A new strongman in the Philippines

During his election campaign, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines was often > compared to Donald Trump. Like the Republican Party’s presumptive candidate, Mr. Duterte ran a divisive, anti-establishment campaign built around a strongman image. His contempt for law, threats to “shut down Congress” and pledge to send the army and the police to kill criminals had all revived memories of Ferdinand Marcos’s brutal dictatorship, brought to an end by a “revolution” in 1986. Mr. Duterte’s victory in the presidential elections by a clear margin, has thrown the future of the Philippines into uncertainty. The country’s political elite are partly responsible for the triumph of his brand of politics. Though outgoing President Benigno Aquino is hailed as a champion of economic reforms, the high growth barely trickled down to the poor. Despite the economy clocking an average annual growth rate of 6.3 per cent between 2010 and 2015, the percentage of Filipinos living below the national poverty line in 2015 stood at 26.3, almost the same as in 2009. Infrastructure is poor and corruption is persistent. The revolution that brought the Marcos era to an end has, over the years, ossified into oligarchic rule, with a few political dynasties pulling the strings. Mr. Duterte, known for his crackdown on crime in Davao as the city’s Mayor, presented himself as an alternative to the oligarchs in Manila. His populism and showmanship helped rally the electorate to his side.

The race to the presidency from the office of a city Mayor was indeed tough. But ruling a country of 100 million people that faces enormous challenges is going to be harder. Mr. Duterte lacks experience in national politics and support among the legislators. If he turns dictatorial, as Marcos did, he risks a mass rebellion. Those who voted him to power could easily turn against him. If Mr. Duterte is serious about implementing reforms to spread growth beyond Manila, he will require the help of the very legislators he antagonised during the campaign. He should tread cautiously because the established parties that control Congress can make his job more difficult. Two of Mr. Aquino’s immediate predecessors faced impeachment charges — one had to resign and the other was jailed after her term was over. Geopolitically, Mr. Duterte’s election comes at a crucial moment. The Philippines and China are in a stand-off over claims in the South China Sea. Mr. Duterte’s brash comments on other countries, including regional allies, seem to point to a lack of diplomatic equanimity needed to grapple with complex geopolitical issues. These challenges and weaknesses don’t guarantee his failure as President. But he would do better if he toned down the rhetoric, adopted a more conciliatory approach in order to buy peace with political rivals, and pursued an inclusive, growth-centric approach.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 1:05:24 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/A-new-strongman-in-the-Philippines/article14321174.ece

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