Deadly populism

Jennelyn Olaires hugs partner Michael Siaron, 30, a pedicab driver and alleged drug pusher, who was killed by motorcycle-riding gunmen // Raffy Lerma

The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy
Richard Javad Heydarian
Palgrave Pivot: 2018

The world knows his name now. Newsreaders mention him often — his latest joke about sexual violence, his latest curse at world leaders, his latest injunctions to destroy part of the population of his country. But in the years before the world knew his name, I heard it murmured in the Philippines in different tones, with dread-tinged admiration.

He was the mayor who cleaned up Davao City, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, giving it peaceful, orderly, smoke-free streets; the guy who took drug dealers up in helicopters and pushed them out over the ocean; the leader who used official lists to exterminate petty criminals, journalists and political opponents. The stories grew from unsubstantiated rumours and reports by human rights researchers. Yet such legends, factual or not, struck the hearts of long-suffering Filipino voters and their desires for safety, prosperity and security.

I often heard that if he could force security on Davao City, he could do it for the country. I wasn’t sure about that. But when Rodrigo “Rody” Roa Duterte entered the Philippine presidential race in late 2015, I didn’t brush him aside as a showman or a madman. There was something in his trajectory that gave Filipinos hope. I was sure he would win.

In the two years since Duterte’s victory, a new political order has ascended in the Philippines — passionately disputed, intermittently mourned and often celebrated. Supporters call it a fresh age of swift change and economic opportunity; critics label it an undemocratic era of horror and violence, harkening back to past dictatorships. Into this fraught rhetoric and political tempest enters Richard Heydarian’s The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy.

As one of the most called-upon pundits of the Philippines, with no shortage of controversial flashpoints to address, Heydarian regularly offers reflections on the president, revealing the hints of history and old grievances layered in Dutertisms that, to onlookers, may seem like absurdities. The Rise of Duterte is Heydarian’s scholarly account of the leader’s ascendance. At just under 130 pages, the work reads like an urgent dispatch, hastening to map an unstable landscape.

This is not to say The Rise of Duterte was written in a careless rush. The book offers important, deep context to a man and his methods at a time when the volume and speed of incendiary rhetoric render such deep research and thinking all the more necessary.

Heydarian conveys in the introduction the personal risk any writer undergoes by default when writing critically about Duterte: “Some pages of this book were written while I came under a barrage of systematic cyber-harassment — mostly from pro-Duterte trolls — including death threats and myriad of insults levied against my loved ones and me … There were times when I felt like the whole country was on the verge of crashing into a frenzy of anarchy, swallowed by a mindless orgy of violence, hatred, and intolerance.”

Here, Heydarian signals a grim facet of present Philippine discourse: to write about the president with anything less than adulation seems to court the threat of violent death. No leader in recent memory has provoked quite the passion Duterte has — and Filipinos are among the most emotional citizens in the world, according to one study.

The Rise of Duterte divides its dispatch into three parts, examining the grievances that led to voters’ choice of Duterte, unpacking the method behind the seeming madness of Duterte’s foreign policy decisions, and exhorting readers not to reduce Duterte to any single characteristic. The man is not simply his mouth. Or as the sociologist Nicole Curato puts it, “there is value in observing the firebrand with the mute button on.”

Heydarian frames the book with Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s lament: “The old [order] is dying and the new cannot be born … in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms [begin to] appear.” Like other Filipino thinkers, Heydarian sees the country’s democracy as fragile, suffering an onslaught of fatigue and aggressive, populist symptoms — a familiar plight globally. “Similar to leaders of Turkey, Russia, India, and Indonesia,” he writes, “Duterte promised decisive, single-minded leadership as a one-stop, swift solution to all the maladies of emerging market democracies.”

He follows with a convincing portrait of the conditions that placed Filipinos in the thrall of Duterte’s promises to eradicate crime and upend the old order. Many details are striking: though the previous administration of Benigno Aquino III had placed the country on an apparent upwards swing, making it the fourth fastest-growing economy in the world in 2015, the poverty level failed to move. In addition, “the forty richest families swallowed up 76 per cent of newly created growth” and the number of Filipinos who became overseas workers to escape low national wages “more than doubled” during Aquino’s term.

