Duterte and ‘delegative democracy’
IN HIS inauguration speech, President Duterte honors democracy as he cuts off its limbs. His truncated understanding of democracy that allows the executive to enforce an extraordinary electoral mandate while enjoying extraordinary leeway from other democratic institutions—shades of a degenerative democratic condition that the Argentine political scientist and democratization scholar Guillermo O’Donnell criticizes as “delegative democracy”—begins the fraught existence of Philippine democracy under his term.
Paying homage to the basic principle of democratic theory that the source of democratic power is ultimately the people, Mr. Duterte declares: “It is the people from whom democratic governments draw strength, and this administration is no exception.”
His next sentence ties the source to the performance of democracy, as it links the demands of the public to the responsiveness of elected officials: “That is why we have to listen to the murmurings of the people, feel their pulse, supply their needs and fortify their faith and trust in us whom they elected to public office.” His assertion is an integral part of the larger “vertical accountability” relationship between the people and the leaders crucial to a healthy democracy.
Unfortunately, what is missing in his speech, and particularly urgent and essential when involving Mr. Duterte who ran on an authoritarian platform, is the recognition of the other source of strength of a democracy aside from the people: the democratic institutions.
In addition to the executive, these institutions involve Congress, the courts, constitutional bodies such as the Commission on Elections, Office of the Ombudsman, and Commission on Human Rights, and other legal entities that structure and mediate political representation to the people. Key to this representation are the checks and balances—or what O’Donnell calls the “horizontal accountability”—that the executive, legislative and judicial branches (as well as constitutional oversight agencies) exercise on each other, a relationship that is equally crucial to a healthy democracy.
Instead, Mr. Duterte drags his promising discussion of democracy down a dangerous path all too familiar to the democratization literature as delegative democracy, hyperpresidentialism, executive arrogation, “decretismo,” and similar labels.
In O’Donnell’s delegative democracy, the president who wins a compelling electoral victory at a time of socioeconomic crisis claims an extraordinary mandate to ask for delegation of powers (usually emergency powers) that properly belong to other branches, or to arrogate more powers for himself. Instead of deepening democracy by strengthening its institutions that make horizontal accountability possible, the president systematically ignores or undermines them since, according to O’Donnell, they “are seen by delegative presidents as unnecessary encumbrances to their ‘mission.’”
In place of the hyperinflationary economic crises that allowed the rise of delegative presidents in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Duterte sets up a supposed crisis in governance (but belied, for example, by Social Weather Stations surveys showing all three branches during the term of President Benigno Aquino III having the highest average satisfaction ratings since Edsa I). He speaks of an “[e]rosion of faith and trust in government” which, for him, “is a problem deeper and more serious” than corruption, criminality, illegal drugs, and breakdown of law and order that are now just “mere symptoms of a virulent social disease that creeps and cuts into the moral fiber of Philippine society.”
Hence, Mr. Duterte’s extraordinary mandate is to restore the people’s faith and trust by fighting these ills using what he calls “my methods.” In one of the understatements of the year, he says that critics describe his methods—the very methods that, according to human rights groups, have resulted in more than 1,000 extrajudicial killings in Davao City when he was mayor—“as unorthodox and verge on the illegal.”
It is in these methods that he seeks extraordinary leeway from other democratic institutions that could exercise horizontal accountability on the Philippine executive: “In this fight, I ask Congress and the Commission on Human Rights and all others who are similarly situated to allow us a level of governance that is consistent to our mandate.” A few sentences later, he gives a far blunter statement: “You mind your work and I will mind mine.”
From this delegative-democracy vantage point, Mr. Duterte’s other statements, seen by some as reassuring to democracy—such as “I know the limits of the power and authority of the president,” “I know what is legal and what is not,” and “My adherence to due process and the rule of law is uncompromising”—are but further evidence of a diminished form of checks and balances where a president insists he already knows the limits of executive action independent of the views of other democratic institutions.
Those enamored of strongman presidents should realize that delegative democracies end up damaging not only competing democratic institutions but also the executive itself. Weakening checks and balances allows a president to act swiftly and decisively. But since other institutions are not engaged to create a national consensus on how to solve a problem, say illegal drugs or corruption, the president is at a much higher risk of committing major mistakes and concentrating the blame on himself if his strategy fails—as it usually does with presidents who have mutilated ideas on how democracies work.
Gene Lacza Pilapil is an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
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