Many countries have experienced leanings and developments suggesting democratic erosion, backsliding, and general shifts towards authoritarianism in the past decade, despite a global trend towards democratization. Perhaps one of the most vocal examples of would-be authoritarianism comes from the often indecent and foul mouth of the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. Recent events coming about from the Philippines, including the global Covid-19 pandemic, has enabled them to further slip into autocracy, and I argue that this mirrors a similar situation in America with President Donald Trump, and that 2020 predicts more authoritarian tendencies for the Philippines in the coming years. Additionally, I believe that both Trump and Duterte act as straws attempting to break the back of their respective executive branch’s aggrandizement of power, and that the differing responses from their judicial branches suggests different conclusions regarding their true backsliding. Ultimately, I believe the checks against Trump have proven more successful than those against Duterte, and that although the president’s utilize similar aggrandizement tactics, Duterte will pose more of a threat against democracy in due time.
The Philippines, despite attracting many headlines with wild accusations and outlandish claims as a result of Duterte and his infamous war on drugs typically has decent democracy index scores. Perhaps a product of their government set-up almost perfectly mirroring America’s, down to their checks and balances, the executive branch and the population have enjoyed a strong balance of freedom and oversight over one another. Yet recent years have demonstrated a potential backsliding, with the International Criminal Court opening a probe into the Philippines for this very reason. A decent past never guarantees a strong future, and 2020 in particular has started to usher in this backsliding.
Before discussing how the executive has slid back this year, we must first justify our focus on the executive. How does the Philippines perform through the lens of standard democratic notions and norms? Which branches are performing well?
According to Nancy Bermeo, in “On Democratic Backsliding” , there exist three main areas in which backsliding occurs; Coup d’etats, executive aggrandizement, and election fraud. The Philippines in recent years have of course not fallen to any coups, and enjoyed relatively stable and free elections 2019 and 2020, with random manual audits demonstrating the 2019 election to be the safest in 4 cycles for the Philippines. So far, so good for the nation, right?
This leads us naturally to the executive branch. Another article on backsliding in the Philippines demonstrates how Levitsky and Ziblatt’s lovely textbook applies to the country’s aggrandizement; both slowly, and discretely. It is here where the Philippines may attribute their backsliding, something I plan to demonstrate with a few examples from this year alone.
Before analyzing these examples though, first consider a similar proposition for the United States. Even in America, we have seen the same pattern of slow and steady stockpiling of power in the executive, and I believe that aggrandizement also necessitates a spike of power hoarding as well. Past presidents have had their shower of power bargaining; Obama and Bush are both particularly guilty of trigger happy international policies in combat, which is typically indicative of aggrandizement in America as it symbolizes the foregoing of checks and balances. Yet it has been President Trump’s presidency and term that has broken the straw on the camel’s executive branch. I believe we are seeing the same abuse in the Philippines with Duterte, and both presidents are capitalizing on 2020 to attempt aggrandizement.
Both presidents, for instance, have consistently abused the COVID pandemic to bolster their own power sources. Duterte is walking out of local pandemic talks with $5.4 billion in spending, and Trump has famously encouraged the spreading of misinformation, silencing of the media, amidst other executive sins in order to extend the reach of his cabinet and office. The two have twisted a time of need for many into wealth and control for themselves.
Hopefully, the context of the United States has helped explain the Philippines and their predicament. However, the most alarming example of aggrandizement in the Philippines of 2020 bears no relation to Covid, and strays from anything similar in the United States. The unfair legal action leveraged against Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa demonstrates an embarrassingly obvious example of censorship of media and a gross overextension of executive power. Ressa, a renowned journalist, faces possible jail time for an incorrect conviction ruled in June regarding a news article she did not even write; in reality, she is likely due to serve time for creating, running, and operating a major anti-Duterte news source in the Philippines, Rappler. This case is the first of 8 leveraged against her by the Duterte Government, and a negative ruling in the very first case suggests even more obstructions of justice further on.
Many suggested that the Philippines’ democratic status and their slide into authoritarianism laid in the balance leading up to the hearing, and judge ruling in favor of the government all but confirms Duterte’s handle on the judicial system. Even today we have seen similar attempts in America, with Trump abusing the courts to rid of child immigrant laws, albeit unsuccessfully, or perhaps the myriad of court cases regarding the “fraudulent” elections.
It is here that I believe the Philippines and the States diverge; the checks and balances in the states still seem to work against a greedy president, whereas Duterte has successfully leveraged the judicial branch. The legislative branch experiences similar pressure from Duterte, including an incredibly recent executive order forcing their hand for funding. And so, the difference between the two presidents presents itself. Whereas the two are both attempting to garner power with similar methods, Trump has experienced backlash and backfire from the courts and sometimes congress. Duterte on the other hand seemingly owns the two branches in his pocket, and I suspect this situation will continue to stray from America’s in the coming years, especially if Duterte re-wins election in 2022.