In a country of over 100 million citizens, only 178 entrenched political families rule seventy-three of its eighty-one provinces. As Heydarian notes, Duterte also comes from a background of powerful political families but portrayed himself to voters as a humble, small-town political outsider.

Those Filipinos who did make fragile gains during the Aquino years — small business owners and call centre agents, for example — were frightened of losing them, especially to petty criminals. They had little reason to trust the glacial pace of the Philippine justice system, which has one overburdened court for every 50,000 citizens. Duterte’s violent rhetoric, promising instant death to criminals and drug addicts, spoke to voters’ hopes and fears. “Duterte built his entire campaign,” Heydarian writes, “on the basic principle of going farther than any of his competitors in terms of breaking orthodoxies in favor of a bolder and more audacious messaging, particularly on combatting corruption and crime.”

Perhaps the most intriguing element of the book is its discussion of Duterte’s foreign policy, much of it gleaned from several of the author’s personal interviews with insiders in the present and past administrations. As Heydarian says, foreign policy was not a key voting concern, but in Duterte’s apparent warmth and concessions towards China, he shook the Philippines’ old paradigm of alliance to the US. “In 2016, Chinese ambassador to Manila, Zhao Jian, met Duterte more than any other foreign dignitary,” he reports.

Heydarian places Duterte’s foreign policy shifts in context with past administrations’ choices regarding conflicts with Beijing, particularly with respect to China’s usurpation of land and waters in the Philippines. Joseph Estrada neglected the Chinese relationship, not wanting an armed conflict he knew the country would lose; Gloria Macapagal Arroyo made a high-profile visit to China, securing several investments.

The Aquino administration, on the other hand, brought a case against China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and won recognition of Philippine sovereignty against Chinese encroachment. Duterte’s administration refused to celebrate the ruling, though, and instead “reiterated the necessity for direct engagement and dialogue with China”. Heydarian’s patient explication of recent foreign policy history, with regard to Duterte’s choices, makes for necessary and timely reading.

As other observers have done, Heydarian also addresses Duterte’s past successes in Davao. “To be fair, under Duterte’s watch, Davao experienced economic boom and improved safety conditions,” Heydarian writes. He cites one survey in mid-2016 which reports that 99 per cent of Davao residents expressed satisfaction with Duterte’s performance. Their approval came despite — or, more chillingly, because of — Duterte’s public inclination towards brutality.

Duterte’s central and most infamous policy, the anti-drug campaign, is based on the methods he first espoused in Davao City. With that in mind, Heydarian’s omission of Davao City’s actual murder rate is a curious one. Between 2010 and 2015, Davao City recorded 1,032 killings — the most in the country, according to the Philippine National Police.

When Filipinos cite Duterte’s hometown as safe and productive, the reality of the continuing violence raises the following question: safe and prosperous for whom, and at the expense of whose lives? If Davao City is Duterte’s often praised model of governance, what do the homicides portend for the Philippines? Economic prosperity, with improved infrastructure; smoke-free establishments; and constant, selective, list-driven murders?

On the night of 9 May 2016, when Duterte’s victory was assured, I was in a friend’s apartment, listening to the radio. I felt as I had in 2013, when Typhoon Haiyan was heading towards the Philippines and we were listening to alerts and uncertain predictions. “These storms. They take people,” someone had said to me then. As I listened to the radio announcers reporting the election results, I felt the same, typhoon-sized sense of dread. I was sure: many individuals who were alive that day in May would die when Duterte’s leadership, like a cruel tempest, arrived.

A few months after that, in December, I stood at the mouth of a tunnel blocked off by yellow police tape, gazing with local and foreign journalists at the corpses of three skinny men. I saw the fatigue of teenaged, funeral-home workers, used to this by now, as they carried the weight of body after body into public utility vans. I spoke to police officers who felt happy and triumphant as they presided over the bloody scenes; for them, a new, safer day for the Philippines had arrived.

I went home after those moments feeling irrevocably stained. Is there a word for the sense of horror that saturates you after witnessing systemic, state-sponsored murder? If there is such a word, I’ve yet to find it.

I don’t have the stamina of the nightshift journalists who document the murders with a near-religious sense of duty. But in my glimpses of the devastation, I find myself longing for unequivocal, public condemnation of the campaign.

