5 myths of Dutertismo (1)
You don’t think it all boils down to this, if the government for quite a long time… had been doing anything for people they wouldn’t have got fed up and elected [him],” retorts Jack Burden, the idealistic journalist in “All the King’s Men.”
Born into a rich southern family, and enervated by the shameless hypocrisy and unbridled greed of his class, Burden passionately defends the populist protagonist, Gov. Willie Stark, against the scorn of the feckless elite.
A small-town lawyer, Stark, a complex character largely based on the true-to-life story of charismatic yet polarizing Louisiana governor Huey Long, manages to pull off a shocking electoral victory by speaking directly to the most profound grievances of the ordinary masses. Extolling the self-justifying virtues of decisive leadership, even in defiance of norms and law, Stark argued, “ain’t anything worth doing a man can do and keep his dignity.”
But the story, as in Long’s own, takes a tragic turn, with Burden discovering, layer by layer, how absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even the most well-meaning leaders often succumb to the intoxicating kiss of vindictive power built on the aroused passions of the mob.
Similar to Stark’s Louisiana, a large number of Filipinos (39 percent), in an outright “protest vote” against the deracinated elite, voted for a political outsider to take the helm of a whimpering nation in 2016. Like Burden, many, repulsed by the failures of the liberal oligarchy, at first defended his populist vision for the country until the real truth of his style of leadership, aptly described by Randy David as “Dutertismo,” revealed its inner core.
The strength of populists, the late scholar Ernesto Laclau argued, depends on “empty signifiers,” namely an emotionally resonant rhetoric of redemption and universal justice that, however, often lacks sound and realistic policy foundations. Thus, myths are central to the success of populists.
The list is long, but the following are the five major “PINAS” myths that define Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency. Here is the outline.
First of all, is Mr. Duterte really “Popular beyond reproach,” since his net satisfaction ratings are not very different from his predecessor Benigno Aquino III, who was rightly criticized for his many shortcomings? Why do the same surveys that show his drug war is popular ALSO show that 9 out of 10 Filipinos oppose extrajudicial killings (EJK), and almost 8 out of 10 Filipinos fear ending up as victims of EJK themselves? If he is so popular, how come pro-Duterte rallies in recent years have been so scarcely attended? Why is it that he lacks any real grassroots movement, unlike other populists around the world who can easily bring millions to the streets?
Or think of the myth of “Independent foreign policy,” when in fact there is no evidence to show that Mr. Duterte’s so-called “art of war” genius has improved our situation in the West Philippine Sea, where China has become even a greater bully, or brought about any big-ticket Chinese infrastructure investments to this date despite his strategic acquiescence.
Changing one strategic patron for the other is no sign of an “independent” foreign policy. And related to the first myth, how can Mr. Duterte be so popular when surveys also show that close to 9 out of 10 Filipinos don’t buy his China-leaning foreign policy, but instead seek a robust defense of our interests in the West Philippine Sea, including taking back islands occupied by China?
Or think of the third myth, namely the supposed “Nationwide law and order”: In which parallel universe is a country deemed safer, when the Philippine National Police itself admits an upsurge in homicides, with 23,327 homicide cases under investigation in Mr. Duterte’s first two years alone? Lest we forget, the “big fish” conviction rate of Mr. Duterte’s drug war remains zero.
Or think of the fourth myth, namely his populist “Anti-oligarchy” stance, when in fact the plight of the Filipino farmers and ordinary workers has deteriorated in recent years, thanks to rice tariffication and the persistence of “endo” against a backdrop of slowing growth, falling investments and roller-coaster inflation rates.
And how on earth is Mr. Duterte a “Strong” leader, when he couldn’t even stop infighting among his Congress allies who almost disrupted his third State of the Nation Address and, shortly after, failed to pass a budget on time? Not to mention the failure to prevent the siege of Marawi, the most daring attack by terrorists in the country’s history?
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