Duterte, democracy and inevitability
From a democratization standpoint, one of the crucial questions on the 2016 presidential election that need to be answered is how an in-your-face authoritarian candidate like Rodrigo Duterte triumphed in a consolidated democracy.
Possible answers must grapple with two discordant realities in this question.
The first reality is that Duterte’s real uniqueness is not that he is a political outsider initially unsupported by major political parties and big business. Nor that he is from the margins of underrepresented Mindanao. Nor that he has an antiestablishment persona of uncouth language and manners that some analysts have romantically labeled as authentic. Nor that he has a sordid human rights record (although this one comes close).
Instead, his uniqueness is that he is the first ever presidential candidate of this country who explicitly threatened to become a dictator if democratic institutions stand in his way once he is elected president.
Just to put his uniqueness in perspective, not even Ferdinand Marcos, whether the senior or the junior, ran on such an openly and brazenly prodictatorship platform.
And because he won, he will be the first president of this country who can actually claim to have the electoral mandate to end democracy if he finds it necessary to do so.
Taking a dark turn on the democratic ideal of keeping one’s electoral promises, he can stare Philippine democracy in the eye as he puts a gun to its head and rhetorically asks it: Did I not vow that I will close down Congress and set aside the courts and make myself a dictator if things do not go my way?
The second reality is that Philippine democracy under Benigno Aquino III is a stable, consolidated democracy. It is far from the usual deconsolidated and badly eroded democracies marked by political or economic turmoil that allowed messianic strongmen elsewhere to be elected and to later end or seriously erode their own democracies.
While this administration is by no means an unqualified success story, modest improvements in key economic and governance indicators have been achieved under Mr. Aquino, from economic growth, low inflation, robust antipoverty program and higher employment to better rule of law and anticorruption scores.
On the democratization story itself, it was under Mr. Aquino in June 2013 that the Social Weather Stations recorded the highest satisfaction rating over how democracy works, at 80 percent. It was also in June 2013 that the number of Filipinos saying that “democracy is always preferable to any other kind of government”—whom the democratization literature calls “unconditional democrats”—was at a record high of 65 percent. The two ratings remained high in the most recent SWS democracy survey conducted in December 2015, two months before the start of the presidential campaign.
So what happened?
Many reasons have been offered to explain Duterte’s victory. These range from structural explanations (continued high poverty, unemployment, inequality and infrastructure bottlenecks) to sociological (attraction to an antielite, “authentic” candidate; yearning for a strongman leader; middle class insecurity or opportunism; democratic fatigue and protest vote) and political (rejection of the perceived ineptness and aloofness of Mr. Aquino himself or his administration; rejection of the post-Edsa “ruling elite democracy,” “oligarchic democracy” or “cacique democracy,” and triumph of the grassroots movement over party machinery) approaches.
These also include technological (the elections were the country’s first social media elections and only the Duterte camp fully understood this fact), cultural (Filipino rebelliousness against incumbents or Filipino gullibility to messiahs), psychological (fascist attraction or Freudian id release), international (global resurgence of authoritarianism), and institutional (president is elected by plurality vote) explanations.
Most of these analyses help illumine important aspects of Duterte’s triumph. But a number of these analyses are bedeviled by the sense of inevitability of Duterte’s victory that they convey. This is problematic because he was not the survey front-runner, and even found himself in fourth place behind survey laggard Mar Roxas as late as the March 4-7 SWS survey. Duterte’s surge in the surveys only happened in the latter half of the campaign, where incidentally this type of analyses started appearing and replacing the earlier ones that said it would be a tight race.
Riding on the crest of Duterte’s spectacular surge, these analyses suddenly saw the weaknesses of Philippine politics, economy, society and democracy in a new and much harsher light. These analyses argued that these infirmities explain why only Duterte could win or could have won the four-cornered presidential election. Hence, wittingly or unwittingly, they fanned further the man-of-the-hour, zeitgeist narrative of the Duterte camp.
But such analyses ignore one of the basic insights of democratic theorizing on elections in a competitive regime: that elections create identities, narratives, paradigms and, yes, zeitgeists, and not just the other way around.
Surprisingly, alternative explanations to Duterte’s striking victory in a consolidated democracy might lie in studying the lessons of the equally dramatic triumph of another candidate in the vice-presidential race: the come-from-(way)-behind victory of Rep. Leni Robredo over Marcos Jr. For here it can be seen, in all its shining glory, the triumph of political strategy over zeitgeist, of contingency over inevitability, and of democracy over despair.
Gene Lacza Pilapil is an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
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