University of the Philippines, Diliman

Fighting Democratic Erosion in the Philippines: Beyond Resistance by Michael Manangu @ University of the Philippines, Diliman

In a controversial decision, the Philippine Supreme Court voted on May 11 to remove its leader, Maria Lourdes Sereno. The court’s majority ordered Sereno’s seat vacated after acting on a petition brought by Rodrigo Duterte’s top lawyer, who cited malfeasance in her financial disclosures. This comes a month after Sereno was declared an “enemy” by President Rodrigo Duterte, having been a critic of his anti-drug campaign and an appointee of the previous president Benigno Aquino III. Her ouster paves the way for Duterte to appoint a loyalist to the position and leaves him with control of all three branches of government. The decision also delivers control of the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, which is currently presiding over an electoral protest seeking to nullify the 2016 victory of Vice President Leni Robredo and declare Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. – son of the late dictator – the winner.

These and other developments indicate that Rodrigo Duterte is poised to consolidate his power in advance of the 2019 midterm elections. His campaign to change the constitution continues, despite popular skepticism. Almost all of the country’s watchdog bodies – including the Election Commission and top anti-corruption prosecutor – will shortly be headed by his appointees. Pre-election polls show that incumbent senators aligned with him as well as his handpicked candidates lead in next year’s Senate race. And on top of all these, Duterte remains highly popular. His net trust rating in the first quarter of 2018 still sits at a healthy 65%, even after falling 10 points from the previous poll.

With Sereno’s ouster and the 2019 elections in sight, the opposition now appears to be emerging from a prolonged state of torpor. For example, the rhetoric of some groups opposing Duterte appears to have grown more strident since the decision, at least online. Various protest actions are calling attention to unpopular policies of the administration, such as its tax reform initiative. Other opposition groups have begun canvassing support for viable candidates who can serve as focal points of resistance to the emerging authoritarian regime.

The still fractious and disunited opposition may yet put up a viable, coherent resistance to Rodrigo Duterte – but how can it do so? I argue that the Philippine opposition must move beyond the idea of “resistance” and offer a tangible alternative to Duterte’s policies. Moreover, I argue that the current time calls for a non-violent resistance that uses both institutional and extra-institutional strategies to achieve moderate goals.

A common rallying cry

The prerequisite to any viable resistance is the emergence of a common identity that brings its various groups together. The political sociology literature has continually emphasized that successful social movements are more likely to have developed “master frames” that serve as the basis for collective action. For these frames to work, they should be able to contest the political logics that brought Duterte to power, which the sociologist Nicole Curato has described as the “politics of anxiety” and the “politics of hope.” This means that the opposition should do more than just resist Duterte’s policies; it should offer its own affirmative vision for a better Philippines.

Of course, coming up with a master frame is easier said than done for groups as ideologically distant as the Catholic Church, the Communist and non-Communist Left, and the Aquino-era Liberal Party. However, some issues may yet offer some room for common cause. Besides the drug war (about which most Filipinos retain substantial reservations), Duterte’s unpopular tax reform, which has placed increasing pressure on poor Filipinos, might be another bridge issue. Public opinion has consistently shown that economic concerns such as inflation and low wages continue to be the most salient concerns of Filipinos, which indicate that a call for greater equity starting with taxes may resonate with them.

Beyond frames: strategies for collective action

Another salient issue for the nascent opposition is the strategies it will use to enact collective action against the emerging regime. While popular narratives of democratic erosion have often focused on anti-democratic leaders and institutional decay, political scientists such as Laura Gamboa have argued that the actions of the opposition are also important. Oppositions must walk a fine line between enacting meaningful resistance while avoiding inadvertently accelerating democratic erosion.

The Philippine opposition should also be keenly aware of this dilemma, and as much as possible must resort to institutional and extra-institutional strategies that achieve moderate goals rather than radical ones.

According to Gamboa, such strategies allow the opposition to retain their legitimacy here and abroad. These strategies also reduce the incentives and increase the costs of repression by government, allowing the opposition to maintain viable positions from which to resist more anti-democratic reforms down the road. In contrast, using extra-institutional means to oust the president, as some groups have called for, would not only undermine the legitimacy of the opposition, but also provide a pretext for leaders to crack down and find support for more aggressive reforms.

Moreover, it is important that such actions display a strong preference for non-violence, especially given Duterte’s continuing popularity. In the Philippine context, possible actions that adhere to this philosophy include: rejecting the possibility of intervention from both the military and communist insurgency; exhausting legal remedies; supporting the remaining viable focal points of institutional resistance such as Commission on Human Rights; and many others. Such strategies will inevitably turn resistance into a long, drawn-out process and will require immense discipline – but this discipline is important if the Philippines is to avoid falling into the trap of Gamboa’s Venezuela.

