University of the Philippines, Diliman

“Mr. President, It Is Not Entirely Your Fault Why the Philippines Suffers from Illiberal Democracy” by Minch Cerrero @ University of the Philippines, Diliman

Duterte’s authoritarian tendencies cannot be plainly framed as symptomatic of the changing times.  His exercise of democracy, that is occasionally illiberal, is a product of the confluence of three sources of causal mechanisms – complex interactions among individual, state and systemic factors.  Beyond an analysis of an executive’s personality, motivations and cognitive idiosyncrasies, defeating his assault against democracy requires the political sophistication that looks into the combination of apertures that may have allowed for his demagogic maneuvers and power excesses.

The President’s unperturbed populism, misogyny and disregard for the rule of law combined with rhetorical reprisal against oppositions and unimpeded reciprocation of concessions, favors and patronage present an ominous dark cloud over Philippine democracy.  Coming up with a comprehensive inventory of what constitutes Duterte’s illiberal democracy or impoliteness to our accustomed moral and liberal traditions represents only part of how to think about democratic erosion.

Ellen Lust and David Waldner suggest approaching the concept as a process that is best understood through the logical relationships between contributing factors found at multiple levels of causation.  Here, Kenneth Waltz’ analytic prescription of three-level analysis, referring to the images of man, the state and international system, is congruous.  Locating the loci of factors outside Duterte and analyzing the context for action not only matters in explaining and redressing democratic erosion.  It also slackens off the exaggerated belief in Duterte.


The discombobulated invested faith of Filipinos upon the almost mythic leadership of Duterte resonates with the ingrained historical and cultural pensiveness on the messianic Bernardo Carpio.  Fanaticism, latched on the novelty of the President’s resolute yet impolite street-style politics, takes in a new twisted form – the impossibility of alternative and competing dispositions on which anti-pluralism and pernicious polarization parasitically feed on.

Yet behind the stories of fanatical bashing that culminates into offensive trolling between supporters and critics; more than the manifestation of obsequious admiration for a leader of admittedly strong mind and character is an exigency of rewiring the people’s perspectives on Duterte’s leadership.   Rather than the usual path of condoning the injudicious personalistic support which runs the risk of, to the words of Justice Marvic Leonen, “bestowing elected leaders undeserved entitlement”, perhaps policy addressing democratic erosion must include a corrective for fanaticism.

However, there is a covert threat to democracy that serves as fertile ground of opportunities for illiberal democracy to turn up.  It flows neither from conscious human folly nor from conspicuous errors of judgment that people willfully commit in exchange of incentives from self-interested rational calculations.  This condition is called apathy; Vaclav Havel’s ideation of a post-totalitarian order in which people turn into passive conformists automatically resigned to the non-salience of democratic erosion, untroubled by exercise of arbitrary and unregulated power and just minding their private lives.


Mark Thompson takes up a scholarly rundown of Duterte’s illiberal democracy centered on his dismantling of the liberal reformist narratives that have gone stale among “ABC voters,” cajoling of key strategic groups and evisceration of institutional constraints. The President’s strongman approach has routinely transgressed the rule of law and systematically made vulnerable vestiges of liberal democratic and human rights principles patently seen in his centerpiece policy: war on drugs.  Absent of executive power-sharing mechanisms, the Duterte government benefits from the absence of formidable institutional counter-balance and political competition to constrain his illiberal democratic practices.

The political, cultural, moral and security questions surrounding the vigilante-style killings, constitutional infringement, emasculation of check-and-balance system due to the obsequiousness of the Congress and the enervated judicial independence affect democracy’s quality and durability.  First, by undermining institutional balance and competing centers of power, the president creates the leeway for backsliding through unconstrained exercise of power.  Second, the president gaining leverage over democratic institutions inexorably precipitates inter-group conflict based on political coalitions which foils solidarity and promotes political violence and exclusion.

The conflictual nature of political and social choices, the social issues the President’s policies address are inherently divisive and may lead to what Roberto Stefan Roa and Yasha Mounk call deconsolidation within the populace. The exacerbation of deconsolidation along a single political line of us versus them or DDS (Duterte Diehard Supporters) versus Dilawan (shorthand for anyone who opposes Duterte) renders polarization, one that excludes, penalizes and weakens opposition, pernicious to democracy.  Excessive heterogeneity diminishes the likelihood for the existence of what Barrington Moore, Jr. prescribes as an incentivized and capable social force to demand democracy.


The turn to China as the controversial high point of Duterte’s independent foreign policy portends an opening for authoritarian resilience.  It draws from a set of international countervailing factors that weakens Philippine sovereignty by allowing China to project its hegemony over our internal affairs.  This creates democratic challenges with the government no longer just acting on behalf of the people free from any external influences.  This renders political spaces for deliberation and greater citizen participation and accountability, key pillars of democratic practices, assailable and problematic.  The same with the United States, dependence on China means that the implementation of agreements and contracts the government entered into with the regional hegemon would not representatively reflect the sentiments and preferences of the people. Winners and losers will be created.

Importantly, there is the emerging tension between the conceptual frameworks of western-advanced democratic peace theory and China’s development diplomacy – both are cut from different values and principles but each assumes central role in forging the hegemonic ambitions of the United States and China.  However, the two states present varying democratizing pressures and authoritarian pull.  China may mediate Western pressures for democratic consolidation resulting on the impinging of our democratic institutions and practices through Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way’s leverage and linkage.  By affecting cross-border flows of capitals and injecting billions of dollars in investments as well as shaping the distribution of resources, China produces a condoning effect on Duterte’s illiberal maneuvers.

Subscription to China’s geopolitics and soft power may create the challenge of ‘superpresidentialism’ by increasing Duterte’s capacity to dispense patronage thereby intensifying personalistic rule and indisposing people’s capacity to demand democracy from the president.  Philippe Schmitter and Guillermo O’Donnell, in Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, conclude that democracy is largely explained by national forces and internal calculations with the international dimension exerting marginal or indirect role in structuring authoritarian agenda.  Peter Gourevitch, in his ideation of the ‘second image reversed’, assigns a more profound causal weight to international factors and argues that a country’s internal structure is contingent on the international system.

These are opposing yet balancing views daring our policies to sensibly ascertain for why, when and how democratic fatigue occurs. Indeed, Mr. President it is not entirely your fault.


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