President Rodrigo Duterte’s admission that he’s a dictator, and his obvious pride in that fact, were premised on at least three assumptions.
The first is that his dictatorship has achieved something praiseworthy and beneficial to this country and its people.
The second is that before he took over, what obtained in the Philippines was democratic rule.
The third is that democracy has failed to deliver its promise of prosperity, justice and equality that has been falling from the lips of “democratically-elected” officials for decades, hence the dictatorship alternative.
The supposed need for the return of dictatorship is a message that resonates among many Filipinos precisely because they assume the same things. They are grievously — and dangerously — mistaken.
What Mr. Duterte said during his speech last week before former guerrillas of the New People’s Army (NPA) was that of course he’s a dictator, because otherwise “nothing will happen in this country.”
That justification for his authoritarian rule presumes that something is indeed “happening” in the Philippines in terms of the progress, peace and development that Duterte the candidate promised during the campaign of 2016, as well as in his speeches, profanity-laced rants, and his State of the Nation Addresses (SONA) in 2016 and 2017.
Things have indeed happened and are still happening during the 19 months in which Mr. Duterte has been in power. But they’re not exactly, and far far different from, the changes that he promised.
There’s one exception. He did say he would kill 100,000 or more to end the country’s drug problem. Some 12,000 people including a number of women and children suspected of being drug users or part of the distribution system of the illegal drug trade are dead, to begin with. Practically all their killers from the police force and the government-supported and encouraged vigilante groups and death squads are loose and yet to be prosecuted, their exemption from punishment further strengthening the culture of impunity and lawlessness that has made murders and other crimes as perennial as grass in these isles of injustice.
The number of killings — unprecedented in recent Philippine history, and in many instances approved, abetted and encouraged by Mr. Duterte — has caused the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Office of the Prosecutor, in response to a complaint filed before it by a Filipino lawyer, to initiate an examination into the possibility that he may be accountable and prosecuted for crimes against humanity.
Despite the already enormous cost in lives of the “war on drugs,” the problem Mr. Duterte pledged to end in six months persists, primarily because his “war” has targeted only alleged drug users and small-time pushers in the poorest communities while exempting the big, politically well-connected drug lords and smugglers behind the drug trade. Mr. Duterte himself has admitted that the campaign is foundering and has repeatedly extended his own deadline for ending the problem, the extent of which he and his regime cohort have been exaggerating since he came to power.
Meanwhile, nothing much that’s positive has happened in his promise to end the decades-long war between the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). Instead, his sudden cancellation of the peace talks that he himself initiated has ushered in a period of even worse conflict, violence and human rights violations. When he cancelled them, the talks had seemed so close to arriving at an agreement on the social, economic and political reforms that could finally pull this country out of the abyss of poverty, injustice and mass misery into which it has been condemned for centuries, and that could have eventually led to a final cessation of hostilities.
The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that would finalize the peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is in limbo. Its passage, though in a much diluted form, is premised on the realization of the shift to federalism that’s likely to keep Mr. Duterte and company in power beyond 2022. Thanks to his minions in Congress and the Supreme Court, Mindanao is still under martial law and killings, abductions, and arbitrary arrests among others savaging entire communities.
Mr. Duterte’s economic policies have not departed from those of his predecessors either. They have emphasized the same decades-old failed approach to development that has kept millions in poverty, the primary cause of which are the limited employment opportunities in a still basically agricultural country with low productivity and without any meaningful industrial capacity. Despite regime noises about defending the rights of Overseas Filipino Workers, the export of Philippine labor as a result of limited job opportunities at home will continue, and together with it, the abuse of OFWs in foreign lands.
As for his foreign policy, despite his early rants against US intervention Mr. Duterte has continued the same course of dependence on the US that was so evident in the ill-conceived and badly-executed Marawi siege that destroyed that irreplaceable jewel of the Muslim community, while he panders to the military interests of China in the West Philippine sea to the detriment of Philippine sovereignty. Rather than serving one master, the Philippines is in the very real danger of serving two.
These are among the results so far of Mr. Duterte’s 19 months of one-man rule — of the dictatorship supported by his hatchet men in Congress and the bureaucracy that he has admitted to.
The implication in his words that his being a dictator is necessary because democracy has failed is as hollow as his claims to achievement. What has obtained in this country for decades is not democracy but a mockery of it. It is evident in the political oligopoly that dynastic rule has created over the decades since the Commonwealth period, when, with the support of the US colonial government, a handful of families descended from the principalia assured themselves of their now decades-long monopoly over political power.
The so-called elections that propel these few to public office are themselves parodies of democratic choice, decided as they are by money, warlord control over command votes in various regions and provinces, intimidation, and voter manipulation.
Mr. Duterte himself and his own burgeoning dynasty should be more than familiar with these putrid tactics. In 2016 he amassed a huge campaign war chest from the Marcoses, the Arroyos, the Estradas, and his friends in the oligarchy, and recruited hundreds of online trolls at a cost of thousands of dollars, even as he pretended to be uninterested in the presidency. To stay in power he has allowed his bureaucrats in the government media system and their paid hacks in both old and new media to grind out daily an endless stream of false information to confuse, divide, and manipulate the citizenry and to demonize responsible journalists, dissenters and regime critics.
His election was itself a classic example of how sadly undemocratic Philippine elections are. As political scientist Malaya C. Ronas points out in the book (edited by Felipe Miranda and Temario Rivera and published by the Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Development Program), Chasing the Wind: Assessing Philippine Democracy, democratization is “never ending” in the Philippines: it is yet to be realized for these and other reasons.
The “democracy” Mr. Duterte and company are so contemptuous of has yet to be achieved. It is not a failure because it has never been made real, much less practiced. The need is to bring it about because democracy is the only sane, rational and enlightened means of governance worthy of a free people. Dictatorship is its very anti-thesis.
It is only in a democratic regime where everyone can participate in his or her own governance, decide what’s best for themselves, their country and society, and hold to account those to whom they have delegated their sovereign powers. These are among the most compelling reasons, although not the only ones, why those who’re in their right minds risk even life itself to achieve it, and to resist with all their might such dictatorships and their self-serving delusions as the present regime.