Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential candidacy in the Philippines’ 2016 elections was a breath of fresh air for a majority of Filipinos. In a society of frustrated poor and ordinary citizens where the adage “the rich becomes richer, and the poor becomes poorer” rings very true, a populist candidate who portrays himself as the one who clearly understands the sentiments of the people and knows very well how to make these people’s lives better, is in a very strategic and strong position to win the support of the populace. Duterte’s 2016 presidential success bears testimony to this.
His unconventional approach to governance, empathizing and pro-masses campaign platforms, political and non-political commentaries, banters and interviews that were highly relatable and emotionally stirring to the public in a positive way and the way he portrayed himself as one of the masses, made him the outlier from all the 2016 presidential candidates.
Duterte being the first and only candidate who has a long track record of being a public official from a locality who ran in a national election, was able to pull that credentials into his advantage and accumulate the support of the masses by highlighting populist narratives. These include being for the people, knowing the realities on the ground and the struggles of poor ordinary Filipinos, and committing to solve the problems of the country through scalable governance strategies similar to what that he did in Davao City.
Indeed, Duterte has become a populist. And he was able to make himself one by effectively capitalizing on people’s grievances, emotions and the promises of giving these people better lives under his leadership, which revitalized the hopes of the Filipino people for a better Philippines.
As soon as he was seated President, Duterte wasted no time in implementing policies and programs aimed to fulfill his promises to the people. One of the most immediate yet controversial was his “War on Drugs”, which was intended to solve the drug problem in the country as he deems it to be a major hindrance to the country’s and its people’s progress and development. Duterte’s Drug War Threatens Philippine Democracy
However, as the drug war persisted, it became a strong manifestation of democratic backsliding in the country. As the war attempted to eliminate the country’s drug problem, it became a breeding ground for abuse of powers by implementing bodies/authorities and resulted to extrajudicial killings that are evident human rights violation in a country that has been widely known for championing democracy with robust adherence to the rule of law.
The administration continued to govern and manage the country using non-conventional ways including measures where the military was heavily utilized and deployed giving the public an impression that Duterte’s leadership is becoming highly reliant to the military, exhibiting elements that resembles the Martial Law.
Despite these alarming measures, which were actively called out especially by democratic watchdogs and advocates, Duterte still gets the approval and support of the people, and he was able to maintain a strong support-base especially from those who voted for him during the election who even dearly calls him “Tatay Digong”, the Filipino term for the head of the family, which signifies a strong and deep connection between Duterte and his supporters.
His team was able to skillfully invest and capitalize on the efficiency of social media to maintain the support of the people to his administration, notwithstanding the proliferation of fake news and social media trolls. Social media played a crucial role in creating a social divide among the Filipinos during the time of Duterte. It was weaponized in a way that made the people highly vulnerable and exposed to misinformation that affected and diminished citizen’s ability to be critical to the administration, its policies and way of governance.
The social media weaponization was complemented with war on press freedom which made Duterte and his administration as the major source of information of the people thus limited the citizen’s capacity to be critical to the government. Duterte’s skirmishes with media entities that are critical to his administration became blatant through his attacks to a Filipino news site, Rappler’s Chief Executive Maria Ressa (Maria Ressa stands up for the truth) and the Congress’ decision to not renew the franchise of one of the country’s major broadcasting entity, ABS-CBN (Duterte vs. ABS-CBN).
Duterte utilized his authority to influence government processes and institutions to impose criminal charges and ordered arrests to Ressa and denied ABS-CBN its franchise. These moves evidently caused severe injury to the country’s press freedom which are highly alarming as press freedom is a vital component of a democratic country.
The media and its other forms, like social media, are democratic tools to provide and disseminate information necessary to the public serving their right to information. Further, these are tools for checks and balances that enables people to continuously monitor their country’s state of affairs while ensuring that their rights and civil liberties are well protected, as this is the core of democracy, and if necessary, act upon any attempts or acts that will undermine democracy and the rule of law, the rule of people.
The take down of a major broadcasting entity that is a vital source of information to a wide populace, injures the way through which people may be able to influence their perception towards its leaders. This situation will eventually limit their ability to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of the administration and at the same time undermines their capacity to have better opinions and views towards their leaders which is crucial especially if it’s time for them to once again choose their leaders at a time that the administration has to transition to a new one.
The weaponization of social media and the closure of a major broadcasting outlet in the country are legacies that the succeeding administration may inherit from Duterte. Both are stepping stones towards further democratic degradation in the country that if not remedied will continue to be exploited by the next administration to advance their own interests, leaving the Filipino people with the least that they deserve from its elected leaders.
The Philippines’ pursuit towards maintaining its democracy and its process towards further democratization has been shaken by the attempts of Duterte and his administration to strongly cling to power.
Practices that erode democracy in the country continue to unfold right before the eyes of the people, amplified by social media and various digital tools that makes the people more aware of the working of the government and its leaders. But it’s not yet too late for the Filipino people.
With the current democratic regime in the country, where strong advocates of democracy still exist despite threats and attempts to undermine it, and with all the digital tools that could possibly assist to better monitor the working of its elected officials, the Filipino people are still in a positive position to protect democracy in the country and continue to watch their leaders and hold them accountable for their actions. The Filipino people should continue to be more vigilant and critical towards their leaders to prevent further aggravation of democratic erosion the country.