The opposition’s dilemma
By “opposition,” I simply mean here the many groups and individuals that are determined to prevent the Duterte regime from perpetuating itself beyond the 2022 presidential election. I do not use the term in the context of the “government/opposition” rivalry that one finds in mature democracies, where stable political parties regularly compete with one another for the right to hold the reins of government.
Martial law destroyed such parties in our country in 1972.
So-called “coalitions,” cobbled together by political impresarios, have tried to perform some of the functions of the pre-ML parties, with varying results. They sometimes manage to elect a president, but not a “government” in the true sense of the word. As their shelf life does not go beyond the elections, they have no influence over the people they thrust into office.
This state of affairs essentially leaves the country with administrations that have no coherent programs, surrounded by sycophants and politicians with an ever-shifting relationship to the current administration. At the same time, it offers little incentive for the formation of a strong and unified opposition.
The Duterte presidency has been no exception. President Duterte has done little to strengthen the party, PDP-Laban, under whose banner he ran as a candidate in 2016. Neither has he created his own national party or movement—or formed a new political force that might provide ideological continuity or support for his agenda.
Everything about this administration has revolved basically around the Duterte persona — and the pet projects he has championed: the bloody war on drugs and the pivot to China. As costly and controversial as these have been in their consequences, the drug war and the turn to China have barely dented his popularity.
It is the uniqueness of the Duterte persona itself that has shaped the public attitude toward this administration. In previous columns, I have tried to spell out the nature of this persona, the popular sentiments to which it effectively responds, and the presidential style it has spawned — for which I coined the term “Dutertismo.”
Dutertismo is primarily defined by its open disregard of a society’s institutional guardrails, especially of the checks to executive prerogative. It is impulsive, relying mostly on gut feel, and has no patience for careful study of crucial questions. Its gauge of policy effectiveness is the shock value it creates and the fear it induces in its intended targets. It has no need for periodic assessment of policy outcomes. It is more concerned with impression management than on the production of enduring social change. It does not hide its preference for direct authoritarian means over the slow deliberative procedures of a democratic system.
This style of decision-making should have long gone out of fashion in the modern world. It is mostly associated with traditional patriarchal societies. That it has made a comeback even in developed countries attests to the growing need of voters in the era of globalization to simplify political choices in favor of drastic solutions to old and new problems.
The point is, there is no way the opposition can challenge this administration without directly addressing the fundamental issue that is staring us in the face — namely, this President’s dictatorial decision-making style and its dysfunctions. The opposition must patiently explain what is wrong with this form of governance, how it has brought the country to the dire situation it is in, and why we urgently need a different kind of leader. This is different from merely demonizing a political enemy.
Elections in our country have seldom been driven solely by issues. In fact, they have mostly been about personalities and what they represent in terms of the things that are valued. That is why our presidential debates have rewarded not those who offer the clearest answers to policy questions, but those who present themselves in a manner that creates the desired impressions.
What are some of the images that are highly valued in our present political culture? Foremost of these are the following: Authenticity — you confess your weaknesses, you don’t pretend to be what you are not; Compassion — you treat the suffering of the many as your own and promise to avenge them; Boldness — you do not hesitate to offend the powerful, the rich, and the respectable; Decisiveness — you act swiftly and demand quick results, even if it means having to cut corners and defy the law. These are at the heart of today’s populism.
This kind of culture puts a premium on personal projection rather than on governmental performance. To zero in exclusively on the failures and shortcomings of the government, and not pay equal attention to the dysfunctions of the Duterte style of leadership from which they emanate, is to misunderstand our political culture. The issue is Duterte and what he represents.
The principal question in the 2022 elections is whether our country can allow this presidency to continue for another six years using as proxy its anointed successor. To field a presidential candidate and a senatorial slate that will solely focus on policy issues, while expressly avoiding direct criticism of a wildly popular president for fear of alienating his devotees, is to lose a rare opportunity to invite Filipino voters to do a soul-searching. It is to fail to undertake what is demanded of true leaders—which is to lead, to teach, and to remind our people that we are all ultimately responsible for what happens to the nation.
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