Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, his common-law wife Honeylet Avancena (R) and their daughter Veronica pose for a photograph during a Christmas party at Malacanang Palace in Manila. Photo: Reuters / handout
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, his common-law wife Honeylet Avancena (R) and their daughter Veronica pose for a photograph during a Christmas party at Malacanang Palace in Manila. Photo: Reuters / handout

The rise and rise of Rodrigo Duterte

The Philippines president's story is an evolving lesson in the vulnerability of democracies in the face of a neglected public

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has confirmed that he killed three men during his time as mayor of Davao city, despite officials trying to play down an earlier admission. Duterte’s comments might yet hurt his popularity but that seems unlikely.

Duterte’s national crusade has resulted in an alarming daily average of 34 drug war-related murders. Despite this death toll and international condemnation, public satisfaction with his anti-drug war is at a significantly high rate of 78%.

How can this be explained in a country that a mere 30 years ago brought down a dictator without resorting to violence? How could a nation that inspired the world with its peaceful “People Power” revolution now welcome a return to the state-sanctioned murders of the martial-law era of 1972-1981?

Duterte’s rise is an evolving lesson in the vulnerability of democracies in the face of a neglected public. The democratic institutions of the Philippines have little power when faced with a populist president determined to channel frustrations into immediate actions.

Unfulfilled promise

In 1986, millions of Filipinos ended Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship through sustained civil resistance against government violence and electoral fraud. This culminated in a massive peaceful protest in the capital along Epifanio de los Santos Avenue — an event best known today as the People Power Revolution.

Marcos was ousted after 21 years in power. He had been democratically elected as president in 1965, but essentially ruled as a dictator from 1972 to 1986.

To the disappointment of many, an elite-dominated democracy replaced Marcos’ authoritarian rule. From 1987, a small number of families started to restore their control of the government and rotate the seats of power among themselves. They included the Marcos family, who returned from exile in 1991 and were welcomed by their allies.

In the public imagination, the promises of the People Power Revolution went beyond restoring democratic institutions. The narrative went like this: a return to democracy would secure prosperity and security for everyone. The overall framework and various social justice provisions of the 1987 Philippine Constitution clearly reflect this.

Three decades later, the pact is far from being fulfilled.

The 30th anniversary celebrations of the People Power Revolution that toppled late president Ferdinand Marcos. Photo: Erik De Castro

The post-Marcos leadership has failed to solve many of the problems that concern Filipinos. Despite promising national growth rates, the gains appear to have largely benefited the rich. More than 26 million Filipinos remain impoverished. And unemployment rates are said to be the worst in Asia (though these are not reflected in the official data).

This widening gap between rich and poor, recurrent domestic economic crises, epidemic levels of corruption and failed attempts to significantly reduce criminality, have left the public deeply frustrated. Surveys in recent decades have consistently shown that these are the most urgent national concerns for many Filipinos.

The 1986 revolution, once a symbol of the promise of democracy and prosperity, is now synonymous in the Filipino popular imagination with the dysfunctional transport system in Metro Manila.

National commemorations of the People Power consensus have become officially important, but in the public imagination they tell the tale of how promises are meant to be broken.

Democracy’s discontent

Amid political and economic exclusion and malaise came Duterte. He offered empathy to the economic strugglers and protection from the violence of criminals and politicians. His was a twin campaign narrative of care and power. His supporters often highlighted how they felt that Duterte truly cared for them.

And he was not just all talk. Duterte is seen as a man of action: decisive and quick. His “authenticity” is manifest in his everyday language coupled with humor that comes from the streets.

Duterte articulated the public’s deep-seated feelings of precariousness and powerlessness using rhetoric they could relate to. His campaign rallies, which many proclaimed as a marvel to behold, showed the rapport between the candidate and his supporters.

Duterte’s supporters often highlighted how they feel that Duterte truly cares for them. Photo: Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

Many felt that Duterte rose from the ranks of ordinary citizens, in spite of the fact he comes from a traditional political family and has held various political offices for 30 years. This is especially evident in his overwhelming support in the southern Philippines, as the first president from a region long neglected by the capital.

How did it come to this?

When democracy doesn’t deliver, its legitimacy becomes difficult to defend. And when successive elite-dominated governments have used democracy for their own ends, the balance tilts towards authoritarianism.

Under post-Marcos democracy the richest families amassed more wealth than ever while poverty, hunger, homelessness, and crime continued to afflict ordinary Filipinos. It’s not difficult to imagine why some are nostalgic for the authoritarian past. Although national statistics show otherwise, people felt those were the country’s golden years.

Extrajudicial killings are a regular feature of post-Marcos governments just as they were of the martial law years. Examples include the 1987 Mendiola massacre, 2004 Hacienda Luisita massacre and 2009 Maguindanao massacre.

Perpetrators have not been brought to justice. Even before Duterte, the Philippines was known as a country with one of the worst states of impunity. Government critics were the usual victims until Duterte took aim at alleged drug dealers and users.

In my fieldwork in a massive poor urban community in Quezon City, residents have welcomed Duterte’s war on drugs. They now feel more secure in what they call their “drug-infested community” — despite a substantial decline in drug use compared with previous decades.

Residents argue that their perceptions of community security are just as important as the numbers in government records. For people to feel safe in a city where 92% of villages (as the administrative subdivisions of what is a sprawling megatropolis are called) face drug-related crimes and in a nation where crimes against persons and property are rising is no easy thing.

It’s not difficult to imagine why some are nostalgic for their country’s authoritarian past. Photo: Romeo Ranoco, Reuters

When Duterte’s campaign translates to perceived everyday safety, it is no wonder that drug-war murders have not met considerable resistance.

Anyone with experience of the country’s institutions of justice knows how elusive criminal justice is. Around 80% of drug cases end up being dismissed and it may take a decade to achieve a conviction.

There are many reasons for this, but Duterte’s narrative that drug lords are so powerful that they can influence even the judiciary is not far-fetched. Most people do not trust the judiciary and many are convinced that power and money are needed to claim justice.

Previous administrations also made a mockery out of the national justice system; even convicted corrupt politicians enjoy their freedom while innocents languish in jail. A corruption whistleblower, Jun Lozada, was recently convicted, while ex-president Gloria Arroyo was acquitted and set free.

The legislature has been used to turn issues of justice into a public circus, such as in the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Corona and the hearings on allegations of graft and corruption against former vice president Jejomar Binay.

Is it surprising then that Dutarte’s supporters find calls to follow the rule of law and due process hypocritical? When institutions do not work, it becomes unreasonable to rely on them.

Duterte’s narrative plays on the temptations for a disgruntled public to claim swift justice. In the context of his rise to power, it’s no surprise that calls to respect human rights or the rule of law fall on deaf ears.

The election of Duterte may be seen as the apex nadir, but possibly also a turning point, in the long-standing democratic deficit in Asia’s oldest democracy. His rejection of the rule of law and liberal democracy represents a rupture in the post-Marcos consensus.

It’s not a stretch to say that the Philippines’ elite democracy had it coming. The failure to deliver on the promises of the People Power revolution made the rise of Duterte politically possible.

Cleve Kevin Robert Arguelles is an instructor of political science at the University of the Philippines. This article was originally published in the Conversation

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