There is nothing new about populism. A 19th century term associated with democratic politics, populism has gained prominence with the failure of neoliberalism to address the rapid rise of inequalities in countries, regardless of state of economic development, the deepening injustices in the world, and intensifying armed conflict between and within countries. Ruling politicians and global leaders are seen as defenders of the elite, establishment, and iniquitous status quo.
These circumstances have triggered the upsurge of new populist politics with the election of Narendha Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Alexis Tsipras in Greece, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Nicolás Maduro Moros in Venezuela, Donald Trump in the US, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, to mention a few. This is apart from right-wing populist parties in a number of countries like One Nation in Australia, Alternative for Germany in Germany, United Kingdom Independence Party in the United Kingdom, and National Front in France among others.
Although the precise definition of populism as a concept or approach among academics and researchers remains debatable, there is an agreement on its key tenets: one, it claims to represent the interests, hopes, and desires of the “people,” and two, society is ruled and controlled by the economic, political, and cultural “elite” class which prevents the “people” from achieving their emancipation. Cutting across class, ethnic, national, and cultural lines, it is evident that the terms “people” and “elite” are subject to different interpretations and perspectives. Irrespective of perceptions, a common framework construes that “people” refers to “exploited” and “oppressed” while “elite” implies the “exploiter” and “oppressor.” Bryant and Moffitt argue that conceptions of “people” and “elite” for left-wing populists coalesce around socioeconomic grievances while right-wing populists focus on immigration control especially coming from the Muslim world.
Against this backdrop, the article tries to briefly examine the circumstances that give rise to populism in the Philippines and possible outcomes it may generate in relation to democratic politics and governance.
More than three (3) decades after the re-emergence of pre-martial law ‘democratic’ regime, Filipinos remain frustrated over the country’s national affairs – corruption in government worsened and unabated (Quah 2018), political power continue to be concentrated on the hands of the tiny elite and traditional politicians and their clans who regain power after the 1986 ‘People Power Revolution’ (Tadem and Tadem 2016, Teehankee 2018), and centralization of control and power at the national government in spite of laws that guarantee local autonomy to local government units (LGUs).
The failure of successive four (4) Presidents after Corazon Aquino’s term of office (1986-1992) to translate the post-authoritarian dream of the people to have a better socio-economic and political life into reality led to the demos to search for populist leaders – belonging to the ‘non-elite’ class or one who is able to identify oneself to the long-aspired interests and goals of the masses. Although populist leaders are very much part of the economic and political elite, they are able to project themselves as ‘anti-elite,’ ‘anti-establishment,’ ‘anti-conglomerates,’ ‘nationalist,’ and adept in commiserating with the hopes and desires of the poor.
While Thompson (2010) appraises the post-Corazon Aquino regime as a period where ‘reformism’ and ‘populism’ oscillate, only two (2) of the five (5) presidents were considered populists, namely: Joseph Estrada (1998-2001) and Rodrigo Duterte (2016 – present). Even if Estrada’s presidency was cut short by another mass mobilization, dubbed as ‘People Power 2,’ otherwise known as ‘EDSA Dos’ in January 2001, after he was pilloried for corruption, drinking, gambling, womanizing, and even for his poor command of the English language, mocked and ridiculed by the middle-upper-middle and elite class, his ascendancy to the presidency was not merely due to his extensive experience in local and national politics (34 years as a politician) but more importantly on the image he has projected as a movie actor defending the poor against injustices and abuses committed by the rich and powerful in the country. Notably, actors, actresses, singers, basketball players, boxers, and other celebrities do break political clans and dynasties in winning electoral posts as a consequence of their fame and attractiveness to the masses (Buendia 1993; Pertierra 2017).
As an actor for nearly 40 years, played lead roles as a ‘compassionate gangster’ in over 100 movies and produced more than 70 films, Estrada gained the endearment of the masses as the latter identify themselves with the struggles of the former as their ‘hero’ in movies against prejudices, inequalities, and discrimination exacted by filthy rich and corrupt politicians. He captured the minds and hearts of the poor as if he knows how the poor lived, laboured, suffered, and wrestled with everyday life (Hedman 2001). Estrada’s populism was expressed in his slogan Erap para sa mahirap (Erap for the poor) in the 1998 presidential election when he won by landslide, garnering almost 40% of the votes while the poor second got only 15%. Unfortunately, his unconstitutional ouster from power in 2001 was instigated by the Catholic Church, powerful political and business clans, middle-and upper-middle class CSOs, and former Presidents with the endorsement and instigation of the US.
Similar to Estrada’s case, Duterte clinched the presidency in 2016 with almost 40% of the votes while his closest rival, Mar Roxas (grandson of former Philippine president and old-rich powerful clan) simply got 23%. Riding the crest of wide-scale drug menace in the country, Duterte campaigned for zero criminal tolerance against drug lords, drug addicts, and criminal syndicates as what he did for 22 years in Davao City (situated in the southern island of Mindanao) as Mayor, and restored peace and order in the City. Likewise, he blamed the rich, elite, and oligarchs for the poverty of the people as well as traditional politicians for not doing enough to alleviate the destitute condition of the poor and marginalized sectors.
As the first president who came from a province of Mindanao, Duterte also crusades the substantial transfer of political power from the metropolitan-centre Manila to the regions and provinces through the reorganization of the country’s political structure from a unitary to federal state with the aim of extinguishing the age-old centralism of the national government in imperial Metro Manilla. Finally, comparable to Estrada who abhors foreign intervention, Duterte advances nationalism by detesting Western, specifically US, intrusion into domestic affairs. His inclination to ally with the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) and Russia to check the influence of the US and other Western powers over the country’s internal concerns has been hailed the Philippines’ ‘independent foreign policy.’
