Democracy in the time of Duterte
RODRIGO DUTERTE’S stunning victory in the presidential election marks the latest twist in the problematic saga of Philippine democratization since the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution that overthrew the Marcos dictatorship.
The surprising triumph of the first anti-democratic demagogue to run as a presidential candidate on the very 30th anniversary of Edsa I provides a poignant vantage point to assess the prospects for Philippine democracy, now that it has seen the election of the candidate who explicitly threatened to kill it.
Among the possible concepts to track the country’s democratization story are the related concepts of democratic consolidation and deconsolidation. Democratic consolidation is when all relevant political forces play by the rules of the democratic game. The relevant political forces are those that have the capacity to end democracy, and the most important for the Philippines are the president, the military, and the opposition political parties. Democratic deconsolidation is when one or more of the relevant political forces no longer want to play the democratic game.
The democratic game played is that the path to the presidency is only through competitive election. Once elected, the president must follow constitutional rules that make democratic government possible (for example, checks and balances); he or she can only change the rules (for example, unitary to federal system) through rules found in the Constitution. On the other hand, the only constitutionally allowed opposition path to remove the incumbent is through impeachment.
Democratic consolidation was never achieved under Corazon Aquino as she was beset by eight coup attempts. It was achieved under Fidel V. Ramos, but deconsolidation started under Joseph Estrada in 2001 with the opposition’s aborted impeachment trial that led to Edsa II and the removal-resignation controversy. Deconsolidation dragged on under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as she faced two coup attempts in 2003 and 2006, as well as allegations of stealing the presidential election in 2004. Consolidation was reachieved under Benigno Aquino III starting in 2010.
But barely six years after this democratic success, Philippine democracy unexpectedly finds itself in danger of deconsolidating again with the election of Duterte. While willing to play the democratic game to win the presidency, he bragged that when as president he is checked by other democratic institutions such as Congress, the Commission on Human Rights, the Office of the Ombudsman, or the courts, he would not hesitate to change the democratic game and introduce a new game where he plays the dictator with the military and police behind him.
Even if for the sake of argument Duterte’s authoritarian threat is just part of his macho blustering, significant damage has already been done to our democratic institutions even before he warms his seat in Malacañang. Here the concept of democratic erosion, which can be defined as the weakening of democratic institutions, is instructive. Duterte’s contempt for the checks and balances performed by these institutions has rubbed off on his rabid supporters, resulting in their diminished valuation of democratic processes as hindrances to effective governance.
Duterte’s contempt is ironic because the core of his reform program, to the extent that he has one, rests on successfully working closely with these institutions.
In the case of the legislative branch, for example, his quixotic calls for federalism and a parliamentary shift would demand not only legislative majority support but supermajorities in both chambers of Congress (especially in the nationally elected Senate, which will be asked to commit institutional hara-kiri). Even his less grandiose reforms such as doubling the salaries of the police and the military or creating a new department for overseas Filipino workers will need congressional enactment.
It is easy to expect that, like the presidents before him, Duterte can cobble together a legislative majority from other parties willing to ally with his minuscule PDP-Laban and from the gaggle of turncoats jostling to become members of his party. But it is hard to expect that he can maintain that legislative majority, particularly in the Senate, if he will bully, blame and bypass Congress when he cannot get his ambitious legislative agenda moving.
Because Duterte ran on a populist platform that promised to deliver the undeliverables (such as stamping out illegal drugs, crime and government corruption in three to six months), he might resort to what demagogues do come delivery time: Blame others for his failures. Since he also ran on an antidemocratic rhetoric, he will most likely point his finger at democratic institutions for opposing his reforms (such as the courts, for insisting on due process) or for simply being not up to speed for the reforms that he wants to push (such as Congress, for its slow legislative grind), thus worsening democratic erosion.
Moreover, by complaining that the rules of the democratic game are stacked against him, he might set up democracy for a final mauling, in what Latin Americans call an autogolpe (self-coup). Calling it a revolution, he can suspend the game itself in order to rewrite the rules through a new constitution that would free him to fulfill his promises to his wide-eyed believers.
In this worst-case scenario, democratic erosion and deconsolidation presage democratic breakdown and authoritarian reversal. Dismissed by others during the campaign as mere kanto boy hot air, Duterte’s threat to abolish Congress and set aside the courts may tragically become, on the 30th year of Edsa I, the Marquezian chronicle of Philippine democracy’s death foretold.
Gene Lacza Pilapil is an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman.