Strongman rule vs. strong institutions

The sharpest way to frame the May 2022 presidential election is to portray it as a contest between strongman rule and governance by strong institutions. Not since the February 1986 snap election, which pitted the widow Cory Aquino against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, have the Filipino people been presented with this choice in its starkest form. The issue is nothing less than the future of Philippine democracy.

The 1998 election that made Joseph “Erap” Estrada president was certainly a populist vote. But it was not a vote for authoritarianism. The 2016 election that thrust Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency was a vote against Manila-centric elitist rule. But it was not a mandate to return the country to dictatorship.

In next year’s presidential election, the administration will be supporting a candidate who is expected to defend its record of subverting, defying, and ignoring institutions that have stood in the way of President Duterte’s autocratic rule. Nothing demonstrates this more vividly than his contemptuous disregard for the ongoing Senate investigation of the Pharmally scandal. Whether the chosen one is going to be presidential daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio or the late dictator’s son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., there is no question that either one will serve as the face of strongman rule.

Indeed, there remains a sizable constituency for strongman rule in our country, but it is not the majority. At its peak, it probably constitutes no more than 40 percent of all voters. Most of them would be hardcore Duterte followers who think that everything is so broken in our society that we need a fearsome leader, a stern father figure, to personally fix all our problems. The rest would be the sentimental stragglers who have not awoken from the Marcos spell.

This belief in the problem-solving power of strongmen is the residual effect of our hierarchical society’s patronage-driven culture. In this regard, it is a little different from the societal pressures that have brought about the rise of authoritarian figures in the West, where resentment against immigrants and racial minorities has become a powerful driving force in political life.

In a multi-candidate setting such as ours, where a simple plurality is enough to win the presidency, believers in strongman rule have the edge. It is far easier for them to rally behind a single candidate than it is for the supporters of the other candidates to consolidate their forces. This is what we are seeing today in the run-up to the 2022 elections.

There are just a little too many contenders in what is supposed to be the opposition side. Most of them prefer to skirt the issue of strongman rule in the hope of winning over a large segment of the middle class and the poor who are looking for a decisive and strong leader but not necessarily a tyrant. It is a futile hope. For they will be drawing more votes from each other than from the Duterte-Marcos camp. To that extent, they are really undermining the anti-authoritarian vote.

The litmus test that will, I believe, differentiate the true advocates of democratic governance from the followers of strongman rule will come during the presidential debates. Remember this simple fact: Strongmen view strong institutions as obstructions to the fulfillment of their goals. Whether these institutions come in the form of an independent judiciary, an assertive legislature, or a professional civilian bureaucracy—the strongman sees his/her tasks as essential, non-negotiable, and superior to existing law.

The debates are expected to tackle any number of issues: the handling of the pandemic, the conduct of the so-called drug war, corruption, the state of the economy, of the legal system, of education, of the press, the treatment of the poor, the conduct of foreign relations, the protection of the environment, etc. The discussions must in the end be brought back to the fundamental question we face today—do we choose to be ruled by a strongman or to be governed by strong institutions? There is no way this question can be tackled without critically assessing the record of the two authoritarian regimes we have had so far—Marcosian dictatorship and Dutertismo.

To be sure, it is always possible for candidates to offer answers that are neither here nor there, or that seek to conceal their real beliefs behind noncategorical responses. Some can glibly charm their audiences by resorting to witty but meaningless ripostes. The “jet-ski” boast of the then-candidate Duterte is worth keeping in mind. The challenge for the panel of interviewers in these debates, and for the media, is how to bring out the key points on which the contenders agree and disagree concerning the imperatives of democracy.

The coming presidential election is crucial to the fate of democracy in our country. It will determine once and for all whether the overthrow of the Marcos regime in 1986 was a heroic act or a mistake. It will also decide if the election of Rodrigo Duterte was a fluke, or whether it reflects, in fact, our people’s deep distrust in constitutional democracy as a suitable form of government for our country.

No one who aspires to lead this country in the next six years should be allowed to avoid answering these questions by hiding behind the convenient excuse of wanting to be a healer or unifier of the nation. True democracy requires the service of a strong and transparent opposition. It has no need for a false consensus founded on personal accommodations that disregard institutions and the rule of law.