Duterte and the Failed Experiment

The 2016 election is looming large. First it was dubbed The Great Referendum by a president who wanted it to be all about him. Then, the body politic was shocked and awed with the release of a survey showing Rodrigo Duterte, the man who wants to up-end our current system of government, skyrocketing to first place in preferential polls. It has triggered a lot of soul-searching among the intelligentsia.

Suddenly, this election is not simply about the last five years, but about the last thirty (as I had earlier predicted). It is not just about identifying a successor, be that person an ally or opponent, to the administration. It is about replacing a regime that has been in place since 1986, which many see as so fundamentally flawed it needs an overhaul.

Duterte or Digong as he is fondly called, the plain-spoken, gun-toting former mayor makes no qualms about what he will be doing once in office: getting rid of baddies, be they criminals or corrupt officials, in or outside government.

Those who fail to fall in line will be eliminated, just like the criminals whom he claims to have liquidated as part of his law and order campaign (to the dismay of human rights advocates). He is the ultimate insurgent candidate, trumping the more polished rivals from the establishment.

But what does that say about our political class, the fact that the electorate seem ready at this point to leap into the abyss with this man?

Isn’t the economy growing at its fastest clip in over 40 years and within Asia? Isn’t inflation at record lows, and unemployment falling? Four million of the poorest households now receive income support. More people are covered with health insurance. Governance as measured by global benchmarks is improving, and business and consumer confidence are high. Shouldn’t this be enough to make people vote for continuity, not change?

Unfortunately, the answer, quite simply, appears to be ‘no’. Despite its growth, the country has experienced a ‘lost decade’ in the fight against poverty. Declining unemployment rates mask the plight of the working poor. The anti-corruption campaign has not resulted in better service, i.e. transport-links in urban areas, power in Mindanao or disaster response and rehabilitation. The uneven structure of society means that only a few benefit from the growth taking place.

That in a nutshell is why millions of Filipinos are ready for sea change. It is as if they feel trapped, and are prepared to do a deal with the devil to break free. This means that 2016 could spell the end of the EDSA-1 regime. On hindsight, the Aquinos, who represent the noblest of the ruling elite, were given one last chance to perfect the incomplete revolution of 1986. It now appears that the electorate may be saying, “enough is enough, we’ve waited patiently for decades, and we have finally given up.”

Marcos 2.0?

The last time this sort of thing happened was back in 1972 when President Marcos declared Martial Law. If he had held elections shortly after his constitutional coup, Marcos would have probably won by a landslide, as people had tired of the chaos and instability of that era.

Duterte could become the second incarnation of the Marcos regime. He might even have Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. by his side serving as vice president to boot. Just as the Aquinos are going to book-end the period of 1986-2016, Marcos and Duterte could book-end the Aquino-led experiment, following EDSA 1.

Marcos tried to weaken the economic clout of the feudal nobility as they competed with him for power. His regime decayed from within as it was unable to control the destructive rent-seeking behavior of his own court. The restoration of pre-Martial law elites with concessions to civil society that the yellow revolution ushered in meant the central authority of the state remained weak.

Political dynasties bloomed under the current regime, re-establishing a decentralized system of rent-seeking that dominated previously with national leaders piggy-backing on the patron-client networks of local politicians, unable to forge national reforms without ‘purchasing’ them with healthy doses of pork barrel.

Benevolent Dictator?

PDP-Laban, the party that is nominating Duterte for the presidency, and the most ideological under the yellow coalition stood not only for the restoration of democracy, but devolution of powers. Its founder, Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, a former Cagayan de Oro city mayor, was the proponent of the Local Government Code of 1991, a halfway house towards federalism, the ultimate goal. Evidence suggests local autonomy has already done much to promote development at the grassroots.

If Duterte succeeds in claiming Malacanang, he says he would push for federalism to end secessionist movements in the south. Local state governments could effectively decouple from the national government and pursue their own development agenda independently.

If Duterte faces stiff opposition from the ruling families in Congress, he says he won’t hesitate overriding them through a revolutionary government, which presumably would last until federalism is complete. This is perhaps what his supporters are secretly hoping for. Duterte seems to tick all the necessary boxes to become a benevolent dictator.

Unlike Marcos, Duterte will be assuming the highest office much later in life. This would limit his ability to overstay his welcome. Duterte has not exhibited the propensity for self-aggrandizement while in office (he ran Davao almost continuously since 1988).

He did not need to engage in an expensive pre-election campaign nor patronage politics to become a viable presidential candidate. He does not seem to have done any shady deals with friends or cronies. That makes him the ideal candidate for a big slice of the electorate who just want a sense of order restored.

Filipinos may not be as exceptional in Asia, as previously thought. Exhibiting a shallow allegiance to Western standards of democracy and human rights, they would be willing to live under a dictator, if he proved virtuous, operating outside the bounds of Western rule of law, but observing a certain honor code nonetheless.

This could be the solution to the “bad emperor problem” that Francis Fukuyama coined. Without institutions of restraint, such as the rule of law or democratic accountability, central authorities inevitably succumb to despotic rule. But through decentralized federalism, the corruption and ineffectiveness of the national government would be checked by regional power centers.

This could degenerate into a kind of Raj state with multiple layers of bureaucracy piled on top of one another leading to ‘Hindu growth’ rates. However, Duterte says he will simplify regulatory red-tape to a minimum and institute a ‘competitive federalism’ in which local governments seek to outdo each other in attracting business investments.

If Duterte succeeds in doing this, then the last thirty years would be seen as a failed experiment, but one that was valuable and essential to teach Filipinos that they needed to fashion a more responsive form of government, consistent with their own domestic customs and traits.