The Philippines has its third strongman leader in President Duterte.
In its contemporary history, the Philippines had its first experience with strongman rule when President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in September 1972. Marcos arrogated unto himself both executive and legislative powers. And with a submissive Supreme Court, he ruled as a dictator.
The dictator promised a “New Society” — a “Bagong Lipunan” — that would rid the country of rampant corruption, widespread poverty, and a growing communist insurgency. Instead, corruption became more widespread, poverty worsened, and the communist insurgency grew bigger.
Marcos was accused of accumulating $10 billion in ill-gotten wealth, of driving 59 percent of the population to poverty, and of causing horrific human rights violations where 70,000 were imprisoned, 34,000 were tortured, and 3,240 were killed.
The Philippines came under a second dictatorship during the first year of Corazon Aquino’s presidency. After the 1986 People Power Revolution that ousted Marcos from power and drove him and his family from Malacañang, Cory Aquino declared a revolutionary government and ruled as virtual dictator by wielding both executive and legislative powers from February 1986 until the 1987 Constitution was ratified.
She used her revolutionary powers to remove governors and mayors who reigned during the Marcos regime and appointed officers in charge as their replacements.
She issued a law creating the Presidential Commission on Good Government, and tasked it to go after the ill-gotten wealth of the Marcoses and their cronies.
But Cory Aquino was a hesitant dictator. Progressive groups fault her for not using her revolutionary powers to cancel the questionable foreign debts incurred by the Philippines under the Marcos regime. As a result, the country continues to pay for these loans until 2025, or 40 years after Marcos was ousted.
By the “brute force of his intimidating personality,” in the words of Inquirer columnist Randy David, Rodrigo Duterte has transformed himself into the third strongman leader to occupy the Philippine presidency.
Mr. Duterte has ensured for himself supermajorities in both chambers of Congress that allow him much leeway to tangle with constitutional bodies vested with authority to check abuse of power, such as the Office of the Ombudsman, the Commission on Human Rights, and the Supreme Court.
He holds a partially disclosed list of purported drug personalities including politicians, military and police officers, judges, and businessmen. While the list may well be legitimate, it has instilled public fear that one’s name may have been falsely inserted in the list out of spite.
Most lethal of all, he has unleashed the notorious police force on the populace, giving it the power to accuse, judge, and even kill any Filipino suspected of involvement in the trade in illegal drugs.
The propagation of a climate of fear has resulted in subservience to Mr. Duterte’s exercise of strongman powers among key sectors of society. It has been observed that he doesn’t need to declare nationwide martial law or a revolutionary government because he already wields the same powers previously possessed by Marcos and Cory Aquino.
But for all his strongman powers, he has singularly trained them on the menace that bedevils, by his count, 4 million drug addicts. He has not shown an equal resolve to use those powers on the menace of poverty that afflicts 44 million Filipinos, or on the corrupt political dynasties and business oligopolies notorious for unfair trade practices.
Neither has he shown any resolve to dismantle the political and economic structures that keep millions of his constituents mired in poverty.
Unless Mr. Duterte trains his strongman powers on dismantling the structures that chain millions of Filipinos to impoverished conditions, this country will suffer a “strike three” shutout on this mode of leadership.
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