Photo: Physical exercises for violators of the enhanced community quarantine policy in province of Cebu in the Philippines by Gerard Francisco, Cebu Daily News Digital.
The COVID-19 pandemic response has shown how a crisis can expose the underlying problems and issues that shape a polity. It has highlighted the power of political leadership to either strengthen or weaken public confidence in institutions, manage a health crisis, and advance the interests of the people they claim to represent.
In this blog, I will discuss how two Philippine politicians who exhibit populist styles of leadership styles approach the utility of “science” in distinct fashions when enforcing their authority in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. President Rodrigo Duterte and Governor Gwen Garcia of Cebu are two well-known individuals who offer an interesting case study of the various shapes that populism may take, particularly in response to a health crisis. I will begin with a brief discussion of populism as the core analytical tool in this narrative, followed by a brief discussion of the two cases. Finally, I will outline the wider consequences and implications of pandemic populism for democratic erosion.
Populism: people, elite, and general will
Populism is a complex political phenomenon that presents itself differently in different situations and among different leaders. The concept’s complexity has sparked a discussion among academics over whether it can be used effectively as a conceptual and analytical tool for academic scholarship (see (Moffitt, 2016). Specifically, scholars point to how the definition of populism varies across different geographic spaces (i.e., North America, Europe, Latin America, and Asia), and how its description often depends on how it is analyzed, whether as an ideology, a strategy, a discourse, or a leadership style (Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser, 2017) . Yet we run the risk of populism becoming a hollow term if we allow it to mean practically anything. For a more thorough discussion, see Hunger and Paxton (2022) and Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser (2017). For the purposes of this narrative, I will use the “ideational approach” in defining populism (Hawkins & Rovira Kaltwasser, 2017). This approach argues that populism is a “thin ideology” (see Stanley, 2008). According to Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser (2017) populism is a worldview that splits society into two opposing groups: the corrupt elite and the homogenous “people.” Defining the “people” as sovereign, common, or country, populist leaders assert that they speak for them against the elite, which is characterized by power. In addition to claiming to be part of the “people”, populist leaders also assert that they know what the “general will” is, which justifies their leadership styles. These three core concepts will be used as the guiding principles to analyze the two cases.
Duterte’s Pandemic and Medical Populism
The Philippines’ pandemic response led by former President Rodrigo Duterte was characterised by two conceptions of populism: pandemic populism (Teehankee, 2022), and medical populism (Lasco, 2020). Through the use by politico-military logic, Duterte’s pandemic populism utilised strict lockdowns instead of strategic testing, securitization and politicisation of the pandemic, and leveraging strongman leadership instead of improving the country’s ability to respond to the pandemic (Teehankee, 2022). In addition to pandemic populism, Duterte’s response has also been described as “medical populism” (Lasco, 2020) which is characterised as a leadership style that simplifies complex health issues, polarises society, and makes bold promises about the ability to control the pandemic. Emblematic of these two labels of populism was Duterte’s orders to the police to use force when necessary against violators of pandemic policy, noting that police should “shoot them dead”, where Duterte framed the Kadamay, a militant housing rights group, as enemies of the government’s efforts to respond to the pandemic (Billing, 2020). This rhetoric shaped the government’s pandemic response, where curbing the pandemic was used to justify broader attempts by the Duterte government to suppress dissent and consolidate power.
Duterte utilised a pseudo-techno-rational logic of adhering to evidence and scientific opinion, justifying a militaristic strategy of strict lockdowns as the primary pandemic response strategy and framing people who fail to follow as pasaway (undisciplined) (Hapal, 2021). This rhetoric relegated civil and political rights as impediments to effective government response. Furthermore, by labelling non-followers of the country’s pandemic response, critiques of the government were lumped together as enemies of the government. Through moralizing the pandemic response, Duterte sowed polarization in the Philippines. Polarization and labelling critiques as enemies allowed Duterte to railroad broader efforts to consolidate power, such as the passing of the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act, which was enacted during the pandemic, and the closing of the ABS-CBN, the country’s then-largest broadcasting network. The former was a strategy aimed at stifling dissent from Philippine progressive groups, while the latter was part of a discourse about Duterte dismantling the “oligarchs”.
Gwen Garcia’s Tuob Populism
Gwen Garcia, the governor of Cebu in the Philippines, has been an equally controversial figure in the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but for a distinct and unique pandemic response strategy. Garcia’s pandemic response positioned herself as a representative of the people, particularly those who feel marginalised or ignored by the scientific community and the political establishment. Emblematic of this populist rhetoric is her endorsement of “tuob,” or steam inhalation, as a preventive and curative measure against COVID-19 through an official policy memorandum of the provincial government (Mayol, 2020a). Garcia encouraged government officials as well as Cebu citizens to use “tuob” as a preventive measure, highlighting her divergence from the national government’s science-based recommendations. This was met with criticism from medical professionals such as the Medical Association, who stated that there was no scientific evidence to support her claims (Mayol, 2020b).
In contrast to Duterte, Gwen used people’s dissatisfaction with government lockdowns to sow distrust in evidence-informed medical advice instead. Furthermore, in responding to critiques, Garica noted that Tuob worked from her personal experience and that people who cannot afford COVID-19 treatment should not be judged by using Tuob, referring to this ability to choose as “democratic” (Abatayo, 2020b). In one of her televised and livestream broadcasts to the people of Cebu, Garcia did not hold back in antagonising two doctors who posted comments against her Tuob policy (Abatayo, 2020a). This later prompted the trending of #NoToDoctorShaming in Twitter.
Implications to democratic erosion
In conclusion, the contrasts in the Philippine response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as exemplified by the cases of Duterte and Garcia, shed light on how populism’s fundamental ideas—people, elite, and general will—are framed and articulated in the face of a crisis. While both leaders claimed to represent the people, their framing of people in relation to the elites was distinct. Duterte utilized a paternalistic strategy and curbed civil liberties, claiming that he was acting with the public interest in mind. On the other hand, Garcia positioned herself as a sceptic of scientific advice and claimed to speak for the “common people”.
The two cases theoretically correspond to the claim of populism as a “thin ideology” (Stanley, 2008) where its fluidity in terms of its worldview is likely to change across contexts and it is used in tandem with other political strategies. In this case, it is the politico-militaristic scientific advice of Duterte and the pro-people and pro-traditional rhetoric of Garcia. In terms of democratic erosion, these cases highlight the power of political leadership to either strengthen or weaken public confidence in institutions, manage a health crisis, and advance the interests of the people they claim to represent. These cases highlight the danger of a thin conception of democracy, where on the level of procedure it exists through the election of populist leadership and hearing people’s interests, yet on the level of substance it entails (1) polarization, (2) the suppression of civil and political rights through labelling valid criticisms as “anti-government”, and (3) the erosion of public trust in political and bureaucratic establishments.
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