Duterte speaks at Heroes Hall in Malacanan. Photo by SIMEON CELI JR./PPD is licensed under CC0. Edited by spf.pdf.

The end of liberal democracy in the Philippines

Duterte’s right wing populism stems from decades of liberal democracy that failed to address the economic needs of the Filipino people

On July 3 2020, despite waves of popular resistance and incisive legal critique, President Rodrigo Duterte passed an Anti-Terrorism law that would give the executive government sweeping powers to imprison and repress political activists under the guise of combating terrorism. These powers include the ability of the executive branch to authorize what amount to warrantless arrests, the arbitrary detention of those suspected of aiding or inciting terrorism for up to 24 days, and the complete supersession of judicial checks on presidential authority. Understandably, many Filipinos are concerned that the law’s passage will usher in a new era of repression, akin to martial law under the Marcos dictatorship. Yet unlike the Marcos dictatorship, Duterte’s right wing populism stems from decades of liberal democracy that failed to address the economic needs of the Filipino people. 

The proponents of Philippine liberal democracy, from President Corazon “Cory” Aquino to her son Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, essentially promised the Filipino people that poverty and economic inequality could be quelled through anti-corruption measures and liberal political reform. However, liberal reforms only ended up entrenching the institutional power of political dynasties without meaningfully improving the lives of the most oppressed, providing the stage for Duterte’s rise to power on a populist, anti-elite platform. The Anti-Terrorism Bill, now codified into law, is the resurgence of right wing populism, sprouting from the carcass of the EDSA Revolution’s co-optation by the liberal elite.

In 1986, the People Power Revolution (also known as the EDSA revolution) led to the ousting of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the presidency of Corazon “Cory” Aquino. As the wife of assassinated senator and Marcos-opponent Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Cory’s rise was hailed worldwide as the triumph of democracy against Marcos’ dictatorial regime. She symbolized a newfound Filipino commitment to the ideals of liberal democracy, which were enshrined as principles in the 1987 Constitution. Yet despite Cory’s widespread support, she was never able to unify the various political forces who challenged or who stood against the Marcos regime. Instead, her presidency is best understood as a tug-of-war between a wide range of coalitions who sought to influence the new spokesperson of the Filipino people. 

Roughly, these coalitions can be divided up into the radical (primarily national democratic) left, who wanted to extend the promise of liberal democracy into genuine agrarian reform and economic justice; the more centrist upper-middle classes, which consisted of Church officials, and business leaders who despite welcoming an end to Marcos-era repression, only paid lip service to the ideals of free elections and speech; and right-wing military groups such as the Reform the Armed Forces Movement, whose aspirations for a strong repressive state in the mold of Marcos led them to launch a series of failed coups against the Aquinos. In the end, Cory’s own strong ties to landholding interests (her family’s landholdings included the over 6,000 hectare sugar plantation Hacienda Luisita), coupled with internal strife within the Philippine left, led her government on a path of socially conservative, economically neoliberal policy making coupled with a public commitment to liberal democratic norms.

The national democratic left, who broke decisively with Cory after she oversaw the killing of 21 peasants protesting for land reform on Mendiola Bridge in January 1987, remained the most vocal critics of her new liberal order. They rightfully saw that Cory’s commitment to democratic principles and constitutional freedoms meant nothing if those principles were not coupled with economic justice and genuine agrarian reform. Yet the left’s own political legitimacy had been weakened after they failed to participate in the broad coalition that helmed the People Power Revolution. As such, their critique of Cory went unheeded by the government. Despite reforming the Constitution to place greater checks on presidential power, she simultaneously continued the neoliberal economic agenda of Marcos’ regime. 

Cory’s now infamous refusal to repudiate the national debt upon her rise to power, alongside her continued pursuit of foreign investment and loans from the IMF and the World Bank, caused the Philippines to be further incorporated into the neoliberal world system. The primary consequence of this rising debt was a state-sponsored surge in overseas Filipino workers, who today can be seen throughout the globe doing precarious labor as seafarers, nurses, and domestic workers. This turn to overseas employment for Filipinos was first encouraged by the Marcos government, which sought to service the national debt with the remittances workers sent home. Despite rejecting Marcos’ dictatorial regime, Cory essentially continued his policies of labor export. Under Cory, the Philippine state brokered contracts with foreign states to have Filipino workers fill labor demand; meanwhile, at home, her government began recasting overseas Filipino workers as national heroes, pushing more and more Filipinos to consider work abroad as a preferable alternative to a lack of domestic opportunities. Today, around one million Filipinos leave the country each year to work abroad.

