President Rodrigo Duterte emerged from the mid-term elections, two weeks ago, as the dominant force in Philippine politics, wiping out potential opposition in the Senate and emerging triumphant across all levels of government. Right-
wing populism has succeeded spectacularly, Duterte-style, in the Philippines. Duterte’s poll support in the public polls is running at over 70 per cent. That’s just the Philippines for you.
But is it?
In its swing to right-wing populism the Philippines is hardly exceptional. In places as diverse as Europe, India and Australia, electorates have in the past few weeks delivered decisive votes against the centre.
Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party swept back to power in a landslide, confounding earlier predictions that they would struggle to cobble together a new coalition. In Australia, the conservative Liberal–National Party coalition government held onto power in an election that nobody expected them to win, in part through tactical alignment with the populist right. In the European elections a week ago, the destructionist right surged in the United Kingdom, France and Italy, a victory only slightly qualified by a swing to the Greens elsewhere. In the United States, the odds of President Trump winning re-election in 2020 — once considered a long-shot, given the scandal and chaos that’s engulfed his administration in Washington — have dramatically shortened.
‘Right-wing populism struggles to govern effectively, but it clearly has a durable political appeal’, Ross Douthatsuggested in a piece that described a ‘global fade of liberalism.’
There are virtually no analysts that would connect Mr Morrison’s return to government in Australia with Mr Duterte’s recent triumph in the Philippines or that of Mr Farage, Ms Le Pen and others in Europe. But as historian Henry Reynolds suggests, the view from outside helps us see local politics from a global perspective. Deeply rooted institutions, stable party systems and entrenched democratic habits, he says, lull us into thinking that we are immune from what is happening in other parts of the world. That calls for reconsideration. The unexpected Coalition victory in Australia did have similarities with Trump’s triumph and the Brexit result. The signature slogans that won the day in Australia introduced the same fear of aliens as did Farage’s ‘threatening caravan of unwanted refugees’. All three draw on the deep currents of nationalism.
The most telling feature of the political scene in Australia, Reynolds reckons, was the growing influence of the radical right parties and their embrace, albeit furtively, by both the conservative Liberal and National parties. Brought in from the fringe, they were blessed with mainstream recognition and respectability. In the Australian electoral system, the preference deal with radical right minority parties helped return the government with a comfortable majority. Between them, far right parties in the crucial state of Queensland achieved 14 per cent of the total vote and delivered it squarely to the centre-right. This is within reach of the vote across Europe for far right parties but achieved in Australia, as Reynolds notes, with little notice and seemingly less concern.
Many would claim that there’s a great deal separating nationalist rulers like Trump, Duterte and Modi, or Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. But the blood coursing through their political veins may be of a similar type that transfuses readily to its contemporary hosts around the world.
‘The populist art of governance is based on nationalism (often with racist overtones), on hijacking the state for the ends of partisan loyalists and, less obviously, on weaponising the economy to secure political power: a combination of culture war, patronage and mass clientelism’, writes philosopher Jan Werner Müller. And that does sound like the most popular brand of politics we observe in many places around the world today.
Meanwhile in the Philippines, Mr Duterte is set to deepen his grip on all the institutions that shape political power.
Paul Hutchcroft explains in this week’s lead essay: ‘All three branches of government are now controlled by the President. The Philippine House, ever hungry for the patronage dispensed by the executive branch, is almost always controlled by the Palace. The critical development is the evisceration of the Supreme Court’s independence since the 2018 removal of a Chief Justice critical of Duterte (in a manoeuvre widely viewed as extra-constitutional)’.
It was the Senate, seen as the last bastion of independence against Duterte, in which the liberal –centrists (the ‘straight eight’) were so thoroughly routed. The Senate is now dominated by Duterte’s allies. ‘Only four of the ongoing members of the upper house are consistent opponents of the regime — and the senator boldest in her denunciations of the President has been detained since early 2017’.
The 15-member Supreme Court, with chief justice Maria Sereno ousted, has seen nine Duterte appointments so far and, later this year, relatively rare Supreme Court retirements will give Duterte the gift of an additional five appointments. These changes will provide ‘judicial’ backing to Duterte’s martial law in Mindanao, and othercontroversial Duterte investment projects.
Duterte’s also installed Benjamin Diokno as Governor of Bankgo Sentral ng Pilipinas, the central bank. Previously Duterte’s budget secretary, Diokno unusually leap frogged three central bank deputy governors to get the top bank job. Diokno’s appointment is widely seen as a politically motivated assault on the central bank’s independence.
Duterte’s capture of political power may not be quite as complete as it at first appears. The ‘supermajority of twenty senators’ overstates bedrock support and others are likely to break ranks as the 2022 presidential race begins to loom. Executive power may also wane as the power of the presidency traditionally does, given the single six-year term limit, unless Duterte positions his daughter Sara for succession, or upends the constitution and goes for another term.
But Duterte’s present control over all arms of government, as Hutchcroft says, will certainly make it difficult for him to dodge, artful dodger though he is, responsibility for anything that now goes wrong.
The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.