Duterte offers authoritarianism as Philippine panacea

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By Karl Malakunas, AFP

MANILA — Three turbulent decades after the Philippines shed dictatorship, President Rodrigo Duterte is offering a return to authoritarian rule as a solution to all the problems democracy has failed to fix. In a series of recent speeches, Duterte has repeatedly said martial law may be needed to save his nation of 100 million people from descending into drug, crime and terrorism-induced anarchy. Duterte’s warnings echo back to dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was toppled in a 1986 “People Power” revolution, and are placing intense scrutiny on the democratic institutions that have been slowly rebuilt since then. “I think the situation today is the closest we’ve been to an authoritarian form of government in 30 years,” Jose Manuel Diokno, dean of law at Manila’s De la Salle University and one of the nation’s leading human rights lawyers, told AFP. “There are so many parallels between what’s happening today and what happened before (during the Marcos dictatorship).” Diokno said one commonality was a climate of fear, created partly by Duterte’s controversial drug war that has claimed thousands of lives since he took office nine months ago. “The situation today is similar to the Marcos period in the sense that both are fueled by the barrel of the gun,” he said. Marcos justified his authoritarian rule by what he said was the threat of communism, while Duterte is doing the same based on drugs and criminality, according to Diokno. Diokno said some relatives of those killed by police and unknown vigilantes feared retribution if they complained, while intimidation tactics were being used against dissenters.

Nevertheless, like U.S. President Donald Trump and other populist leaders around the world who are posing challenges for democracy, Duterte is operating atop a solid base of support. Many Filipinos have cheered his drug war and believe he is the strongman needed to radically change a deeply corrupt political system that has created one of Asia’s biggest rich-poor divides.

Stress Tests Duterte intends to fundamentally reshape Philippine democracy by changing the constitution to create a federal and parliamentary system. He has promoted it as a way to end the injustices served out by “Imperial Manila”, portraying the capital as home to corrupt elites — in much the same way that Trump has described Washington as a “swamp” that must be drained.