This election season, candidates for the Philippine presidency have raised barely a word about the minimum wage, land reform, inequality, or climate change. While recent contests in Latin America have pressured even conservative politicians to pay lip service to socially progressive causes, in the Philippines the discussion has shifted so far to the right, there is no room for pretense.
Among the choices are the current administration’s Liberal Party frontrunner, Mar Roxas, who promises business as usual, and Vice President Jejomar Binay, who proposes an even more aggressive suite of neoliberal economic reforms, and himself faces a round of corruption charges.
The emergence of Miriam Defensor Santiago and her chosen running mate, Bongbong Marcos, son of the former dictator, show that history repeats itself in this country in farcical ways. Then there’s Senator Grace Poe — perhaps the sanest bet — who, like her father before her, risks being kicked out of the presidential race entirely over questions of her Filipino citizenship.
With little principled, issue-based politics, Philippine elections rapidly take on the character of a celebrity showdown.
Except that this time, there is a wild card — Davao city mayor Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte.
Part of his agenda: the declaration of a “revolutionary government” that would strengthen the state’s security apparatus to cleanse the nation of its “undesirables.” Duterte speaks openly of public executions and granting amnesty to police officers found guilty of human rights violations. He has long been known for his support of vigilante death squads responsible for at least a thousand extrajudicial killings over the past decade.
Human rights groups have repeatedly denounced what has become something of a model for other mayors across the country, whose targets consist of an assortment of petty criminals, drug addicts, human traffickers, and drug lords, but also journalists, farmers, trade unionists, children, and the working poor.
Duterte’s revolution promises a quick fix, bypassing an onerous liberal democratic system to enact sweeping reforms against a rentier state whose institutions have long been subordinated to corrupt vested interests.
In the parlance of the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), whose leadership is an ardent supporter of Duterte, the nation suffers under “bureaucrat capitalism,” entrenched by the country’s colonial history and a crony system facilitated, ironically, by the Marcos dictatorship — a return to which many of Duterte’s fans aspire for.
He reserves his strongest attacks for the nation’s landlord class, a vaguely defined “sugar bloc” — a reference to the current president’s family and the administration’s hand-picked successor, Mar Roxas. Never mind the fact that these clans have long ago departed from a reliance on sugar cultivation, and now have diversified monopolies in media, commercial real estate, privatized public utilities, and the commercial conglomerates that Duterte does not speak against.
Feeding off the public’s desire for security, he poses a simplistic war against a variety of scapegoats, from rice smugglers and corrupt government officials to drug addicts. For the failures of the current political system, he suggests concentrating executive power to clean up house through what can only be assumed would be a transitional dictatorship toward the introduction of a federal-parliamentary system.
Yet for all his radical posturing, his is a schizophrenic platform riding on the sentiments of voters desperate for change.
While he speaks of rule of law, his interpretation of the constitution is selective at best and manipulative at worst, with no qualms about rejecting habeas corpus and supporting summary executions. While he speaks of challenging elites, he also calls them friends, and epitomizes the double standards of the Philippine judicial system — advocating the death penalty for petty criminals but a hero’s burial for former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
While he calls himself a “man of the Left,” even a “socialist,” his positions on economic issues, exposed in a 2015 Asia CEO Forum, include promises to ensure stability for business investors, not-so-veiled threats to extinguish the legislature, and guarantees of a more efficient bureaucracy with streamlined processing of business permits and lower taxes. To great applause, he concluded with the remark, “good governance is good business.”
More recently — in a political campaign where murder has been openly endorsed the most times in the country’s history — he has threatened to “kill” trade unions that threaten corporations.
Elsewhere, Duterte has spoken of mega-infrastructure projects as a solution to Manila’s traffic woes, to be financed with billions of dollars in foreign loans. Less transparent are his connections with elites in his home province of Davao, who have ties with Mindanao’s unique political ecology of conflict. There, where drugs, arms, the Maoist insurgency, and a “legal” economy of large-scale mining and logging feed off each other and prosper under the protection of that region’s most powerful political clans.
An unabashed womanizer, he claims to support LGBT rights and denounces labor contractualization — if only because it harms “Filipino skills” — another aspect of a contradictory platform that finds him allies from both left-leaning NGOs and business groups.
This, in sum, is Duterte’s revolution. One that promises to deal not with a system where capital, state violence, and corruption converge to reproduce a chaotic political landscape, but to deal with its aftereffects through a vigilante government and a militarized war on petty crime. A vision of capitalism with Filipino characteristics, in other words, where a neoliberal economy and political authoritarianism combine with the utmost efficiency.
Except that a one-man revolution isn’t a revolution – it’s a dictatorship, a dictatorship Duterte has openly endorsed as the only solution to the Philippines’s problems. Despite all this, he is overwhelmingly popular — especially among urban residents in the capital of Manila — if recent surveys are to be believed.
For factions of the bourgeoisie, Duterte represents a better bargain for those who feel they have benefited less from the fruits of the nation’s recent economic growth than leading elites and transnational corporations. Capitalism in the particularly virulent and exploitative form that it takes in economies like the Philippines’ features mostly jobless growth where the most profitable investments are not those in long-term, employment-generating industries but in quick, speculative real estate, construction, and the extractive sector.
Persistent low wages and a consequently weak consumer base concentrates capital in politically well-connected classes that benefit from choice government contracts and captive markets, in a cronyism where oligopolies have their hands in virtually every industry imaginable, from water and privatized hospitals to malls, major media networks, and telecommunications.
At a time of regional economic integration, Duterte seems something of a throwback to the days of protectionism, offering assurances to capitalists lower on the totem pole of a government better able to promote domestic competition while providing some shelter against transnational capital. At the same time, he appears committed to an economic reorientation toward China.
