen targets are quietly collected by government agencies. The President then identifies and publicly attacks them as bad elements who have misled and taken advantage of the people’s trust. Trolls take up the President’s cause and, on cue, the concerned branches of government carry out the execution as though they were just responding to the requirements of the law.

What begins as an act of brute force — with the President publicly pouncing on his enemies — metamorphoses into a normal application of institutional power. This intricate relationship between force and power is graphically captured by the author Elias Canetti in his brilliant discussion of the elements of power. Force, according to him, hides behind power for as long as it can. When the critical moment comes, it goes back to being pure force.

He writes: “The cat uses force to catch the mouse, to seize it, hold it in its claws and ultimately kill it. But while it is playing with it, another factor is present. It lets it go, allows it to run about a little and even turn its back; and during this time, the mouse is no longer subjected to force. But it is still within the power of the cat, and can be caught again…”

This and the following passage remind me of the way Mr. Duterte reverts to his favorite targets (for example, the “oligarchs”) just when everybody thinks he is done with them. “The space which the cat dominates, the moments of hope it allows the mouse, while continuing to watch it closely all the time and never relaxing its interest and intention to destroy itʍall this together, space, hope, watchfulness and destructive intent, can be called the actual body of power, or more simply power itself.”

Over the last five years, Mr. Duterte has never hesitated to bare the naked force behind the veneer of presidential power. He has shown no qualms in deploying the official mechanisms of the state to avenge a deeply personal grudge, or to repay a private debt. He finds absolutely nothing wrong in this, for he himself acknowledges that that’s exactly what he’s doing. Many of his admirers applaud this candor as yet another manifestation of his authenticity.

The effect of this is that one can lose one’s respect for the government itselfʍa respect that proceeds from the belief that ours is a government of laws and not of men, a government maintained not by force but by the consent of the governed.

When a despot is able to make a mockery of the government by brazenly converting it into a personal tool, the blame however cannot be placed solely at the door of those who elected him. The responsibility equally rests on those in government who failed to use their share of state power to stop the rise of a tyrant.