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A country in a downward spiral

NEW YORK CITY — Rodrigo Duterte, during his 2016 presidential run, campaigned on the promise of change based on the premise that the Philippines’ entire social structure was on the brink of a collapse. Unending traffic congestion, the problem of illegal drugs and criminality, graft and corruption were issues that prominently figured and became the underlying theme of the Duterte project. It was a populist project founded on the belief that electing a strongman was the shortcut solution to address every problem that ailed the Philippines — that Mr. Duterte was, in his own words, the nation’s “last card,” and the chance of a lifetime for Filipinos who want to see significant change in their lives.

What many Filipinos failed to recognize is that these social issues do not sum up the exigencies of the bigger quest for political modernity, even as these problems were for them the most practical concerns that should have demanded foremost attention from their elected leaders. The electorate’s long years of coping, frustration and disillusionment gave birth to a movement that found life in Mr. Duterte, the outsider politician from Mindanao whom they eventually anointed to lead their redemption.

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President Duterte’s rise to power was a revolution of the middle class — that segment of the Philippine population largely disconnected from a social conflict framework. There was social change indeed, albeit a bad one. It has led to a fascist movement that has seen blood flow in the streets of Manila and other provinces, leaving an estimated 20,000 people dead under Mr. Duterte’s signature war on drugs. In an attempt at self-preservation and continuing relevance, political chameleons of every stripe threw their support behind the man whose popularity remains unparalleled.

How did we get into this mess? I think we should review what happened.

The Edsa People Power that toppled the 20-year Marcos dictatorship was an unfinished revolution; its ideals never fully materialized due to the high disparity in wealth and power between the elite and the masses. Social relations continued to be highly feudal, and the oligarchs managed to continue shaping the country’s economy according to the dictates of what analysts call “booty capitalism”—a condition where profitability is a function of political connection. This would lead to a strong society and a weak state, characterized by dysfunctional government, an uninspired bureaucracy and a powerless mass of people.

After only three decades, we’re back to the old game, only with different players.

Meanwhile, the struggle from the Left has continued, now split into the “Reaffirm” and “Reject” factions of the Joma Sison-led communist movement. Those who reaffirmed the movement’s old doctrines continued their armed struggle. Those who rejected them decided to work within the existing system, rather than against it.

I happened to participate in the movement positioned at the “left of center” of the political spectrum. We fought for land reform under the government’s agrarian reform program and ran people empowerment advocacies based on the existing local development provisions of the Local Government Code. Later on, we saw economic empowerment as an effective vehicle to awaken the political consciousness of the poor. To be certain, we were making small progress in pushing for a people-centered agenda, until a parallel movement took place. They ate our lunch!

Halfway through the current administration’s term, things continue to get worse. Mr. Duterte’s disdain for checks and balances has irreparably damaged our institutions. We have become a deeply divided nation. We have so many eggs to unscramble, and much hope needed that we can still recover from this political catastrophe—that a redemption for a country that’s gone deep into a downward spiral is yet on the horizon.

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Joseph Jadway Marasigan is a New York-based human resources professional and former NGO executive in the Philippines.

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