Is Duterte a dictator?
The answer is not as simple as one would like, and the reasoning is necessarily nonlinear.
Part of the reason this is so lies in the Philippines’ own recent history of dictatorship. Ferdinand Marcos, a consummate lawyer, created an elaborate legal infrastructure to enable what was called constitutional authoritarianism — what Marcos critic turned foremost apologist Teodoro Valencia called “martial law with a smile.”
In his younger days, Marcos could orate for hours — not in the mold of President Duterte’s stream-of-consciousness ramblings, but in the vein of Fidel Castro’s extemporaneous political philosophizing. He hardly used directly threatening language (one famous exception was his retort to student leader Edgar Jopson as a mere “grocer’s son”). While he was a brutal dictator in fact, he was very conscious of appearances and careful to keep them.
Mr. Duterte does not often give a damn. He holds his tongue only when it comes to former president Fidel Ramos’ criticisms; he pays tribute to leaders who do not criticize him (Vladimir Putin: “My idol.” Xi Jinping: “I simply love” him. Donald Trump: “A deep thinker.”) Everyone else, especially women critics, gets the full I-am-the-President-not-you treatment—and many people see this as a form of dictatorship, or at least of dictatorial impulses given free rein.
Another part of the reason is we’ve called other presidents dictatorial before — which makes Mr. Duterte’s actual embrace of the dictatorial possibilities in the Philippine presidency that much harder to counter.
In “Marcos was the worst (3),” part of my occasional series on the true and perfidious legacy of the Marcos family, I wrote about the Singapore fantasy of the Marcos loyalists: the idea that, in the words of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., his father would have turned the Philippines into another Singapore if he had continued in office.
“Why is it that some Filipinos — not only those who are too young, but even those old enough to have lived through the Marcos years — seem ready to buy into this counterfactual version of history?
“Many factors must be at work. The loss of perspective: The events have receded into what is now the distant past (more years separate our time from the declaration of martial law than from the start of World War II to military rule in 1972). The failure of education: Our generation has not done an adequate job of reminding the nation of the atrocities of the Marcos dictatorship. The power of myth: Marcos allies have been successful in presenting the beginning of an alternative history, especially online. The relativism of protest: Antigovernment critics of whatever stripe fall into the relativist habit of denouncing the incumbent president as the worst of the time (scroll through newspaper pages and see the vilification of one president after another: Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo, Aquino again). Not least, the lure of innocence: Media organizations today are too noisy, busy with present-day stories of iniquity and inequality.”
That relativism of protest has led protesters—including but not limited to Bayan—to denounce every single president since Marcos as an incipient or undeclared dictator. A Bulatlat article on “progressive groups” marking the 42nd anniversary of the declaration of martial law, in 2014, was headlined: “Groups call to end ‘Aquino dictatorship.’” A 2007 story by DPA News on the 35th anniversary of martial law carried this omnibus quote attributed to Karapatan and Selda: “There is a new dictator and kleptocrat in Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her cohorts under an undeclared martial law.” That narrative of absolute power concentrated in a presidential dictatorship goes all the way back, through Joseph Estrada and Fidel Ramos, to Corazon Aquino.
It is true that the Philippine presidency, despite its single-term limitation, retains vast powers, including command of the administrative infrastructure of justice and oversight of a quarter-million members of the uniformed services. And it is also true that a vindictive or single-minded president can use these powers to retaliate against critics; this is how I understand (and to point to only two examples) the jailing of Ka Jimmy Tadeo under Cory Aquino and the unseating of Dick Gordon under Estrada.
But if these presidents were dictators, understood in the usual sense, what does that make of President Duterte? Galactic overlord?
A third part of the reason: Despite the absence of a new constitution (the centerpiece of Marcos’ strategy), influential people in and outside the government already act as though the President were a dictator: the pliable majority in the Supreme Court that privileged his election mandate (a plurality) over public support for the Constitution (an overwhelming majority); local officials and intimidated businessmen who fail to vigorously question the legal basis of the Boracay closure; bureaucrats and advertisers who put pressure on the media to please him.
President Duterte has dictatorial tendencies, but is the Philippines back under one-man rule? Not yet — but we’re getting there, fast.
On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand
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