Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ended 2017 on a self-satisfied note, openly contemplating and promoting his successor after his six-year term ends in 2022.
In the country’s tempestuous and often volatile politics, where leaders have historically been overthrown in angry street protests, only a confident and powerful president would talk about succession so early in his tenure.
In less than two years, Duterte has chipped away at the country’s democratic institutions with temerity and contempt. He has not only exposed the hollow nature of Philippine democracy, but also placed the country on what seems to be an ineluctable path towards full-blown authoritarian rule.
Duterte’s audacity to challenge the country’s traditional pillars of power stems largely from his strong and enduring popularity. Pulse Asia, a local pollster, showed in its latest survey that as many as 80% of Filipinos approve of his performance.
The Filipino public also seems to be warming to the idea of one-man rule. According to a recent Pew Survey, half of Filipinos support an authoritarian leader who exercises supremacy over other branches of government with limited accountability.
Scholarly research also shows that a majority of Filipinos prefer a decisive leader who doesn’t bother with electoral competition, so long as he or she delivers basic public services and ensures law and order.
This largely explains why Duterte’s repeated threats to declare nationwide martial law, establish a “revolutionary government”, or abolish the legislature hasn’t solicited a strong public backlash.
Crucially, he can also count on the support of like-minded popular figures, including world boxing champion cum senator Manny Pacquiao, who Duterte endorsed as “president to be” at the pugilist’s December 16 birthday celebration, to fulfill his vision of authoritarian rule.
As veteran Filipino journalist Vergel Santos recently warned of the slide towards authoritarianism, “If we’re not already there, we’re looking right down on it.”
On the surface, the Philippines is still a largely free and democratic nation. Mainstream media is persistently full of critical coverage of Duterte’s presidency and those around him, including his family members.
On December 25 Duterte’s eldest son, Paolo Duterte, resigned his post as vice mayor of Davao after a public spat over social media with his teenage daughter, Isabelle, in which the latter implied he had beat her.
Isabelle was earlier the subject of controversy when she used the presidential palace, known as Malacanang, as a backdrop for a high-fashion photo shoot.
The media responded by emphasizing the decadent and “Imeldific” nature (reference to former First Lady Imelda Macros’ extravagant life style) of the whole affair, openly questioning the integrity of the Duterte family which relishes its carefully constructed image as folksy populists.
Paolo’s resignation also comes amid accusations heard by the Senate he has ties to Chinese drug smugglers. Duterte, in take-no-prisoners fashion, said he would have his son killed if the allegations were proven true.
“I told [Paolo], ‘My order is to kill you if you are caught,” Duterte said according to press reports. “And I will protect the police who kill you if it is true.” Paolo Duterte has consistently denied the unproven allegations.
Even with that scrutiny, independent voices are being gradually silenced across state institutions and beyond.
Journalists brave enough to try to expose corruption within the Duterte family have received death threats or, in milder cases, systematic harassment by the president’s well-oiled cyber army of trolls and celebrity propagandists.
The tough-talking leader has threatened to shut down the country’s leading newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, media broadcasting conglomerate ABS-CBN, and social media-based news outlet Rappler based on what independent observers see as dubious accusations and charges aimed ultimately at silencing criticism.
With his supermajority in the legislature and virtual control of the Supreme Court packed with his loyalists, Duterte has targeted with a vengeance the few remaining checks and balances on his rule.
For instance, Duterte has recently threatened Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Ombudswoman Conchita Carpio-Morales with impeachment.
Leading critics such as Senator Leila de Lima, who is currently in jail based on what human rights groups believe are politically-motivated drug charges, have already been silenced.
Independent senators such as Risa Hontiveros, who has led investigations into extrajudicial killings by the Philippine National Police as part of Duterte’s lethal drug war, could also face trumped up charges by what is widely viewed as a politicized Department of Justice.
Vice-President Leni Robredo, another key opposition leader, has been completely sidelined from government functions since she has no mandated office beyond the prerogative of the president.
She has been at the receiving end of non-stop negative propaganda by Duterte supporters, who portray her as a stooge of former President Benigno Aquino III’s liberal administration.
The squelching of independent voices and co-optation of democratic institutions has gone hand-in-hand with the empowerment of the Marcos clan, which has been among the president’s key allies.
Duterte has openly supported former Senator Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr, who is challenging his narrow defeat at last year’s vice-presidential race at the Duterte-leaning Supreme Court.
The Filipino leader has also controversially moved ahead with abolishing a government agency tasked with recovering the Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth, while deciding to bury the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Cemetery of National Heroes last year.
2017 was by all accounts a dark one for Philippine democracy. But as Duterte moves to consolidate a strongman personality cult in the image of ex-dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the Filipino public is seemingly cheering him along.