Never mind the 2017 Duterte State of the Nation Address, which was replete with profanities, self-serving claims of current and future progress on various fronts, among them the regime’s brutal and failing war on drugs, and justifications for the use of unaccountable State violence. Take his so-called assurance that he won’t place the entire country under martial law with a reasonable amount of skepticism. All SONAs are after all political and since Commonwealth days have served the ends of every Philippine regime without exception.
Focus instead on the imminent danger the country is facing from the headlong rush of the regime into a version of authoritarianism that could develop into either openly fascist rule, or a disguised dictatorship without the benefit of a declaration of martial law.
As in 1972, today the source of a looming disaster that would throw the country into further chaos and threaten the liberties of every Filipino is a president who, like Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., also promised change. ( Marcos’ mantra was “this nation can be great again” during the campaign periods for the Presidency in 1965 and 1969, and he claimed that he declared martial law in 1972 “to save the Republic and reform society.”) As changeable and as fickle as the weather, this president was only a year ago describing himself as a “leftist” and a “socialist,” but is rapidly taking the militarist route that Marcos, Sr. took 45 years ago.
A lethal combination of factors similar to what obtained in 1972 has made what had seemed an unlikely recurrence of fascist rule probable: a citizenry that’s either apathetic, confused, or cluelessly content in its uncritical adoration of someone it thinks would bring about the changes that have eluded the Filipino people for over a century; a compliant Supreme Court bereft of historical memory; and a president who, like Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., while reveling in his populist support, has a profound belief not only in himself but also in the use of State violence to address complex, multi-dimensional problems.
When he declared martial law in Mindanao, this president several times complained that he shouldn’t be compared to Marcos because, unlike the latter, he claims he hasn’t robbed the country blind or stolen anything from the public treasury. Since he’s been in power only for a year and has five more years in his term, the truth of that claim is yet to be established, and we’ll have to wait till 2022 to find out. But in several other respects we can safely say right now, today, that he’s right: he’s no Marcos. They’re different on a number of counts, although, in the end, few of the personal peculiarities that set them apart really matter.
Despite the rampant lawlessness of his 14-year martial law regime, Marcos knew his law, having been educated in the University of the Philippines and a bar top notcher. While he never expressed any respect for human rights, he didn’t say he didn’t care for them either.
Marcos relied on the guns of the police and the bayonets of the military to keep him in power, but he never once promised them immunity from prosecution so long as they did his bidding. Dependent as he was on police and military collaboration, he surrounded himself with some of the most competent thinkers, writers and academics of the period. A master orator, he chose his words carefully, had more than a working knowledge of the English language, and spoke in a well-modulated, far from abrasive voice.
He never cursed anyone in public, least of all the Pope or any other head of State. Although he had a roving eye, he neither sniggered at or made sexually suggestive comments about women, nor insulted them in public.
Some would argue that Marcos was a hypocrite, that all these were fronts for a bogus respectability, urbanity and civilization that merely concealed his essentially authoritarian nature, his unbridled lust for power and riches, and his hubris — that they were convenient masks that helped him win two elections as well as initial support for his fascist regime by convincing the public that he was lamb rather than predator.
These observers would be right. Combined with overweening arrogance, his vast appetites drove Marcos to put the entire country under military rule for 14 years, justifying it as the only means to “save the Republic and reform society.” By the time he had been overthrown the country was in shambles and many of its best and brightest sons and daughters dead. But so sure of himself was he, and so focused on self-aggrandizement, that it never occurred to him that he was accountable for the ruin of the country and the brutalization of an entire generation.
This is where the differences between Marcos and Rodrigo Duterte end and the similarities begin. When, whether Filipino or foreign, people compare Duterte with Marcos, they’re thinking not only of the ease with which the latter destroyed the country through martial rule, but also of Mr. Duterte’s statements glorifying Marcos, as well as the same hubris — the conviction that no matter what, he’s right and everyone else wrong. Equally noticeable is that just like Marcos, and practically echoing his idol and mentor, Mr. Duterte has been justifying the imposition of martial law as a cure-all, as the magic potion that will heal the ills of Philippine society.
These similarities are what matter; the rest are merely differences in personality, background, education and upbringing. But to these we must add one more: if Marcos was the child of a political system that would have eventually produced, and has indeed spawned, thousands of bureaucrats afflicted with the same authoritarian virus, so is Mr. Duterte the offspring of the same system of dynastic and neo-colonial rule.
Marcos was a catastrophe waiting to happen; anyone of his ilk could have arisen from the putrid depths of the dark lagoon of monstrosities known as the political system to inflict the same violence and terrorism on a people unable to distinguish between an authentic leader and a false one.
Only the democratization of political power, authentic socio-economic reforms, and the reorientation and cleansing of the coercive instruments of the State can finally put an end to the continuing threat of a return to authoritarian rule. But because the political, economic and social systems have remained unchanged — with the same dynasties beholden to foreign patronage in power, and a police and military establishment committed to its defense — as the demand for change and even revolution continue to surge, it was only a matter of time before the danger reached critical level.
A broad alliance of all democratic and progressive forces — human rights defenders and advocates; people’s organizations; youth, student, labor and farmers’ groups, professionals, the media and civil society — can combat the rebirth of another dictatorship, and, if it does recur, to resist it. That will hopefully happen as those communities aware of the dangers of a return to authoritarian rule realize that that nightmare, 31 years after the Marcos terror regime was overthrown, has returned to haunt a country that while needing change so desperately has stubbornly resisted it.
First published in BusinessWorld