Metamorphosis, a Greek word that means transformation in structure or substance by supernatural means. Like butterflies, “democratic” leaders have life stages too. Some leaders start as an illiberal democrat or an authoritarian, while others have evolved from an illiberal democrat to another. In the world politics, leaders like Donald Trump, Hugo Chavez, Ferdinand Marcos and others have completed this transformation stage that placed the democratic principles at stake. Now, the question is whether the 16th elected President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Roa Duterte matured from an illiberal democrat to an authoritarian.
In Dan Slater’s article entitled, “After Democracy: What Happens when Freedom Erodes”, an illiberal democrat freely wins elections but breaks norms and bends the rules to ensure that his powers will not be limited. Well, there is no doubt that Duterte is an illiberal democrat. He started his political career in 1988 as the Mayor of Davao City and was re-elected for six times. His accomplishments as City Mayor includes establishing LGBT-friendly measures, imposing smoke ban areas, and reducing crime rates making Davao City as the 5th Safest City in the World in 2015 according to a survey conducted by Numbeo.com, the largest website utilizing users-generated data on cities and countries around the world. Indeed, his performance, populist rhetoric with his slogan “Change is coming”, and platforms on suppressing crimes, drugs, and corruption have convinced 16.6 million Filipino people to elect him as president during the 2016 elections. Upon assumption of office, he appointed his colleagues in Davao, military officials, former law school classmates such as Vitaliano Aguirre II, Arthur Tugade, and and well-known political figures associated with corruption such as Arroyo, Marcos, and others to keep and support him in power. Under Duterte’s regime, the Philippines faced challenges on inflation which increased the cost of living; extra-judicial killings which alarmed human rights advocates; and the Philippines Pivot to China, which brought detrimental effects on foreign policies concerning the West Philippine Sea territorial dispute. Given these circumstances, is it safe to say that Duterte turned away from his country’s interest and has now become an authoritarian?
In the book, How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt outlined four key indicators of authoritarian behaviour namely: Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game; denial of the legitimacy of political opponents; toleration and encouragement of violence; and readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. Meanwhile, in the Annual Convention of the Prosecutor’s League of the Philippines, Duterte said that, “If you give me a hard time, I will declare a revolutionary war until the end of my term. If you push me to my limit, I will declare a suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and I will arrest all of you. I will put you together with the criminals, rebels, and drug lords”. This express intent on the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and and enforcement of undemocratic measures yields to his weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game. In addition, civil liberties and the media are being attacked under his regime. A threat to the closure of Rappler.com has been instigated due to its criticism to the administration and the tax evasion case also filed against Maria Ressa, the Online News Outlet Founder. Aside from that, there were also new drafted regulations emanating from the Philippine House of Representatives to permit the Congress on banning reporters who will undermine the reputation of lawmakers covering the national legislature.
Likewise, Duterte’s declaration on War on Drugs starting June 30, 2016 have come a long way and according to the Human Rights Watch Organization, it is difficult to identify number of fatalities due to the issuance of contradictory statistics of the government. Furthermore, this War on Drugs is often associated to war against the poor and extrajudicial killings since the right of the victims to undergo court trial have been deprived and that there are also masked gunmen taking part in the killings. As a proof of violence toleration, he also vowed to protect police officers and agents carrying out the drug war from prosecution. Similarly, the ousting of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, a critic on the administration’s anti-drug campaign is a clear implication that Duterte tested positive on the criteria, denial of the legitimacy of political opponents.
And yes, the 16th elected President of the Philippines has been slowly transforming from an illiberal democrat to an authoritarian. It is both easy and critical to prove a leader’s authoritarian behaviour with reference to Levitsky and Ziblatt’s indicators but other democratic principles like suffrage, extending term limits, court packing and other must be considered to check whether Duterte has fully become an authoritarian. After all, his future trajectory as an authoritarian is yet to be determine given that he has three more years left before his administration concurs. If this style of leadership will continue to evolve, the preservation of democracy in the Philippines might be at risk.
Image Source: Asia Sentinel Correspondent and Observe Asia