Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Rodrigo Duterte has not become Caesar overnight, despite what election-watchers might say

There might be fewer checks on the Philippines president's erratic behaviour but he is the choice of his country's voters

Catholic nuns take part in a protest against alleged cases of electoral fraud. Ezra Acayan / Getty
Catholic nuns take part in a protest against alleged cases of electoral fraud. Ezra Acayan / Getty

Many predictions were made in advance of last week’s elections in the Philippines, in which half the senate’s 24 seats, the whole of the House of Representatives and all provincial, city and municipality-level elected positions were up for grabs. One was a self-fulfilling prophecy: that if supporters of president Rodrigo Duterte did well, it would mean that the country’s democracy was on the road to ruin.

Those supporters did indeed triumph. Official results are expected to be published tomorrow but so far it appears that Duterte-friendly candidates have won 10 out of the 12 senate seats, giving him a super-majority in the upper house to add to the one he already has – and seems to have retained – in the House of Representatives. Unsurprisingly, we have already seen warnings about Mr Duterte’s ambitions for an “imperial” presidency and his supposed wish to perpetuate his own power or establish a dynasty. The fact that potential rivals have been vanquished so convincingly – like Mar Roxas, his opponent in the 2016 presidential election, who failed to win a senate seat – only adds to the narrative.

But let us try to ignore the aura of outrage that constantly surrounds Mr Duterte and consider what this really means. It is certainly not good news for human rights activists or advocates of a vigorous free press. Many claim that more than 20,000 people have died since he began what Human Rights Watch calls his “murderous war on drugs”, while his administration’s treatment of Maria Ressa, the founder-editor of the news website Rappler, led Time magazine to include her in its 2018 “Person of the Year” issue as one of the “guardians” in the “war on truth”.

Mr Duterte’s brash manner and disdain for the separation of powers – the supreme court removed its own chief justice last year after the president labelled her an “enemy” – might appal some but 69 per cent of Filipinos said they were satisfied with the way democracy was working in their country

Neither does it bode well for Senator Leila de Lima, an arch-critic of the president, jailed on what are widely thought to be dubious drug charges since 2017. Nor does it suggest that the administration will take any more heed of international concerns. Last year, the International Criminal Court said it would be investigating Mr Duterte’s drug war. He responded by announcing he was pulling out of the court; now the police chief who was the architect of that policy, Ronald dela Rosa, is one of the newly elected senators.

But if, as the prominent Manila-based analyst Richard Javad Heydarian puts it, the president has been granted “carte blanche to push his authoritarian populist agenda to its logical conclusion”, one thing must be admitted: it was the gift, freely given, of the country’s voters – a massive 81 per cent of whom approve of him, according to a recent survey. That is a lead that even allegations of vote buying, if true, can hardly put a dent in.

Mr Duterte’s brash manner and disdain for the separation of powers – the supreme court removed its own chief justice last year after the president labelled her an “enemy” – appals many. But it clearly appeals to many Filipinos, 50 per cent of whom told a 2017 Pew survey that being governed by a strong leader was “somewhat good” or “very good”, while 69 per cent said they were satisfied with the way democracy was working in their country.

The economy is on his side – growth has been well over 6 per cent for the last three years – and his tough-on-crime, anti-elitist image is very popular in a country that has seen too much rule by a hereditary oligarchy that self-evidently does not share the burdens of the poor. (Mr Duterte’s two predecessors were both the children of former presidents, to give one example.)

Much has been made of the suggestion that Mr Duterte might remove the ban on the one-term limit for the presidency. That does not strike me as particularly exceptional and the current six-year term is arguably insufficient to pursue a long-term agenda. Nor can I see anything wrong in wanting to move to a federal system. It is practised in many countries and as the former mayor of Davao on the island of Mindanao, Mr Duterte has consistently complained that Mindanaoans’ destiny was decided not by them but by “people in Manila”, the capital. Further, he considers federalism key to the success of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, the Muslim-majority area in the country’s south-east, whose creation is supposed to bring an end to a decades-long insurgency that has cost at least 120,000 lives.

There has also been speculation about what this election means for the future. Will Mr Duterte’s equally punchy daughter Sara, who succeeded her father as mayor of Davao, run for president in 2022 – not least to guard against any attempts to prosecute him? Or will he turn to close allies, such as the children of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, in whose cabinet Mr Duterte’s father Vicente served? Imee Marcos is one of the newly elected senators while her brother Ferdinand Junior was his choice for vice president in 2016 (he lost but is still challenging the result).

Those who are disturbed by the election results so far are perhaps overly worried. Mr Duterte has not become Caesar overnight. The senate – including members close to the president – has a long tradition of independence and the party system is so fluid in the Philippines that congressional majorities cannot be whipped into shape as easily as might be assumed.

But will there be any more checks on Mr Duterte’s frequently erratic behaviour? Obviously not. Some have observed that the Philippines has a history of bouncing between leaders who are underwhelming technocrats and colourful populists. If Mr Duterte counts as the latter, the word “colourful” covers a lot of ground – as the pope, Barack Obama and others who have been the subject of his profane insults could testify. But he is the choice of his country’s voters, as are many other populist leaders around the world. If outsiders bemoan the result – well, bad luck. They don’t get to decide how other people exercise their democratic rights – and that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.

Sholto Byrnes is a Kuala Lumpur-based commentator and consultant and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum

Updated: May 20, 2019 05:21 PM