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)