Dutertismo: strongman, weak state

An enduring theme in President Duterte’s march to the highest office of the country was the simplistic idea that he, and he alone, could save the nation from half a century of humiliation.

When the former Davao mayor announced in September 2015 “I am not running for president,” a netizen was quick to lament how he “was our last hope.” Shortly after, of course, Mr. Duterte would change tone, a foretaste of a long pattern of ever-shocking reversals throughout his presidency.


In his early months in office, the President consistently portrayed himself as a secular savior, the only thing that stood between the country and total apocalypse. Yet, his presidency has coincided with one crisis after the other, most notably the months-long siege of a major Mindanaoan city by a bunch of ragtag terrorists, the advent of suicide bombings on Philippine soil for the first time in history, and the exodus of foreign investors.

And soon, the Philippines is projected to suffer its greatest economic contraction since the 1980s. Meanwhile, unlike many of our neighbors and leading nations, the government is yet to present any clear and decisive recovery plan following one of the world’s longest lockdowns.


The last two major economic crises took place under the stewardship of Joseph Estrada, when the country struggled against the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and Ferdinand Marcos, when the country went into effective bankruptcy in the early 1980s.

Notice the commonality among the three leaders, who similarly projected themselves as macho saviors. While it is unfair to equally blame the three presidents for dissimilar economic crises, one can’t still deny the bitter irony of their actual legacies.

In one of his most famous lectures, “Politics as a Vocation” (1919), the German sociologist Max Weber made an impassioned speech in favor of modern political leadership. Delivered before the Free Students Union of Bavaria amid an increasingly vicious civil war in Germany, it was perhaps his most courageous public lecture.

Weber was perturbed by the brutal polarization of his beloved country, as left-wing Spartacists and rightwing Freikorps tore the once powerful nation asunder. So he argued in favor of a modern democracy, led neither by recklessly utopian radicals nor mindlessly violent and amateurish forces of reaction, particularly remnants of the militaristic Junker aristocracy.

Instead, he favored leaders with dispassionate, capable minds (“Ethic of Responsibility”) and compassionate, willful hearts (“Ethic of Moral Conviction”). Crucially, Weber distinguished among various forms of authority, namely traditional, charismatic, and legal.

The first encompassed the monarchs (and later sheikhdoms) of the world, who drew their authority from an “eternal past” of mythology and historical lineage. The third category, in contrast, referred to technocratic leaders, who rose through the ranks based on their perceived managerial competence and merit.

The most interesting ones, however, are charismatic leaders, who derive their power from “revelations, heroism, or other leadership qualities of an individual.” To their fanatical supporters, they are “endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.”


Looking at Marcos, especially in his early days, and the unabashedly populist Estrada and Duterte presidencies, they fit Weber’s second typology. Their “supernatural” and “superhuman” qualities often defied objective reality and actual performance, at least among their legions of supporters. In more contemporary parlance, Weber spoke of the “strongman.”

Defining the state as a central organization with successful monopolization of legitimate violence, Weber also distinguished between two types of states. On one hand, modern states have a capable bureaucracy answerable to a professionalized political leadership, who were bound to mass-based political parties with specific policy agendas. There is a balance between force of personality and merit of policy. Political scientists such as Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama have defined “strong” states as anchored on autonomous, capable, and impersonal institutions of governance. In contrast, “patrimonial” states are anchored in father-like figures, who treat society like their household and rule based on loyalty and devotion. Actual performance and merit are secondary to charisma.

The arc of tragedy in Philippine politics, as in many underdeveloped countries, is how we repeatedly choose strongmen rather than reforming our patrimonial “weak” state into a modern and capable one. As the civil rights activist Ella Baker famously put it, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

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TAGS: authoritarinism, Dutertismo, Horizons, Max Weber, Richard Heydarina, Rodrigo Duterte
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