A horrific cleanup job

How far Duterte has actually gone with his authoritarianism gives us some sense of his pace and where he might be taking us. And it’s decidedly a fast and determined pace, made possible by a coopted legislature and an agreeable majority of the Supreme Court.

How do we clean up after Duterte?

It may seem premature to deal with that question since there’s no telling when he will leave power. But, precisely because he is power mad, and because of that we’re surely in for a horrific time, we need to be forewarned early.

To have some idea how wrecked we may have become once he’s through with us, and what capabilities will have been left us, if any, for rebuilding and restarting our national life, we must know how this man got past us in the first place; we must recognize and accept our failings, as psychologists might prescribe.

In fact, our case belongs in the realm of pathological politics. No one like Duterte, whose notoriety as a provincial-city mayor for two decades had preceded him, could have captured the presidency without a constituency of like mentality.

It’s happened in America, too, although that’s no consolation. What the American experience offers, rather, is a broad instruction on the benefits and pitfalls of the style of democracy common to both nations – after all, the Americans were its originators and we their colonial inheritors.

I doubt there’s anything to be gained from any further character comparison between Rodrigo Duterte and his American counterpart, Donald Trump. The more useful study seems to me that which tracks how our democracies failed to see those two aberrant pretenders coming.

Trump’s slip is ascribed chiefly to his party’s failure to screen him out in the way it and its rival party succeeded with unsuitables before – demagogues, extremists, plain crazies. Foremost among levels of checks, the American two-party system has been designed precisely to do that within a construct of laws and norms and institutions intended from the start to save the impressionable masses of electorate from themselves through an educated and better-informed leadership class.

The system had more or less worked – until Trump, thanks to a Republican Party concerned more about party victory than anything else, no matter who bore the party’s standard. (A book just published examines Trump’s case and puts it in the context of its title – How Democracies Die, by Harvard University professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. It’s a read close to home.)

In comparison, our failure with Duterte might be easier to understand, though unforgivable all the same, given that at stake could be no less than our very survival. As a nation, we did not go through such crucibles as the Americans did – a war of independence, a civil war, a depression, battles among a racial and cultural mix of immigrants for a place on a continent of frontierlands.

We ourselves had been originally an archipelago of numberless small dominions of kings, subjects, and slaves, or patrons, lackeys, and beneficiaries. In colonial times we were taken over politically and economically by foreign powers who, ruling by patronage themselves, did little to change our native parochial habits and cultures.

That was the unconducive land in which the Americans planted the seed of their democracy and, on their own terms, tried to grow it – the same land that Ferdinand Marcos seized for himself as a dictator for 14 years, that Joseph Estrada plundered, and that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took over on a rigged presidential vote.

Now, it’s Duterte’s turn – and with Arroyo, Estrada, and the Marcos heirs as his accomplices.

Duterte is sure to pass, with flying colors, the test of authoritarian behavior (devised also by the authors of How Democracies Die, which, for good measure, should be read alongside the boldly prescriptive On Tyranny, by Yale University professor Timothy Snyder; published last year). The test turns on four “key indicators”:

“1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game
“2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
“3. Toleration or encouragement of violence
“4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media”

Duterte requires no testing really. He is only too proud to declare himself a dictator and illustrates it egregiously. But, again, we need to keep track of how far he has gone with his authoritarianism to get some sense of his pace and of where he might be taking us. And it’s decidedly a quick and determined pace, made possible by a coopted legislature and an agreeable majority of the Supreme Court.

Upon taking office, he launched a war on illegal drugs. Its rate of deaths alone has provoked reasonable suspicions of summary executions — “extrajudicial killings,” or “EJK,” has become the common term for them. The number has reached 16,000, and the International Criminal Court is onto Duterte for that.

In the first half-year of his presidency, he went to war against a band of separatists, plain brigands, and terrorists in Marawi City. He declared victory after 5 months but has kept the entire main island of Mindanao, where Marawi is situated, under martial law. Now he warns of a creeping terrorist menace that may force him to expand the emergency across the whole country.

Within 8 months of his accession to the presidency, his regime put in jail an arch-critic among the few oppositionists in the Senate ona wild charge of drug trafficking and without concrete evidence. She remains detained.

The steadfast ombudsman has been threatened with impeachment, and the assertive Chief Justice actually put through the process in the House of Representatives and also taken to the Supreme Court for a quicker judgment than the Senate, as an impeachment court, would normally deliver.

After a summary inquiry this news organization, which has incurred Duterte’s open contempt for its bold reporting and sharp criticism, was sued under the securities law, and, before the courts could even take up its case, he pronounced it guilty and banned it from covering him.

To top it all, he has practically ceded Philippine sovereignly over certain strategic and potentially resource-rich waters to China. Moreover, it intends to take out loans from, again, China on rates 12 times the offer of another creditor and engage it as infrastructure builder, despite its abominable record as one.

From all that, we can only imagine what cleanup job awaits us at the end of Duterte’s term, 4-plus years yet from today – that is, if he does not decide to overstay./Rappler.com/ Vergel O. Santos


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