One of the most tantalizing myths of Dutertismo is the supposed Machiavellian “genius” of the current President. After all, the former mayor, unlike any of his predecessors, has managed to discipline and punish the key pillars of Philippine society without even declaring martial law. Under Rodrigo Duterte, the country has entered what I have called “The Fourth Republic,” a dialectical outcome of the failures of both Marcosian and liberal oligarchs since the Commonwealth era.
Upon closer examination, however, what comes to light is that Mr. Duterte’s political ascendancy is less a product of his political “virtù” than a resounding victory by default, thanks to a perennially divided opposition.
One way to assess Mr. Duterte’s political acumen is by comparing him with like-minded leaders in similarly-situated societies. Throughout the past decade, a coterie of populists and charismatic strongmen have taken over emerging market democracies such as Turkey (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), Indonesia (Joko Widodo), and India (Narendra Modi).
All three countries have experienced rapid economic growth going hand in hand with democratic decay. Just like Mr. Duterte, all of these leaders leveraged their local government backgrounds to catapult themselves to the pinnacle of power.
While former Istanbul mayor Erdogan fought for the pious Muslims and so-called Anatolian tigers against the Westernized “White Turks,” Gujarat’s state minister Modi dislodged the more liberal Congress party by presenting himself as pradhan sewak (servant of the masses). Jokowi, meanwhile, a former small town mayor, outwitted the Jakarta oligarchy by styling himself as the champion of the ordinary folks (orang kecil).
In short, years before Mr. Duterte even ran for the presidency, these leaders had their own versions of “Atin to ‘Pre” populist victories. Under their watch, all these countries have increasingly resembled the kind of “illiberal democracy” that Vladimir Putin so effectively established in post-Soviet Russia.
Mr. Duterte may be unique in the Philippine context, but he is simply the latest iteration of a broader phenomenon in the post-colonial world.
In comparative terms, Mr. Duterte may in fact be the weakest link among the aforementioned “strongman populists” in Asia. Neither does he have the energetic proactiveness of Jokowi, who seems to be literally all over the world’s largest archipelago and has ably triangulated the Javanese elite to his taste. Nor does Mr. Duterte have the massive and well-organized party base of Erdogan (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) and Modi (The Bharatiya Janata Party).
And Mr. Duterte doesn’t hail from the security services, unlike other world-famous populists such as the late Hugo Chavez (military) or strongmen like Putin (KGB) — precisely why he has had to pay extra attention to the police and military.
Mr. Duterte’s primary strength is his uncanny ability to exploit not only deep-seated societal grievances, but also structural fissures within the opposition. Compared to his peers, the Filipino leader has arguably faced the weakest resistance.
The opposition not only failed to secure even a single Senate seat last elections, it also failed to forge a united slate for all the 12 seats. The divisions go far deeper than the left-liberal axis. Were the two liberal-leaning presidential candidates united in the 2016 election, Mr. Duterte would likely not have even made it to Malacañang. He won barely over a third of the total votes.
History may not be repeating itself, but it clearly rhymes. While some are quick to point out the 1986 People Power revolt as a reflection of our democratic predilection, many forget how a tinpot dictator managed to stay in power until the final years of the Cold War.
Again, a major culprit was a deeply divided opposition, as the ever-factious radicals and notoriously disparate moderates jockeyed for their own version of “democratic” revolution. Surely, the 21st century has made monolithic political movements not only undesirable but close to impossible.
But while pluralism should be embraced and ideological debates are essential to any democratic society, let’s not forget the indispensability of organizational coherence and political unity in times of democratic upheaval.
Instead, what we have had is this: Each opposition leader seems to be in the midst of his/her hero’s journey, with their own local and international fandom celebrating them as the “David” vs. the “Goliath” of authoritarianism. But, perhaps more than ever, what we desperately need is post-partisan solidarity, if our democracy is going to survive.
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