Why the Philippines should be afraid of fascism

President Duterte wants to be seen as a decisive and strong leader. His latest crack down on political opposition actually reveals his weakness, and worrying signs that power has gone to his head. 

By Francesca Ross

President Rody Duterte does not like to be crossed. There are stories of the drug dealers he killed in Davao. There are thousands of news reports of him hurling insults at foreign leaders that condemn his policies. There are many Filipino citizens sitting in jail on his orders.

Senator Leila de Lima, an outspoken critic of his administration, has become just another of this crowd. She is currently detained on drugs charges but says she is a victim of political persecution and will be the first “political prisoner” under the Duterte administration. If convicted, she faces a sentence of between 12 years and life imprisonment.

De Lima has a long history with Duterte

“In due time, your president and those who blindly enforce his illegal orders to kill, fabricate evidence and concoct lies will be held accountable,” De Lima said in a note shared on her official Facebook page.

She has a deep history with the President. She launched the inquiry into his alleged involvement in death squads as mayor of Davao. She also oversaw the Senate hearings into extra-judicial killings following the President’s incitement of a bloody street war on the drugs trade.

Her arrest has upset human rights defenders. “The politically motivated case against de Lima shows how Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ threatens not only the thousands of people targeted, but the criminal justice and political systems,” said Phelim Kine, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch.

Duterte’s opponents are being aggressively side-lined

A purge of Liberal Party senators in the house’s minority group followed. Three de Lima supporters were stripped of their key posts on house committees and one was removed from the Senate Presidency. This is what happens when you speak out against the man known as “the Punisher”.

Paolo Benigno Aquino, former head of the education committee was unrepentant as he rallied, “If this is the price to pay for showing up at the streets … for talking about democracy, if this is the price to pay, I would gladly pay.”

There is a lack of progress on key issues

Behind the killing, and accusations, and noisy foreign policy, Duterte is failing as a leader. He makes big statements, and big headlines, to distract from his inability to get to grips with the country’s issues.

As Akbayan Senator Risa Hontiveros explained, “He should understand that crime is rooted in inequality and poverty, and to address social issues is to get to the root of crime.” She added, “An efficient, fair and effective justice system is a better deterrent against crime and our justice system will only succeed if the officials at its helm are not assailed by corruption scandals.”

Duterte’s priorities are fluid

Hope is keeping him at the top of the opinion polls. He is a fiery speaker, and no doubt understands the needs and frustrations of the common man better than Aquino or his predecessors did. He comes from the streets himself.

He uses this knowledge to twist and turn his priorities, for example his hard, then softer, then uncertain policy towards the United States. You can never be sure what he will do, or say, next. If you watch for long enough he will have an opinion you agree with.

His support in the Senate is weakening

He has majority support in the Senate but his grip is loose. His allies just lost a vote on reopening an investigation into allegations by a senior police officer that he was behind the notorious Davao Death Squad. This has caused ripples of concern from his team about what will emerge at upcoming public hearings.

The defeat was a surprise considering his supermajority, suggesting at least some of his support is a show for public political capital, rather than shared values with legislators. After all, the values he exhibits most are insults, foolhardiness and bloodlust.

There are tensions in the President’s Cabinet

He is also struggling with those closest to him, and tough arguments in Cabinet meetings. A rift is playing out between Environment Secretary Dominguez and Finance Secretary Lopez about Lopez’s orders to stop metal mining operations. The President says he supports Lopez. His inability to stop the rot between his close friend and a Cabinet colleague shows a lack of diplomatic skill. If he cannot manage a team, how can he manage a country?

Analysts, this columnist included, spent the first months of the Duterte presidency trying to understand and predict the political quicksilver of the Philippines’ President. Today the pattern is clear.

His political approach is tough, and hardening

Duterte uses political strong-arm tactics to keep politicians in check, with political exile, or even prison a possibility for opposing him. He rapidly changes priorities to keep public support, changing his message from day to day and week to week depending on whether it is Beijing or Washington at the end of the line.

He uses noisy rhetoric to shout his populist policies, such as the “successes” of the drugs war. He falls silent – and short – on key areas where he has little impact, such as the rapid depreciation of the peso.

He wants to be a strong leader. He employs strong tactics. But his turn towards prison, political assassination and people-pleasing will not improve the life of the average Filipino households he sprang from. Instead, his attitude suggests a darker turn.

Emmi De Jesus, a member of the House of Representatives and long-time opponent of Duterte is not afraid to speak out saying, “The pile of bodies in the Duterte government’s war on drugs; arrests and killings of political activists; renewed push for death penalty, and militarisation of communities affecting women and children is nothing but a U-turn to full-blown fascism.”

The people of the Philippines voted for change. They voted for hope. They voted for a man they thought was one of them. They did not vote for fascism, or fascist approaches. Duterte’s crack down on citizens and political opponents alike is one of his few successes; sadly it is the one he, and his supporters that should be most ashamed of.