President Rodrigo Duterte continues his assault on critics and political opponents. With the 2019 mid-term elections on the horizon, is he poised to assume even more power?
By John Pennington
It does not pay to make an enemy of Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte.
Just ask Maria Lourdes Sereno, the former chief justice. “So, I’m putting you on notice that I am now your enemy… and you have to be out of the supreme court,” Duterte told her. Sure enough, within a month of those words, she was gone, voted out by her fellow judges.
It was a move widely seen as unconstitutional. The Integrated Bar of the Philippines called the vote “fatally flawed”.
It hardly came as a surprise. Duterte responds to those critical of him by doing everything he can to silence them. He imprisoned a senator on false charges. Others lost their jobs. He has hounded critical media outlets, accusing them of publishing “fake news”. Nobody is safe from his wrath.
Filipino democracy is an endangered species
The Philippines has seen no shortage of uprisings against those in power. One of those, 32 years ago, spawned Filipino democracy.
But a young democracy lacks fortitude. Duterte– and those that came before him– proved as much by taking control of the legislative and judicial branches of government. In the Philippines, accountability against those in power is limited.
Duterte’s impact on the country has been stark. His actions have damaged the economy. For example, his reluctance to stand up to China and hard-line approach to domestic threats deters investors. His new tax bill – TRAIN – introduced to pay for his infrastructure plans, contributed to rising inflation and falling growth.
The Philippines has also slipped down The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law index. It fell further than any other country in 2018, tumbling 18 positions to 88th out of the 113 countries on the list.
The country is now fifth on the 2018 Global Impunity Index of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranks countries in which murders of journalists are not investigated.
As far back as February, US intelligence reports had begun labelling Duterte as a threat to democracy in the region. They placed him alongside the Rohingya crisis, Hun Sen’s autocratic rule in Cambodia and the Thai junta’s control of Thailand as “impediments to democracy” in Southeast Asia.
Duterte’s rise to power and the emergence of a strongman mentality is part of a global phenomenon. Duterte, Donald Trump in America, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey all fell from the same tree– that of the autocratic populist.
Duterte’s reliance on the military undermines democracy
Since his appointment as President, Duterte has made increasing use of military personnel to carry out political business. One-third of his cabinet are now ex-military men.
This is reflected in the way his cabinet operates, more like a military unit than a political one. Duterte delivers the orders. His former generals carry them out, without deliberation or question.
Duterte instilled the same operational mechanisms when he was mayor of Davao City. What was arguably necessary as mayor in the violent streets of Davao, now seems like overkill as President.
“The casualties are the political institutions. There is also less room for citizens to play a role,” explained Carmel Abao, a political science professor at Ateneo de Manila. It leads to fears that his patronage of those in the military will enable him to turn them against the people.
The 2019 race for Senate seats is critical for Duterte and the Philippines
As Duterte approaches the halfway mark of his six-year presidency, the country will head to the polls for mid-term elections next year. All 243 Representative seats and 12 in the Senate will be contested.
Duterte’s allies already have control of the House of Representatives and are expected to maintain a majority. It is, therefore, the Senate race that will be crucial.
No single party currently has control of the Senate. It is one of the few political institutions where Duterte does not wield complete control. It is currently able to check some of his power.
With half of the seats up for grabs, this is an opportunity for Duterte and his allies to gain control over both houses. The opposition is struggling. Early projections show it is unlikely they will win enough seats to outweigh Duterte’s allies.
A clean sweep would create a virtual one-party state with Duterte in charge. He would be able to pack the Supreme Court with his allies. He would likely clamp down even harder on any rumours of dissent or plots to oust him. As the Senate has the final say on impeachment proceedings, it could also offer legal protections.
Could the Philippines recover from a Duterte ‘dictatorship’?
Duterte is trampling Filipino democracy. The country is creeping back towards authoritarianism.
Thailand is a good example. Since Thaksin Shinawatra’s rise to power in 2001, Thailand has seen two military coups. Now the junta rules with an iron fist. Civilian-led democracy has fallen by the wayside.
Furthermore, it appears Duterte has begun to establish a political dynasty. His daughter Sara will stand for election and is a possible successor as President, in what could be the start of an era of ‘Dutertism’.
However, even for Duterte loyalists, a political dynasty may be a step too far. Some of his allies spoke out against attacks on the judiciary, indicating that their support was not without limits.
The fact they spoke out against Duterte’s use of power to manipulate the legal arm of government suggests that Duterte may be pushing his allies to their very limit. He will struggle to establish a lasting dynasty. ‘Dutertism’ will experience fierce resistance should repeated abuses of power continue.
While he may not be able to establish a political dynasty, 2019 will likely see Duterte expand his political powers once he has control of the Senate.
“This is more than a wake-up call. If we don’t wake up now, it will really be the death of democracy, and sometimes history is cruel,” urged protest leader and Catholic priest Robert Rayes. “There will be no more balance of power; Duterte will be a virtual dictator,” he added. However disastrous that will be for democracy in the Philippines, it is looking more and more likely.