Kishali Pinto Jayawrdene
In Manila this week, there are chilling reminders of how a ‘strongman’ President with a penchant for bad-mouthing those whom he dislikes and spearheading summary justice against alleged drug traffickers remains popular with his people despite all the hard evidence showing that the country has really not progressed under his rule. ‘We like him. He is not politically correct’ says a well known businesswoman in Metro-Manila, ‘He says things for what they are.’
Reality checks for ‘strongmen’
President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte revels in being referred to as the ‘Punisher’, a nickname that clung to him when, as mayor of Davao, he ‘cleaned’ the city by alleged complicity with vigilante justice. Squads of killers went around shooting anyone ‘associated’ with drug crimes, resulting unsurprisingly in the deaths of law abiding citizens. But this ominous label, rather than hindering him, actually helped to win a national vote of confidence.Upon being elected as President in 2016, his pugnacious attitude did not lessen but got stronger as he vowed that he would personally take the lives of drug users.
Some months ago, former President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena quoted this policy with approval, complaining that he was only constrained by the fact that the law did not permit such drastic steps here. But for the former President and others who cheer such asinine statements, a reality check is long overdue.
Studies have shown that the notorious ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ policy of the Filipino President have not yielded good results. On the contrary, as fiercely anti-Duterte parliamentarian (and as an aside, currently holding the directly elected post of Vice-President in an interesting constitutional curiosity), Leni Robredo reminded just weeks ago, the “killing of the innocent” must stop.
She has been leading the charge in condemning the Duterte policy that has encouraged thousands of state-sponsored killings. But such committed opposition is rare. By and large, facts and statistics do not appear to matter to his adoring fans. ‘He has marketed himself very well as a man challenging the system’ an academic says to me with a shrug, ‘the fact that he is very much part of the system and thrives off it, does not matter. It is the marketing that counts’ he adds.
And the fact that ‘Western’ agencies have targeted him in their crosshairs has only increased his allure with his constituents. Both the United Nations and the International Criminal Court have commenced preliminary inquiries into the alleged extrajudicial killings argued by some to amount to crimes against humanity.
The impact of ‘no-nonsense’ agendas
And indeed, the similarities are interesting to say the least. Sri Lanka’s ‘Terminator’ (as referred to by his brother, the campaign manager of his Presidential bid no less), Gotabhaya Rajapaksa also campaigned on a similar no-nonsense political agenda. In both cases, the reputations of fearsomeness stamped their personalities but seemed to do no real harm in the eyes of the electorate.
But after coming into Presidential office, Duterte’s greatest ire is reserved for journalists. He spews insults to foreign correspondents with ease. Filipino media groups say that attacks on journalists are unprecedented in the open and barbaric manner in which they occur, even when assessed against previous administrations that were far from welcoming media independence.
Duterte himself makes no bones about the matter. Soon after coming to power, he famously said that ‘“Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you are a …(expletive). Freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong.”
Two years into his presidential term, the butchery of Filipino journalists is not orchestrated by grandly designed ‘deep state’ commando teams or in ‘white vans’ as it were. Instead, the truth is frighteningly more commonplace. The hits on ‘unpopular’ journalists are carried out most often by local militias acting on orders of humdrum municipal politicians.
Assassinations of journalists are ‘devolved’ to the provinces with deadly effect. Last year, conscious of the fact that this was going beyond all control, a high profile task force was constituted to investigate the killings of journalists resulting in some relief for the long beleagured media.
Government spokespersons promised to pursue ‘relentless justice for journalists who were killed in the exercise of their duty, and the security of media men and women who have been harassed and threatened…often in direct reprisal for their reporting.’ But the spate of threats and intimidation continues. How can it not, when the general environment is so conducive to violations of the law? Indeed, it would be a paradox if that was not the case.
The modern day puzzle of populism
So from the standpoint of a rights advocate, the real puzzle remains as to how Duterte has come to attract such a following in the staunchly Catholic Philippines, renowned for the heroic civil rights activism of ordinary citizens against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos?
Do dictators come in different guises?
Have the lines got so convincingly blurred now that it is hard to say what distinguishes a dictator from a populist ‘strongman’?
And is Duterte a logical end point of the collective agony and sacrifice of the Filipino people in their fiery outrage to Marcos that was emulated across the world as an example of a people standing up to a tyrant?
Is this, the modern day slapstick Filipino version of the Punch and Judy show where it was all supposed to end?
But that cursory reading of history bypasses an important fact. The decades between Rodrigo Duterte and Ferdinand Marcos straddled a mess of incompetent, corrupt and lazy politicians who ran the Philippines into the ground. In the name of ‘democratic rule’, millions were squandered, the poor got poorer while a wealthy crony capitalist class indulged their every fantastic whim. And this is where the difference stands out.
Duterte is not part of the old oligarchies of the Philippines and in that sense, is certainly an ‘outsider.’ His popularity comes in large measure from this, attracting loyalty from Filipinos sick of the corrupted elite classes. He is a ‘peoples man’ casually dressed and with a penchant for informality. This is where the magic lies. The fact that the gloss (or rather, the absence thereof) is superficial is scarcely to the point.
An appealing mix of propaganda and piety
‘A white shirt and white trousers do not a leader make’, my academic conversationalist finally says to me in bland tones, summing up a despairing prognosis of his country’s democratic future. This is true, as understated as it is.
Nevertheless, are we living in a world where policies, principles and democratic values, earlier the true and tested crucible from which statesmanship emerges, have become quaint and other-wordly things?
Is it that, even when the poor continue to suffer and the oppressed continue to be oppressed, they will not mind if the picture of a caring leader is thrust at them in a skilful manipulation of propaganda and piety?
Perhaps these are questions that Sri Lankans must ask themselves if we are to avoid the turmoil that is currently afflicting the Philippines.