President Rodrigo Duterte’s paranoia may just be an ingredient to the brewing erosion of democracy in the Philippines and it is time that we check back on it.
Since his ascension to the presidency, Duterte’s enjoyment of wide public support has been known to be backed up by conspiracies aimed towards sabotaging his rule. In the span of one year and nine months in office, he managed to have his supporters rally behind his back under premises such as 1) the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is out to assassinate him; 2) the opposition, the Liberal Party, is colluding with said authorities; and 3) that key international institutions like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court are framing him as a notorious and murderous leader in order to justify their intervention on the bloody war on drugs being conducted in the country. But as far as any other democratic regime being subverted by a democratically elected leader is concerned, the most obvious causes and objects of paranoia are the media and the judiciary.
Two key events perhaps best construe Duterte’s paranoia: the attack against online news outfit Rappler and the more recent and explicit one that is the announcement of the withdrawal of the Philippines on the International Criminal Court. While it is critical to point out and be vigilant towards Duterte’s growing cautiousness towards non-close associates, it should be made clear that the paranoia itself is not the threat to democracy—but how it can be used to drive and justify actions that may slowly erode Philippine democracy.
The Politics of Paranoia
Originally a psychological term, paranoia as used in politics involves a leader that tends to mobilize an entire nation with the aim of completely eradicating a “threat” that endangers said nation. Thomas Wood points to how this was overwhelmingly used by Donald Trump to win the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. There’s a certain degree of observable truth to it, as there is no denying that Trump did use the anti-immigrant card under the banner “Make America Great Again”. Going back to the late 1930’s, this type of paranoia preceded and justified one of humanity’s gravest crimes: the holocaust. Similarly, although not entirely racial in nature, the Chinese Communist Party has long been banking on paranoia to keep Western influence at bay and to maintain the narrative that only the Party can bring salvation to the country.
For Richard Hofstadter, the concept of paranoia as used in politics is directed towards a leader rallying a nation behind the idea that theirs is a nation that is under attack. What is disconcerting with the kind of paranoia exhibited by President Duterte is that it is more of an impending attack directed to him than the Filipino people. Couple this with his existing wide public support and we have a recipe for a series of justified acts subverting democracy. I would, however, disclaim that as of writing, I have not yet invalidated nor discredited the sources of Duterte’s paranoia due to certain nuances in Philippine politics.
The examples mentioned in the foregoing paragraphs are only the tip of the iceberg—I have not even considered yet the semantics of his statements. The situation gets even more troublesome, as there is a danger behind being able to convince a plethora of supporters to blindly follow a leader that breathes conspiracies leading him to justify certain actions that may lead to the subversion of Philippine democracy.
Paranoia on the media
Rappler, a web-based private media corporation in the Philippines founded in 2012, has been accused by the president’s supporters known as the DDS (Duterte Diehard Supporters) of delivering slanted and biased news against the administration. This is later on echoed by President Duterte himself, along with the accusation that Rappler, including other media corporations like the ABS-CBN, are conspiring with the opposition to upset public support and bend it later on their favor. A month before the commemoration of the 1986 EDSA People Power that ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the entire country witnessed what the opposition dubbed as an attack on press freedom: Rappler had its license to operate canceled by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over its alleged violation of foreign ownership.
Duterte’s paranoia over the alleged destabilization scheme plotted by the mainstream media is further being made proven with the way the administration is handling calls for press freedom from various groups in the Philippines. Pia Ranada, one of Rappler’s resident journalists, was reportedly harassed by members of the PSG (Presidential Security Group), barring her from entering the premises of the Malacañang Palace for a coverage. The President’s personal statements against the journalist do not help deny the obvious paranoia, dubbing not only Ms. Ranada, but the rest of Rappler as peddlers of fake news.
Had he stuck with attacking the issue on Rappler’s foreign ownership, the lesser the appearance of his paranoia would have become. A push-pull is now brewing between the government and the media along the lines of fake news, press freedom, media repression—signaling a looming erosion of democracy.
Paranoia on international institutions
In a letter dated March 15, 2018, the Philippine Ambassador to the UN declared the that the Philippines will be withdrawing from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). In a supporting statement, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano claimed that “the campaign against Duterte and the Philippines is misleading the international community through distorting the human rights situation in the country.”
The ICC is accused of the alleged distortion as it recently announced a probe to be conducted on the conduct of Duterte’s War on Drugs. This allegedly triggered the President to withdraw from the Rome Statute, implying that the institution does nothing but conspire against his regime by painting him as murderous president. Presidential Legal Advisor Salvador Panelo, however, insisted that the withdrawal from the ICC is in no way related to the probe, stating that the president is not threatened. Along the lines of which of course is the reality that regardless of the withdrawal, the probe may still push through.
Duterte’s paranoia: a path towards the erosion of democracy?
I would not go out of the limb as to claim that Duterte’s paranoia over the series of conspiracies surrounding his regime may not have validity, as the adverse effects on democracy do not immediately lie with it. One thing to look out for, apart from the usual calls of vigilance over his indecisiveness, is how this “paranoia” may be used to rally a large segment of the population to support actions that may slowly chip away democracy. As I have exemplified in the two cases, we may be looking at the bleak future of press freedom and the rule of law. While we have lessons from history to refer to, it does not guarantee that no such thing will ever be repeated.
(Image: President Rodrigo Duterte bares details of government’s agreement with Vietnam in his speech at the Francisco Bangoy International Airport in Davao City on September 30. TOTO LOZANO/PPD via Wikimedia Commons)