Filipino politics: brave new world or retrograde?

Duterte and MahathirPhoto:Philippine News Agency

Former House member Walden Bello says Filipino politics entered a ‘brave new world’ after Duterte was elected. While a transition is clear, the era can be more accurately characterised as a relapse.

By Zachary Frye  

In a recent interview with Rappler, former representative Walden Bello described how Filipino politics has arrived in a new era. He argued that traditional forms of patronage – namely the centrality of money, name-recall, and patron-client relationships – are no longer viable guarantors of popular support.

He said Duterte’s stranglehold of the electorate has ushered in an era in which ‘politics of faith’ now determines electoral success. Elected leaders now gain popular support by utilising charisma and personality politics to appeal to voters’ inherent trust, rather than more sceptical avenues that put the onus on the public’s critical faculties to earn support.

Bello claims this is especially troublesome since voters are more willing to “believe in a father figure, in a leader figure”, thereby giving him or her the benefit of the doubt on critical issues.    

There is strong evidence to support Bello’s claim, but a deeper look into the realities of Filipino politics suggests that the adoption of ‘politics of faith’ is not so much a ‘brave new world’ for the Philippines, but a regression to the well-trodden path of personality politics.

Duterte is benefitting from the return to business-as-usual

On the eve of the 2019 midterm elections, President Duterte held a 79% approval rating. Duterte has consistently held more popular support than his four immediate predecessors: a study from the polling firm Pulse Asia claims he is the only president in recent years to reach an 80% approval rating.

Photo Credit: ECOO EDP/Wikimedia Commons

Eleuteria Cabaluna, a 74-year old woman who lives in a makeshift home in one of the poorest areas in Manila, exemplifies the way Duterte draws on ‘politics of faith’ for support.

Although she admits to seeing dead bodies as a result of Duterte’s punitive drug war, she said she’s with him “100%.” Ms Cabaluna describes the president in glowing terms: “From the moment I saw President Duterte, I knew he was a good man.” 

Likewise, a poll conducted in December 2018 revealed 76% of Filipinos trust the president. This stands in stark contrast to the publicity Duterte gets in international circles, where he is widely seen as a neo-autocrat who uses democratic support to advance unjust and domineering policies.

Candidates before Duterte emphasised liberal reforms

After the country emerged from nearly a decade of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos, a strong liberal consensus took hold. Hungry for stability and freedoms, a ‘liberal reformist’ agenda emerged.  

Personality was important, but candidates garnered popular support by promoting civil liberties, good-governance, and democratic consolidation.

Benigno Aquino, Duterte’s predecessor, governed within these frameworks. Mar Roxas, Duterte’s closest rival in the 2016 election, also staked his political fortunes on liberal continuity but was badly defeated.

The power of a liberal platform was exhausted. Part of this stems from the actions of the Aquino administration. Despite the platitudes, many saw the Aquino administration a corrupt overseer of deep inequality.

In the campaign, Duterte criticised past administrations for being unresponsive to the people. To his supporters, his candidacy represented a no-holds-barred shift toward the masses.

The positive response to his populist rhetoric is a product of a political environment that rewards celebrity and bombast. Duterte didn’t create it, but he certainly benefits from it.       

Personality politics is very influential in the Philippines

Although Duterte’s tenure emphasised the centrality of personality in Filipino politics, it’s hardly the ‘brave new world’ that Bello suggests.

Personality was always an important driver of popular support in the Philippines. Duterte only upended the status quo by using it to emphasise illiberal values. In this sense, his success is merely an affirmation of the ‘politics of faith’ that has long dominated the political landscape.

After Marcos, political institutions in the country were in tatters. Even now, many remain malleable and susceptible to corruption. In the absence of sound democratic norms, politics of faith and personality has re-emerged.

Duterte isn’t the first to benefit from voters’ blind faith in personality. Nor is the phenomenon confined to a certain ideological bend. In 1998, former movie star Joseph Estrada was swept into power on a centre-left populist platform dubbed the ‘Force of the Filipino Masses.’ More recently, boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao entered politics with a great deal of fanfare and support.    

Photo: Boxing AIBA

At times, political campaigns have more closely resembled talent shows than sober forums on the future of the country.

When asked why Filipinos respond so strongly to big personalities at the ballot box, sociologist Clifford Sorita said: “It’s not that people don’t care about the issues, it’s that it’s no longer in the public consciousness and therefore people tend to forget. Instead of doing research [on the candidates] they would rather go to their jobs and put food on the table.”

In the midterm elections, opposition candidates had a difficult time channelling the public consciousness on the prominent issues of the day. It marks the first time in 80 years that opposition parties failed to get at least one congressional seat. There will undoubtedly be handwringing over future campaign strategies.

With the country falling deeper into the void of autocracy, the challenge for the opposition lies in convincing Filipinos to consider the policies of potential leaders before electing them.