For middle-class professionals aspiring to higher incomes and better lifestyles while also fearful of the lower classes, amid increasing awareness of stark income inequalities, he promises security and social discipline, income tax cuts, and a more efficient government bureaucracy.
For working-class voters largely excluded from promises of inclusive development, he projects the image of a straight-talking figure who stands not only for the marginalized but also for the rural poor, with a thick provincial accent to boot, from regions long bereft of political representation in the highest office of government.
Perhaps Duterte’s winning edge derives from years of mastery of the delicate balancing act required in the management of the testy politics characteristic of the nation’s war-torn southern frontier. Or perhaps he’s just another example of an anti-political candidate in an election season otherwise shorn of meaningful political hope.
Or the fact that, really, there is no alternative.
Like every demagogue, he has a way of sounding good to every possible audience, selecting his scapegoats carefully, denying his intention to run for president until the very last moment, and even warning people against voting him with its potentially “bloody” repercussions.
Yet it is not Duterte himself that is so frightening, but the willingness of the majority to fall for his message — a phenomenon echoed elsewhere, from the rise of far-right parties in Europe to Donald Trump in the United States.
In the minds of many, Duterte is associated with Davao City, a place oddly compared to Singapore, a mascot transplanted to a country with an entirely different historical, political, and economic context, and fed by the illusion that its “success” (clean streets, low crime rates) might be replicated nationwide. In a similar way, Duterte is compared with a benevolent dictator in the figure of Lee Kuan Yew — or Ferdinand Marcos.
While martial law–era nostalgia is nothing new, what is new in the revival of the cult of the strongman is the fervor with which a new dictatorship is openly espoused as a viable alternative. What escapes most is the fact that the martial law era coincided with a period of state-led developmentalism, a functioning welfare state, and moderate industrialization in the region more broadly, fed by a short-lived postwar boom that allowed some space for progressive economic policies. It occurred not because of the Marcos dictatorship, but in spite of it.
Those who would have us return to a golden age that never was forget that Duterte’s narratives of stability and security echo, in a different way, the current Aquino administration’s gestures toward good governance and of restoring trust in the state. They speak to an increasingly fragile political climate and a realization by some factions of the nation’s elites of their tenuous hold on legitimacy.
If rule by a pseudo-democratic oligarchy has failed us, we are told, perhaps one-man rule is a viable alternative.
Duterte and the Philippine Left
Duterte’s rise raises new questions about the emergence of a new fascism in the Global South. The Philippine elections reveal a vacuum in public consciousness, where the best hope is for the Left to tell a different story. But far from shifting the terms of political debate, support for Duterte has come from unusual quarters.
The Maoist CPP’s contradictory radicalism oscillates between a commitment to seize and smash the state through armed struggle and collaboration with the political establishment, a strategy that has found it more than once lock arms with its most backward elements.
Recently the pendulum appears to have swung again. CPP chairman Joma Sison notes the party’s long history of engagement with the Davao mayor, not least because of his ability to negotiate between the military and the CPP’s armed wing, the New Peoples Army (NPA), maintaining the political balance of power in the region.
While Sison claims the CPP refuses to support the legitimacy of the electoral system, the party’s front organizations have in the past openly endorsed presidential candidates in the hope of joining their tickets. Having first back Grace Poe’s bid for the presidency, following the belated announcement of Duterte’s run, they now believe they can benefit from his popularity.
Crucially, they see in him hope for a viable peace process, presumably through a settlement around the National Democratic Front of the Philippines’ (NDFP) twelve-point program. Considering Duterte’s own recent positions on economic development, it is difficult to see this bearing much fruit.
Indeed, Duterte’s authoritarianism mirrors that of the CPP, which has become something of the reverse image of the state violence it ritually condemns. In what is now the longest-running communist insurgency in Asia, the CPP’s people’s war has claimed thousands of lives and sapped energy, time, and resources from alternative means of political mobilization.
In denial about major defeats in its armed struggle, it also risks losing the long and much harder battle for hegemony.
On the legal front, the broader networks around the CPP-NDFP leave much to be desired when it comes to raising political consciousness or putting forward an inspiring alternative to the status quo.
Local struggles, from agrarian reform efforts by grassroots peasant organizations to factory strikes to anti-slum demolition and anti-mining movements by the urban poor and indigenous communities, are subordinated to the party’s overarching goals. The objective is less to win these campaigns than to maximize the opportunity to recruit activists, with the possibility of convincing them to join the armed struggle.
The bulk of the CPP’s presidential campaign interventions, moreover, consist of slandering candidates in largely personal terms, often at the expense of a deeper, more structural analysis.
Overall, one is left with the impression that the party (which claims it alone is the Left) overwhelmingly seeks to be known for what it is not, and whom it is against, rather than what it is for. In Filipino, there is a special word for the fatigue that comes with repetitive consumption, and it applies as much to the CPP’s brand of political discourse as it does to food: umay.
It is for these reasons and more that the CPP, as currently constituted, is a barrier to a new socialist politics in the Philippines.
Nevertheless it remains the largest organized force on the Left, with a membership consisting of trade unions and mass organizations that actively campaign on key issues. It is therefore difficult to find a way forward unless the CPP and its supporters come to a critical assessment of the impasse to which they have arrived, introduce democracy among its ranks, and accept the reality that it can never have a monopoly on the narrative of social change.
Above all, a new vision for the Philippine left requires a new set of narratives for a democratic, pluralist alternative, in the best tradition of internationalism, principled political engagement, and solidarity.
This means being fully committed to restoring faith not in the state, the party, the nation, or in a strongman, but in democracy (of a fundamentally different kind), in the ability of the people to hold the powerful to account, in the transition toward a society that runs along fundamentally different lines.
After all, isn’t that everything the Left is supposed to stand for?