Key deeds and reception
In spite of some criticisms on Duterte’s brand of populism as ‘fascism’ and ‘return of national boss rule’ (Quimpo 2017) due to the massive ‘extra-judicial killings’ of drug addicts and drug lords and ‘human rights violations,’ Duterte maintains peoples’ adoration and admiration as a consequence of his key policies that impacted on the welfare of the poor, underprivileged, and marginalized and minority sectors.
In 2018 (two  years after Duterte’s election) poverty decreased from 23.3% in 2015 to 16.7%, alleviating 6.1 million out of absolute poverty. In the same year, the Moro Islamic Liberation Movement (MILF), one of the major Muslim secessionist movement in Mindanao, was bestowed with the right to rule their own ‘autonomous government’ with the ratification of Republic Act (RA) No. 11054, otherwise known as the “Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao” (OLBARMM) or simply the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL). The OLBARMM was subsequently approved through a plebiscite in 2019. This signifies the cessation of armed conflict between the MILF and government’s armed forces which have been in war for 42 years and under six (6) presidents.
In early 2019, the Universal Health Care (UHC) Act (RA 11223) was enacted which enables all Filipinos to have access to preventive, promotive, curative, rehabilitative and palliative care, with primary care services a priority. Disadvantaged Filipinos were likewise given the opportunity to earn their college/university education for free in state and local universities and colleges and allows subsidies for private higher education institutions through the country’s Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act which was signed into law in 2017.
In late 2020, new contracts were signed between the government and two (2) water utilities concessionaires that effectively rescinded oligarch’s ‘onerous provisions of previous contracts’ that placed peoples’ interests at a disadvantaged position. In the same year, Duterte caused the closure of one of the biggest broadcast corporations owned by an old oligarchy in the country due to non-payment of taxes as well as other violations related to its franchise. Finally, but not the least, people feel safer and securer with the peace and order situation notwithstanding the censure of neo-liberal local and international human rights watchers on Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ accusing him of directing state security forces to undertake ‘extra-judicial killings’ of suspected drug addicts and drug lords.
Though unproven, the country’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR) estimated in December 2018 that the number of drug-war killings could be as high as estimated the number of drug-war killings could be as high as 27,000. Despite the attacks of national and international civil society organizations (N/ICSOs) on the government’s policies on crime and syndicates, people endure their trust to the government. In mid-2020, Duterte’s administration had a 70.7% approval rating in handling peace and security situation of the country as well as almost 70% in fighting corruption.
In the December 2020 Pulse Asia Research survey, Duterte recorded a 91% approval a rating in its nationwide opinion poll, higher by four (4) percentage point that he secured in December 2019 and 91% trust rating which is eight (8) points higher on the same month a year ago. In another survey, conducted by Publicus Asia, Duterte obtained an overall approval rating of 70% in December 2020, an improvement from his 65% score in August 2020, and a ‘high trust’ rating of 62% compared to 55% four (4) months before. Among the top traits of Duterte that figured out from the survey were ‘love for the Philippines,’ ‘concern for Filipinos,’ and ‘responsible, pro-poor, and sincere/authentic.’
Conclusion: context and limits
Contextualizing the rise of populism in the Philippines, it is a reaction of the people on the failure of the democratic institutions to conclusively address the age-old problems of corruption, peace and order, elitism, poverty, and injustice. Keane (2009) describes populism as democracy’s autoimmune disease. It is not only an indicator of the breakdown of democracy but populism has the potential to prevent the emergence of democratic conventions. In Webb and Curato’s study (2020), they conclude that the lack of outrage on Duterte’s leadership is a response to the people’s frustration with over 30 years of liberal democratic regime which fail to resolve ‘unspeakable miseries’ as well as the mass reaction to the ‘democracy in the Philippines (which) has long been a legitimating discourse for anti-democratic practices of power’ (p. 63).
As populism offers a democratic renewal, it has its own limitations. The tendency of “masses” to look up to Duterte as the “messiah” who would deliver them out of poverty, injustices, extinguish oligarchic rule, and clean up the society with criminal syndicates would eventually erode the functions of the country’s democratic institutions especially the legislative and judicial bodies of government. Likewise, bestowing power to the executive branch government more than what is necessary would undermine accountability of executive officials and institutional checks on executive power essential for durable democracy. More importantly, populism fails to make use of civil society’s power in engendering effective, accountable, and transparent governance.
Enlarging the capacity of civil society enhances accountability of public officials, cultivates transparency on the provision of relevant and reliable information affecting public welfare, and strengthens predictability on the application of laws, regulations, and policies.
In the final analysis, modern governance is a matter of democratic rule where people’s sovereignty is respected rather than trampled upon. It is a question where power is ultimately held in the hands of the populace in so far as political leaders serve as representatives of the multitude, and political institutions operate as instruments in advancing popular will. In like manner, the extent of political leaders’ and institutions’ legitimacy is limited by people’s support.
*Rizal G. Buendia, PhD, Independent political analyst and consultant in Southeast Asian Politics and International Development based England and Wales, United Kingdom. He is the former Chair and Associate Professor of the Political Science Department, De La Salle University-Manila and Teaching Fellow in Politics at the Department of Politics and International Studies and Department of Development Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.
1. Fidel Ramos (1992-1998); Joseph Estrada (1998-2001); Gloria Macapagal (2001-2010); Benigno Aquino III (2010-2016); and Rodrigo Duterte (2016-present).
2. Estrada’s moniker is “Erap,” the reversed spelling of “pare,” Filipino slang for friend or buddy.
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