The Philippines’ Democratic ‘Backsliding’ in the Time of Duterte
The Philippines had been one of the thriving democracies in Asia until the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. Amidst weak governance, Duterte’s “strong-man” persona emboldened him to use the state’s coercive power that posed grave threats to the Philippines’ long-held democratic values and institutions. Current political developments point to democratic backsliding in the country, which has been legitimized by the state leadership through the very political institutions that ought to protect democracy. Particularly, the Duterte administration is notorious for its “lawfare” tactics by misusing the legal system and its doctrines to achieve its political goals and target its critics.
Since the start of Duterte’s infamous “war on drugs,” international organizations such as Human Rights Watch have condemned his administration for its human rights violations and extrajudicial killings. Without any regard for due process, Duterte warned drug dealers: “My order (to the police) is shoot to kill you. I don’t care about human rights.” He even praised the soaring body count as proof of his government’s success with an estimated 29,000 victims according to police records. His controversial anti-narcotics campaign essentially proves Duterte’s capacity to display lethal force against his people for the sake of a political project.
Opposition parties have also denounced Duterte for engaging in political persecution against his critics and the independent institutions they represent. Senator Leila de Lima is currently detained for fabricated links in the illegal drug trade after she initiated a Senate investigation into Duterte’s drug war. Moreover, his administration circumvented the country’s constitution when former Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, an impeachable official, was effectively unseated by mere violations in her appointment process. Dubbed as an “enemy” judge, she earned the ire of Duterte for voting against his controversial policies infringing on human rights. De Lima and Sereno’s political fates reveal the decline in institutional checks and balances meant to ensure justice and accountability.
Local press groups such as the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines regard Duterte as a threat to press freedom and freedom of speech. He has repeatedly harassed the online news site Rappler with tax evasion charges leading to its possible closure. Last June, Maria Ressa, Rappler’s chief executive officer, was charged with cyber libel over an article that had been published in 2012. Meanwhile, his allies in Philippine Congress shut down ABS-CBN after they rejected the media network’s franchise renewal, deemed as retaliation for not airing Duterte’s political ads during his presidential campaign. His administration is also accused of attacking his critics through troll armies, peddling fake news, and engaging in various forms of “manipulation to distort online information.” These attacks against press freedom deprive citizens of critical conversations about issues that matter, without which the press cannot act as a check on Duterte’s abuses of power, which are many.
Likewise, civil society groups have decried Duterte’s signing of the controversial anti-terrorism law, which uses a vague definition of terrorism, allows warrantless arrests, and permits the government to hold individuals for weeks without charge. He defended the necessity of the law as protection against threats from communist insurgents and Islamist groups in the southern Philippines. Yet critics argue that the Duterte administration is putting the country’s democracy at further risk as the law considers “inciting to commit terrorism through speeches, writings, proclamations…” as a crime. As Professor Ed Garcia, one of the framers of the 1987 Philippine constitution, explains: “Examples abound today on how flawed the implementation of the law can be, how weak our institutions, how our system lacks accountability and how the enforcers of the law at times are the first to break it.” The opposition believes that the law can be exploited to suppress freedom of speech and assembly under the pretext of counterterrorism, which will ultimately “terrorize our people and not the terrorists.”
The Duterte administration’s repeated exercise of lawfare against personalities and establishments that promote human rights, civil liberties, press freedom, and the rule of law has resulted in the escalating democratic backsliding in the Philippines. Its effectiveness ultimately damages the credibility of independent institutions and casts doubts on the efficacy and durability of the country’s democracy, and how sometimes it can be subject to compromises and threats depending on who is in power. This poses an adverse effect in the long term as it sets a precedent for future presidents to manipulate political and legal mechanisms, with the aim of implementing a political agenda or exacting personal vendetta at the expense of the country’s widely-held democratic values and traditions.
Filipinos who voted for Duterte may have pinned their hopes on quick solutions to embedded socio-economic ills, even at the cost of sacrificing their freedoms. But as they wake up to the reality of not only Duterte’s empty promises of salvation but also to a worsened state of existence (especially during this COVID-19 pandemic), more Filipinos are pushing back against his threats, slowly becoming more vigilant to safeguard Philippine democracy no matter how flawed and messy it is. The biggest challenge now for the nation is to ensure that the presidential elections in 2022 push through before its democracy backslides further as Duterte nears the end of his term. And the great expectation is that Filipinos who seek to defend the country’s democracy and what freedom they have left, will vote for a leader who will exactly do the same.