For his part, Heydarian regards the drug war as a sign of the administration’s overbearing, single-minded focus on establishing a secure nation free of narcotics. But Heydarian, like many commentators, seems to interpret the crackdown as the government’s sincere attempt to fulfil citizens’ desires to fight drug-fuelled criminality. He mentions the trouble the brutal campaign has caused the administration, and the country.

Duterte, Heydarian contends, remains “in a protracted showdown with key allies such as America, much of the local and international media, the liberal intelligentsia, and human rights and civil society groups over human rights concerns. The war on drugs, while popular at home, proved a public relations nightmare for the Philippines, with investors holding back, credit rating agencies revisiting their assessments and business confidence on the decline.”

Here I winced. At the time of Heydarian’s completion of the book, he cited 1,000 homicides against suspects by police and vigilante groups. I wished for him to acknowledge, even briefly, the lives destroyed and families devastated by the campaign — effects more incalculable and agonising than a scandal and a brake on business.

The deaths have proved difficult to count. According to the government’s latest claims, the number of killings by police operations stands at 4,075, from the start of the campaign on 1 July 2016 to 20 March 2018. That number does not take into account murders by plainclothes vigilantes, which stand at 2,467, with 1,752 of those unsolved.

But in February 2018, human rights groups put the number of police and vigilante homicide victims at over 20,000 — using the government’s own figures at that time. Such official variance suggests a governmental tactic of obfuscating numbers, perhaps to shield the administration from further criticism. Journalists I interviewed say it’s more difficult, lately, to acquire police reports at all.

In some of the most agonising instances, victims included scores of children and teenagers. Just as they did in Davao City, during Duterte’s long tenure.

Other countries in the region have tried extreme measures against drugs and drug suspects, as Heydarian mentions. Indonesia’s Suharto launched a brutal crackdown in the 1980s. Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra instituted a police-led shoot-to-kill campaign that slaughtered 2,274 individuals in three months in 2003. Even the military junta ruling Thailand now acknowledges that crackdown as a failure. How long will Filipinos accept the accumulative trauma of the body count? What narrative of progress and accountability are Filipinos willing to believe, and at the expense of whose lives?

This June, Duterte and his collaborators will have been in power for two years. The brutal, fist-shaped “real change” they promised continues, some changes rendering democracy even more fragile. With a majority of allies in the Senate and Congress, Duterte has few checks on his power, and he seems bent on crushing any critic who stands in his way. He has called for the impeachment of the independent-minded head of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. He has forced Vice-President Leni Robredo out of cabinet meetings, and her close contender, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, the son of the former dictator, still vies for her office. The Securities and Exchange Commission has moved to shut down Rappler, a news outlet that critically fact-checks the administration.

Heydarian’s observations about Duterte’s courting of China have proved prescient. A protracted war with insurgents in southern Philippines has left Marawi City in ruins; in the aftermath, the administration is negotiating contracts with Chinese firms to rebuild the city, despite the anger of many Marawi residents. Elsewhere, on the famous resort island of Boracay, which Duterte ordered closed for purportedly environmental reasons, a Chinese magnate plans to build a multibillion-peso casino. And Duterte has proclaimed his love for Xi Jinping as he seeks Chinese loans for his nine-trillion-peso economic project, Build, Build, Build.

And Duterte’s jokes about sexual violence have not ended; they have only grown more grotesque.

According to the 1987 Constitution, each Philippine president is meant to serve only six years, with no chance of re-election. Duterte has ordered a committee to look into changing the Constitution itself, a move critics say may lengthen his time in power. Still, most Filipinos remain loyal to Duterte, believing that he will continue to protect them, that he has made their neighbourhoods safer, and that the country will thrive in his grasp.

The Philippines has an extreme political climate familiar to so many countries today: rancorous, fearful, triumphant, dangerous and profoundly inequitable. In the Philippines and beyond, the prizes of populist leadership are unevenly distributed. However we imagine our loyalty or resistance might protect us, the strongman’s torments will fall hardest on the weak.

Laurel Flores Fantauzzo is the author of The First Impulse.

Originally published in the May issue of Mekong Review, click here to see more 

May 15, 2018
May 18, 2018