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Duterte’s illiberal democracy and perilous presidential system

Author: Mark R Thompson, City University of Hong Kong

Controversial ‘strongman’ President Rodrigo Duterte seems to expose the precariousness of democracy and liberal institutions in the Philippines. The structural hazard of presidential systems, according to some, is competing claims to legitimacy between the chief executive and the legislature. But examples from Southeast Asia show it is populist leaders who attack institutional constraints on their power or opponents who are willing to undermine democracy to counter populism — not the presidential systems themselves — that are the true cause of democratic decay.

Two Philippine presidents have been removed extra-constitutionally by ‘people power’ uprisings: Ferdinand E Marcos in 1986 and Joseph Estrada in 2001 (with the important difference that Marcos led an electoral authoritarian regime while Estrada was freely and fairly elected). And presidents Corazon C. Aquino (1986–1992) and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001–2010) faced repeated coup attempts by disgruntled military elements backed by key politicians and leaders in civil society. Deadlock between the legislature and the chief executive contributed to the extra-constitutional removal of Estrada in 2001, but it was in fact elite societal actors (Catholic bishops, big business and civil society) who organised Estrada’s toppling.

Presidents in the Philippines have usually been able to subordinate the legislative and judicial branches of government, creating the danger of ‘elected autocracy’ or even outright dictatorship. This is what enabled Marcos to declare martial law in 1972, and it appears an imminent danger during Duterte’s presidency today (he has already declared martial law in the island of Mindanao).

When looking across Southeast Asia, these risks — imperious political leaders threatening to overturn electoral democracy, or leaders imperilled by mass protests led by opponents accusing them of abuse of power — seem to occur regardless of whether a country features a presidential or parliamentary system.

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his surrogates were toppled by powerful elite groups in a manner similar to Estrada’s downfall. Because Thaksin built a resilient political party and mobilised a flanking red shirt movement, Thai elites ultimately had to resort to full blown and long term military rule to suppress the challenge. This was the outcome of extreme political polarisation between pro-poor populist politicians and their elite enemies — not a result of executive–legislative conflict in Thailand’s parliamentary system.

Indonesia’s democracy, whatever its quality, has been the most stable in Southeast Asia over the past fifteen years. Like in the Philippines, the dangers Indonesia faces are posed by populist leaders who abuse their already extensive powers to completely undermine liberal norms and the rule of law — not gridlock between the president and the legislature.

Although Duterte’s illiberal democracy has differed significantly from his predecessor Benigno ‘Noynoy’ S Aquino III’s, in terms of the exercise of presidential power there have been striking similarities. Aquino also quickly assembled a legislative majority based on promises of presidential patronage. He also used this majority to impeach and convict the Supreme Court chief justice which helped bend the highest court to his will, as Duterte’s allies in Congress seem intent on doing to the current chief justice. Duterte, like Aquino, is a powerful president in a political system with weak accountability.

Yet Duterte has done what Aquino dared not or could not do. Duterte has transgressed the informal limits of presidential power by inciting police to wage a bloody ‘war on drugs’ that has left thousands dead and by attempting to rewrite the Constitution (a well-regarded charter change advisory panel currently working on a draft may end up being overruled, which will entrench illiberal rule).

The failure of successive post-Marcos administrations to create strong institutions and to significantly reduce inequality and poverty created a political opportunity for Duterte’s rise. He used a discourse of a corrupt elite coddling drug dealers and addicts to mobilise mass support through the media (particularly social media).

Duterte first employed this strongman model at the local level as mayor of Davao before ‘nationalising’ it after his election as president. Duterte’s drug war has been a political strategy to strengthen his political legitimacy and undermine liberal constraints while wrong-footing domestic opposition and parrying international criticism. Given Duterte’s continued popularity and his new friends abroad (particularly China but also the United States under Trump), it seems likely violent strongman rule in the Philippines will continue for some time to come.

Strongman rule is far from exceptional in today’s Southeast Asia and has become increasingly prevalent globally. Understanding democratic consolidation requires looking beyond the supposed characteristics of a presidential political system. In presidential or parliamentary rule, overly powerful and ambitious elected leaders who attempt to use their democratic legitimacy to undermine liberal constraints are the true danger.

Mark R Thompson is Professor of Politics and Head of the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong, where he is also Director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre.

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