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Duterte is singular, democracy plural

A day after the 2016 presidential election, a friend told me she had “voted Mar, but Duterte won so we should all support him.” I nodded then. I wish I hadn’t.

President Duterte acts like the boss-mayor that he was in Davao City, and we let him. This is a mistake. Our country cannot be governed like one of its component cities or municipalities. Local politics has traditionally been, at bottom, padrino politics: an electoral whirlabout of patronage-based factions who take turns lording it over everyone else. National politics, in contrast, needs to be pluralist: various groups working together by forming coalitions, making compromises, and thinking up win-win solutions.

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Padrino politics works through the parceling of pork among electoral victors while the losers salivate for their turn at the public trough. It works by dividing the population into an in-group (e.g., “Dutertards”) and an out-group (“Dilawans”). Pluralist politics, in contrast, works by institutionally requiring multiple groups — both the electoral winners and losers as well as others — to cooperate so that new policies get decided and implemented. It works, not by division, but by integration.

Two catchphrases capture present padrino politics. One, “Tatay Digong,” imagines the country as one big family whose different members must, like children, obey their parent (“Father Duterte”). The other, “weather-weather lang,” imagines politics as a seasonal cycle of padrino factions where the latest victors must milk government office for all its worth when it is their turn at power and endure the abuses of their opponents when it is not. It is revealing that both phrases were popularized by mayors-turned-president.

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Philippine democracy grew up, after World War II, as a padrino playground locally and a pluralist arena nationally. It died shortly after President Ferdinand Marcos brought padrino politics up to the national stage and was reborn after Edsa People Power Revolution opened up “democratic space” to bring pluralism back onto the political center (thereby pulling padrino politics back down to cities and municipalities). But in his attacks on the Chief Justice, Ombudsman, opposition senators, the press, etc., Mr. Duterte is once again pushing pluralism offstage. Like Marcos, he intends to bring padrino politics back up.

Padrino politics is bad for democracy at whatever level. But it somewhat still works in municipalities and cities because abuses of victorious local factions can be curbed by bringing grievances upward. At the national level, however, there is no such appeal against a singular national padrino. This is precisely why the government separates powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches, and creates independent constitutional bodies like the Ombudsman and the Commission on Human Rights. By staggering elections and appointments, and protecting the tenure of incumbents, the Constitution ensures that victors from many elections across time — both the last one and past ones — are represented in the government. If any one faction wants to control all the levers of public decision-making, it must win multiple elections successively. By then voters would have had enough time to assess if it is wise to hand all government power to a particular group.

It is thus wrong to think of democracy as the rule of the present majority. Democracy is the rule of different majorities from different times who institutionally need to work together if they want to get anything done. In short, constitutional democracy is pluralist rule.

Padrino politics short-circuits these constitutional safeguards. Instead of respecting the institutional prerogatives of past electoral victors and working with them, Mr. Duterte is attacking them head-on. He seeks to dismantle pluralism and concentrate power in his in-group where he lords supreme. No single election can give anyone such a sweeping mandate. Mr. Duterte’s group needs to win many more elections before it can credibly claim that it represents the entire nation in making its proposed fundamental alterations to our public life. At present, all it can claim is the power to implement the laws within the Constitution’s framework and as limited by our fundamental rights.

When I nodded at my friend’s suggestion that we respect Mr. Duterte’s electoral mandate, I was expecting him to respect political pluralism. He is guilty of undemocratic usurpation for not doing so.

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Bryan Dennis Gabito Tiojanco is scheduled to obtain a JSD from Yale Law School this academic year. He has an LL.M. from Yale Law School and a JD (cum laude) from the UP College of Law. He will be a postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Singapore-Centre of Asian Legal Studies this coming academic year.

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TAGS: Bryan Dennis Gabito Tiojanco, democracy, Inquirer Commentary, padrino politics, patronage politics, Rodrigo Duterte
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