Rising to the challenge

To be sure, these prescriptions work against many assumptions long held by the various opposition groups, who understandably continue to draw from their experiences resisting Ferdinand Marcos and his dictatorship. But such discipline is called for in dealing with a threat that is simultaneously similar and different – not only from Marcos, but also Duterte’s contemporaries who continue to erode democracies around the world.

There is hope yet that Philippine democracy may yet emerge stronger from this episode of democratic erosion – but only if the opposition is here for the long haul.

(Photo: A urinal displays a sticker with the face of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Source: Block Marcos Movement)


  1. Fighting Beyond Democratic Erosion in the Philippines: Beyond Resistance | Michael Manangu

    May 27, 2018 at 6:44 am

    […] is the third of three op-eds I wrote for the class blog of a multi-university graduate seminar on democratic erosion in 2018, […]

  2. Maria Andrade

    November 2, 2018 at 2:31 pm

    The pushback against democratic erosion can be a tricky one. You must take into account the culture of the country, look back at previous attempts of resistance, and meticulously study the current regime. In the case on the Philippines, Duterte has proven to be a big proponent of democratic erosion as reflected in his blatant takeover of all the branches of government and his work to ensure that the 2019 midterm elections prove favorable for his rule. In order to successfully counter this type of regime, it is important that the opposition organizes institutional attacks in a non-violent manner to gain legitimacy both at home and abroad. But this method of resistance encounters the risk of being ineffective because of a lack of attention to their demands. In other words, how can a movement gain legitimacy if no one knows about it? Groups need to ensure that despite choosing institutional and non-violent methods of counteraction, they need to be strategic in order to get the attention of the greater public.

  3. Hoang Nguyen

    February 17, 2019 at 2:16 am

    Since Rodrigo Duterte took office he has been favored by the people of Philippines in the fight against drugs. Repression of crime, especially drug crimes, is one of the top priority tasks announced by President Duterte since his election and actively implemented since he took office in late June 2016. In the drug crime suppression campaign since then, Philippine police have reportedly destroyed 2,500 drug-related subjects. In addition, about 4,500 people died in unspecified circumstances, and more than 1 million people were arrested or surrendered. Legally, President Duterte has affirmed that he will protect the Filipino people from drug crimes and Maute rebels – one of the most painful issues facing the Philippine government in recent years. moreover, Mr. Duterte was more aggressive in fighting corruption, at the government level, to the local government. These two jobs have shown that the credibility of Mr. duterte is still very high despite being lower than the year he took office, the author mentioned above. so the fight against democratic erosion needs more basic elements to survive, that is support. If the left-wing protests in the Philippines want to influence those who have been supporting the duterte president, they need to have evidence that Duterte’s actions are against the democracy. Typical examples of the success of the US-Vietnam War are the power of public opinion. Vietnamese journalists and journalists have made videos as evidence for the cruelty and genocide in Vietnam, making the American community turned against the Nixon administration at the time.
    Currently, Mr. Duterte may be taking power steps as President Xi Jinping has done in China, with the largest anti-corruption campaign in Chinese history. then with the support of the people, Xi gradually removed the presidency and dominated both the party and the Chinese state. To prevent this from happening to the Philippines, leftist factions should focus on expanding their influence across the country.

  4. Ronen Schatsky

    May 8, 2019 at 11:01 am

    You provide an insightful argument that Duterte’s opposition must defeat him by providing a meaningful alternative rather than simply opposing him. A similar point can be made about President Trump in the US and his Democratic opposition. Both Trump and Duterte are populist leaders who flout decorum, and their respective political oppositions seem to be unable to resist focusing on them instead of pushing their own positive message. It seems the stakes are far higher in the Philippines–Duterte has been more successful in consolidating his power there, and the opposition might lose its only chance to oppose him if it does not come together now. For sure, both leaders appeal to their base by claiming to be the one man brave enough to stand up to special interests, and prove their supposed mettle by violating political correctness. Trump singles out his detractors for special criticism in much the same way Duterte has, and has pushed out many of his own cabinet for differences of opinion. He has not, however, interfered with the justice system with the success that Duterte has had. If Duterte can gain defacto control over all of the Philippines’ independent institutions, including the judiciary, his opposition will need to do much more than sell a successful narrative to the voters.

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