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The Philippines’ counterrevolution from above - New Mandala

The midterm election in the Philippines last May was a clear victory for President Rodrigo Duterte. The failure of opposition candidates to get a seat in the Senate meant that the President has gained a stronghold in the country’s legislative chamber, which further consolidates his power.

This development affirms the recent forecast by Varieties of Democracy which places the Philippines as one of the most at-risk countries in backsliding to autocracy in the next two years. Walden Bello refers to this as a counterrevolution or attempts of regressive forces to overturn a liberal democratic establishment. In practice, this means a continuity of repressive policies that undermine key state institutions as well as an intensified crackdown against dissent, which has heightened in the past year, especially against critical activists and journalists that continue to struggle against the ever-worsening authoritarian turn.

An alienated electorate bolstered this revolt, effectively negating the promises of the 1986 People Power Revolution that ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Last month’s midterm election could be viewed as an extension of Duterte’s counterrevolutionary agenda. This is an agenda that has mobilised support from the people towards contentious political action through a populist anti-establishment rhetoric by fueling their fears and constructing a narrative of an alternative reactionary society.

Sustaining the counterrevolutionary agenda

Duterte successfully instrumentalised the resentment of the majority of Filipinos towards the previous establishment’s discourse on liberal democratic values since, according to Bello, they “simply could not relate to it owing to the overpowering reality of their powerlessness”. He further notes the “deadly combination of elite monopoly of the electoral system, uncontrolled corruption, the continuing concentration of wealth [and] neoliberal economic policies” as factors that resulted to the creation of a political opportunity for both Duterte’s allies in the ruling elite as well as his base to campaign for an autocratic leadership that eventually led to his rise. The President offered an alternative discourse—a mix of despotism and machismo—that was deemed as a breath of fresh air as his audience felt freed from the perceived political climate of hypocrisy.

The counterrevolutionary venture is not only buoyed by the overwhelming support of the electorate towards the Duterte regime, consequently giving him a license to further pursue his reactionary project, but also by the current administration’s compliance with the interests of the country’s political elite—which has oligarchised the Philippines in the aftermath of the People Power revolts—and the maintenance of neoliberal policies, which have been legitimised through the dominance of the oligarchs over the public sphere. This kind of hegemony has in effect promoted an atmosphere that has fuelled discontent towards democratic institutions, opening a space for authoritarian forces to manage sources of resentments in society by shifting the blame to opposition figures and voiceless scapegoats, such as those who were massacred by his bloody “war on drugs”.

Related Why so serious: the limits of liberal democracy in the Philippines

Populism has left liberal democracy on the defensive. Liberals might think to adopt elements of Duterte's populist idiom.

This dominance can also be seen in their influence over the Philippine judiciary, a critical actor in facilitating regime legitimacy. Indeed, the first three years of the Duterte presidency is characterised by the executive’s attempt to control this branch of government, which reached a turning point with the 2018 ouster of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno (an outspoken critic of the President) by her own colleagues, who have been exposed to be loyalists of the President. This move has thus strengthened the notion of the courts as having the function of crippling political opposition and implementing controversial policies, such as extending martial law in Mindanao.

All this affirms that the counterrevolution is indeed from above, since it is this oligarchy that imposes major, detrimental policies upon the population; an ongoing top-down insurgency aimed at overruling the previous liberal democratic regime. Duterte did try to recruit grassroots support for his autocratic agenda in 2017 when he called for mass demonstrations to support his declaration of a “revolutionary government” to hasten his desires for constitutional reform. But this did not push through as the attempted mobilisation proved that the administration lacked the capacity to assemble a critical mass that aggressively rallies for his policies. This result has led Duterte to make use of his influence over Congress, which is now spearheading this project first under the leadership of Duterte’s close ally Pantaleon Alvarez, and then disgraced former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The battle for speakership in the eighteenth congress is indeed worth monitoring.

With the strongman already in control of the judiciary and boosting his allies in both the House and Senate thanks to the midterm election results, a breakthrough in the advancement of his agenda is only a matter of time.

Strengthening civil society’s response

Countering the country’s counterrevolution will require the revitalised involvement of progressive groups and social movements. These forces of opposition must come out under a unified front and provide a visionary alternative. This includes, for instance, empowering those directly affected by Duterte’s reactionary policies to stand up and make use of existing entities like the courts to exert a kind of counter-pressure against state abuse. This necessitates an invigorated civil society capable of making these channels accessible to the people and ensuring their agency in exercising collective action.

At the electoral level, this means that leftwing groups must reconsider how they pursue “tactical alliances”, especially when they involve established traditional politicians with dubious track records, such as those from notorious political dynasties. Such practices simply force them to compromise key principles and scale down any credible campaign for transformative reforms. Moreover, since such coalitions simply enable patronage politics, they make progressive groups complicit in reinforcing the flawed status quo and it difficult for them to offer a genuine alternative.

Considering that the midterms did not only see the failure of the liberal opposition but also saw massive losses for the social democratic and militant left, the strategy of forming a genuine principled opposition must be prioritised. And this starts with supporting candidates with authentic credentials. The unprecedented electoral alliance of labor advocates for last month’s senate race was a good example of a step in the right direction, albeit unsuccessful.

But elections can only do so much. Advocating for structural changes must be reinforced by a broader and empowered movement of citizens and civil society. These advancements must be struggled out at the local level and in the “parliament of the streets”, a vital space that should be reclaimed and defended by setting a more dynamic agenda that both rejects the ongoing regressive project of the current administration and acknowledges the complicity of the previous liberal-democratic regime in paving the way towards this tyrannical trend. The limits of this include overcoming the challenge of mobilising certain sectors of society amid strong fears of retaliation from the state, on top of the fact that this will probably be a gradual process. But this task is nevertheless long overdue. Waiting for another three years might be too late.

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