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HORIZONS

The autumn of Dutertismo

As President Duterte enters his final two years in office, he is also facing the greatest challenge of his political career, if not life. Our nation is confronting the worst economic crisis since the final years of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, when the country grappled with a massive debt crisis and virtual economic breakdown.

By some estimates, our gross domestic product (GDP) could shrink by more than 3 percent, a dramatic decline from a decade of 6-7 percent annual growth. On one hand, the President looks more powerful than ever, riding on historic approval ratings and amassing new emergency powers to contain the China-originated pandemic.

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And yet, Mr. Duterte’s public speeches belie any pretense to invincibility, but instead expose his political dilemmas and almost spiritual struggle to navigate the country amid the darkest period in recent memory.

Few things are as mysterious as power. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel famously argued that power is ultimately relational, a struggle for recognition between the master and his slave (“Herrschaft und Knechtschaft”).

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While the master can impose his will on the slave due to superiority of will and coercive capacity, he also relies on the slave to reaffirm his own identity as the superior party. But power can also be extremely alienating, reducing even tyrannical masters to the despair of solitude.

Writing in the shadow of the Franco dictatorship, Gabriel García Márquez wrote his most political novel, “The Autumn of the Patriarch” (1975). Published almost a decade after his magnum opus “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1967), the book is a “a poem on the solitude of power.” A journalist by training, and deeply influenced by his grandfather Colonel Nicolás Márquez, the Colombian writer was among the most astute political analysts of his era.

It’s a stream-of-consciousness reflection on Lord Acton’s dictum on how “[g]reat men are almost always bad men,” since “[p]ower tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Drawing on a long list of Hispanic strongmen, from Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain to Venezuela’s Juan Vicente Gómez and Colombia’s Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, the book tells the story of an old Caribbean ruler, who wrestles with the tragic dilemmas of unfettered power.

Known for his brutality, including feeding prisoners to crocodiles, “he alone was the government, and no one circumvented his will whether by word or deed.” The strongman was also a veritable dynamo, who “always seemed…in two places at once…That simultaneous presence everywhere….that going up as he went down, that going into ecstasy in the sea…”

Neither a man of eloquence nor a fan of structured governance, he defied the “sluggishness of written law” and preferred arbitrary rule. Surrounded by concubines and skilled sycophants, his grip on power was nevertheless secure, thanks to the competence of his lifelong assistant, General Rodrigo de Aguilar.

The autocrat hailed from a humble background, and what stood at the heart of his power was not only the patronage of foreign empires and brutally efficient lieutenants, but also an uncanny populist charisma. He personally “supervised the milking in the cow barns” and was “always attentive to the gabbling of the servants, who were the people in the house who spoke the same language as he.”

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Drenched in absolute power, he was also an irredeemable narcissist, “so overwhelmed by that outpouring of love [from the masses]” that he would admonish presidential guards to let fans get as close to him as possible: “See how they come, Captain, see how they love me.”

But as his power grew, and his enemies were reduced to ashes, the solitude of power began to wear him down. Toward the end of his rule, people came to see the “sight of the sunset old man who was contemplating the waterfront with the saddest look in the world,” an utterly lonely president who “[u]ntil very late… would stay stretched out face down on the floor without sleeping,” as the weight of power and responsibility crushed the aging despot.

Mr. Duterte is no Caribbean dictator and, luckily, has a loving family and hometown for refuge. During his latest retreat to Davao, he will likely also reflect on the autumn of his presidency, and how, as Márquez put it, power is often like a fish “swimming around without god or law (un sábalo vivo que nadaba sin dios ni ley).” These are his legacy years.

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TAGS: authoritarinism, Economic Crisis, Horizons, Richard Heydarian, Rodrigo Duterte, strongman rule
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