This is an attempt to frame the struggle confronting democratic forces in the Philippines today. I argue that the constituency for the repudiation of Rodrigo Duterte and his excesses is greater than we might suppose.
Today’s column is the 50th this year. (I missed two deadlines, once in January and a second time in April; I also switched days with Justice Carpio the second week of June—an unusual, unlikely-to-be-repeated circumstance.) Unfortunately, today’s column is also the 14th this year that Inquirer.net, which I used to serve as editor in chief, declined to run—even though it was published (on December 29, 2020) in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, carried on Inquirer Mobile, and reproduced in INQ Plus.
We have lost our way. Here’s more proof, if we needed it: The president inadvertently revealed that some officials of the government (including apparently himself) and some members of the military have been secretly injected with a vaccine against Covid-19. The Food and Drug Administration said this was illegal, since it had not yet approved any vaccine for use in the country, even for so-called clinical trials. The Army chief confirmed that soldiers had been vaccinated, but the Armed Forces spokesman denied any knowledge of it. And the presidential spokesperson defended the whole shady deal by lying to the public.
This is an extraordinary screw-up: It has macro consequences, but in itself it is a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the Duterte regime. Officials themselves doing illegal acts—and not getting sanctioned for it. Society divided into “us” (in on the secret, inside the circle) and “them” (everyone else, to whom the law, in all its harshness, applies). The pandemic mishandled, with public security prioritized over public health, and soldiers and policemen over medical frontliners. The duty to communicate to the public unmet, a failure made worse through mendacious disinformation. China apparently and always preferred (in this case, the likely vaccine used was the still-untested, not-yet-approved, transparency-challenged vaccine candidate from Sinopharm), even against the national interest. Lives recklessly risked and disregarded. Not least, an entire government intimidated by a violent, popular president.
President Duterte promised change, and it has been clear since late 2016 that change is here. My first attempt at a summary, written in November of that year, identified “three deeply unsettling ways” in which change has come: The normalization of the killing spree by the police, in prosecuting the President’s so-called war on drugs; the pivot to China, which now determines many government policies (including the health department’s fateful decision not to impose a travel ban on Chinese flights at the start of the pandemic); and the rehabilitation of the Marcoses, an unwritten policy that has justified legal and moral breaches everywhere: burial of the dictator’s remains at the heroes’ cemetery, refusal of the national police chief to arrest Imelda Marcos after the anti-graft court found her guilty, Imee Marcos’ attempt (fortunately ferreted out) to kneecap the 2022 elections.
It has only gotten worse since. In March 2018, I wrote that “we see ourselves, largely, as a nation of martyrs. President Duterte’s brand of politics and patriotism, however, is remaking the Filipino character; by the time he’s done, we will be a country of killers.”
Do we still recognize our country? “For better or for worse, these virtues are what define us, to ourselves, as Filipinos. Nietzsche would not have approved—and I think that, deep down, if we ask President Duterte himself, away from the microphone or the crowd, he will agree that this is an inferior constitution: We can be better than this. But unfortunately for us, his alternative is to offer a culture based on the killer instinct: Bully the weak, curry favor with the strong, insult the critic, make allowances for the rich and connected, kill the poor.”
And only last October, I joined a forum where I spoke about Philippine democracy’s existential crisis. “But none of [the other post-Marcos administrations] could be said to have met all four of the Levitsky/Ziblatt indicators of authoritarian conduct: a weak commitment to or a rejection of democratic rules, denial of the legitimacy of the opposition, a toleration or even an encouragement of the use of violence, and a readiness to cut down on civil liberties of critics and opponents. President Duterte checks all boxes.”
He does. “The Duterte regime is unlike the last five; to treat it as though the unique difficulties it creates—an undeclared war on the poor, resulting in the deaths of thousands; a persistent demonization of the opposition, imprisoning its leaders or ousting them from office or harassing them with made-up charges; a relentless attack on the press, and so on—were like the usual controversies that marked the first five post-Edsa administrations is to normalize the death of democracy.”
I am mindful that we have suffered through tragedy, survived humiliation and horror, in our history, even at the hands of fellow Filipinos; like other Filipinos, I carry the wounds of our colonial past (and there must still be damage I am barely aware of). But I believe that it is possible to speak of a Philippine nation since the emergence of a national consciousness in the late 19th century, and that by and large our leaders have seen themselves as continuing in that tradition.
But under President Duterte we have lost our way; we have lost our heroes’ sense of what it means to be Filipino.
We need to return to our true selves: a national “pagbabalik-loob.” We need to return home: a collective “pagbabalik-bayan.”
This is not “balik sa dati” (a return to the old ways) or “balik sa nakasanayan” (a return to the familiar), or even “balik sa normal.” Rather, this is “balik sa tama” (a return to the good). This is “balik sa tunay” (a return to the real).
The true scope of the opposition to what President Duterte is doing to the Philippines is not limited to the political; the only way the political opposition can do its part to take our country back is to welcome and work with all those who want to return home.