The Philippines' Strongman Syndrome

The Philippines' Strongman Syndrome
From Al Jazeera - December 4, 2017

"If your destabilisation is taking place and there is chaos already,I will not hesitate to declare a revolutionary government until the end of my term," warned firebrand Philippine President Rodrigo Dutertein October,amid growing domestic opposition to his presidency.

The threat of suspending the country's democratic constitution was just another iteration in Duterte's long-running flirtation with authoritarian rule.However, over the succeeding weeks, as the Southeast Asian country prepared to host world leaders for the East Asia Summit, the Filipino leader tried to downplay the provocative statement. He insisted that the threat was not final policy (yet), but, instead, just an exploration of various scenarios to address the country's need for order and stability.

Yet this did not prevent Duterte's supporters from openly calling for the suspension of the country's democratic constitution in favour of an imperial presidency. On November 30, pro-Duterte civic organizations held rallies in major cities, where they advocated for an outright establishment of a "revolutionary government".

Philippine democracy has never looked as brittle in recent memory, with a growing number of Filipinos brazenly expressing their profound disenchantment with democracy and embracing authoritarian fantasies in the person of Duterte. And what's happening in the Philippines is eerily echoed across emerging market democracies, ranging from India to Turkey and Indonesia.

Populist art of governance

Like any modern populist, Duterte has presentedhimself as thevoiceof the Filipinopeople, theknight in shining armour who shields the nation against criminals and foreign threats, and, without lacking a tinge of millenarianism, as thePhilippines' last hopefor national salvation.

As Jan-Werner Mullerarguesin his latest book, "What is Populism?", populists are inherently illiberal and, over the long run, risk sliding into full-fledged authoritarianism as they implement their vision of collective revival. This is precisely because of their exclusive claim to represent what French Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau termed as the "general will" - namely, the collective interest of the people.

In Duterte's conspiratorial narrative, a cabal of oligarchs, liberal civic groups, insurgents and criminal syndicates are hell-bent on unseating him.

For populists, Muller argues, they and only their supporters have monopoly on the true interest of society, while critics are automatically dismissed as ungrateful citizens or, even worse, treasonous elements opposed to change. Any opposition is dismissed and derided as a plot by "the enemy" of the republic.

Evidence-based and pluralistic public debate, which German philosopher Jrgen Habermas termed as "communicative rationality", is supplanted by a more stridently us-versus-them struggle for the soul of the nation.

No wonder then, for instance, Duterte often lashes out at his critics, accusing themof hatching a "destabilisation plot" against his government in order to preserve an oligarchic status quo.

The tough-taking president often speaks with moral conviction, accusing his opponents of sabotaging his administration's key policies. In Duterte's conspiratorial narrative, a cabal of oligarchs, liberal civic groups, insurgents and criminal syndicates are hell-bent on unseating him.

Autocratic nostalgia

Democracy has simply lost its currency in the imagination of too many people, gradually paving the way for fulfillment of most pernicious authoritarian fantasies.


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