Cory’s popular global and national appeal arose from her reputation as an icon of emergent democracy. Describing her presidential campaign against Marcos before the United States Congress in 1986, she presented herself as a self-conscious champion of a people who longed for the restoration of democratic norms: “Wherever I went in the campaign, slum area or impoverished village, they came to me with one cry, democracy. Not food, although they clearly needed it but democracy. Not work, although they surely wanted it but democracy.” However, despite her lip service to democratic practice, Cory continued the brutal military repression of activists who challenged the fragile consensus between center and right that she had brokered, with extrajudicial killings rising under her regime.

Filipinos who were born in the early to late ‘90s live in a post-Cory era where the subsequent presidents combined economic liberalization, a rhetorical commitment to anti-corruption measures and political reform, and the military repression of dissent under the broad banner of “liberal democracy.” Under Cory’s successor Fidel Ramos, the police and military apparatus were given more powers, forcing communist and Muslim separatist revolutionary movements in the southern Philippines to cede ground. Meanwhile, Ramos’ socio-economic Philippines 2000 program, which was designed to hasten industry development, only further increased the hold of foreign capital on the Filipino people. Under Ramos, state and paramilitary forces conducted military operations against local communities to clear the way for foreign mining and other projects of resource extraction. 

By the time the Philippines’ subsequent presidents came into power, the cracks of decades of neoliberal policies began to show. Corruption grew rampant. Foreign capital remained among a clique of landlords, business tycoons, local politician-warlords, who allied with whichever regime was in power. Elections and protests remained regular, but felt more like empty gestures towards an unrealized aspiration for democracy than genuine power to the people. These democratic practices continued to be marred by political violence; in a particularly egregious case in 2009, 57 people were murdered by the militia of Maguindanao mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr. for their support of an opposition candidate. During this time, the government also disappeared many activists who went too far in their demands for economic justice. Among the middle and upper classes, political disaffection replaced the democratic enthusiasm of the EDSA revolution. 

President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino’s presidency was, in retrospect, the dying breath of a liberal democratic consensus that for the preceding decades had tried to keep the masses pliant. Noynoy became a popular candidate after the death of his mother Cory Aquino because he promised to continue her legacy of democratic reform and ran on a presidential slogan that promised to end poverty by ending corruption. However, Noynoy only oversaw increasing economic inequality. While bankers, real estate developers, and business owners benefited from lower interest rates and a rising GDP, the share of agricultural and manufacturing sectors in the economy stagnated or shrunk. Meanwhile, his ostensible commitment to combating dynastic corruption was belied by his own membership in one of the most prominent political families in the Philippines. Increasingly, it became clear to the Filipino people that Aquino’s version of liberal democracy and economic growth ultimately benefited the elite–from enterprising business owners to entrenched political dynasties.

This environment of political disillusionment set the stage of Rodrigo Duterte’s rise to power as a presidential candidate who rhetorically positioned himself as an outsider—a foul-mouthed, truth-telling strongman from southern Mindanao who would not put up with the pretensions of an imperial elite that ranged from Manila to Washington. His strong stance against criminals and drug dealers provided a popular scapegoat for the socioeconomic ills of the country, deftly situating the blame for poverty not on a lack of economic justice or agrarian reform, but rather on the poor choices of social malcontents. His campaign painted an image of a nation on the brink of disaster, assailed by drug lords and armed communist insurgents, which required a leader who could substitute democratic practice with the violent exercise of political will. Ultimately, Duterte’s election can be understood as the people’s verdict on the failure of the Aquinos to deliver on the promises of their cacique-led liberal democracy.

More than 30 years after the EDSA revolution, we stand in a new era of executive power and political repression. If we fail to recognize that Duterte’s popularity is a result of the past few decades’ inability to create economic justice for ordinary people, we risk making the same mistakes as our predecessors. Liberal democracy, as practiced by the landed elite and dynastic families of our nation, has never worked. Neither will Duterte’s military authoritarian regime, despite its promises of social change through the eradication of drug users and leftist dissenters. As we condemn  Duterte’s dictatorial rule, let us also call for a democracy that challenges the limits of economic liberalism, one that is committed to overturning the economic status quo in favor of the masses. 

In the face of terror, let us continue to dream. Makibaka, huwag matakot.