Volatile political culture in Philippines tests Duterte

By Ge Hongliang Source:Global Times Published: 2018/9/28 19:13:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Assassinations and coups have been frequent in Philippine politics in the past few decades. Now the country is going through an unstable situation with local officials assassinated and a coup attempt crushed by President Rodrigo Duterte. The Philippine president recently made remarks on television about his anti-narcotics operations and anti-corruption campaigns as well as rumors about the coup.

Duterte is one of a few political strongmen to run the country since its independence. In fact, a possible coup is no news since he took office over two years ago. So it makes sense to say that he faces long-standing threats and challenges instead of temporary resistance.

Currently this strongman is experiencing the most dangerous period since he took office. And the dangers do not come from terrorist organizations or militants in the southern Philippines, but from the country's unique political culture.

Duterte has been resolute in words and deeds since he took office and the opposition has never stopped criticizing the government's policies including the anti-narcotics and anti-corruption campaigns. Opposition criticism of Duterte recently peaked and some remarks have even targeted his authority as president.

Among all critics, the loudest has been Senator Antonio Trillanes, mentioned several times by Duterte. Some even speculate that Trillanes is among those conspiring to overthrow Duterte. The 47-year-old careerist, a former naval officer, was behind failed coups in 2003 and 2007. Trillanes was then pardoned in 2010 and became Duterte's biggest opponent after the latter became president. To the senator, Duterte is a maverick "dictator" who "sells out" the national interests of the Philippines.

The special relationship rooted in complicated and intertwined links between the military and family-based political parties has all along been key to understanding Philippine politics. When the military's interest is threatened, special connections of this kind are probably a decisive factor in the country's political situation. In fact some of Duterte's policies, such as getting the Philippines estranged from its traditional ally the US while reaching out to other partners to realize all-round international cooperation in safeguarding military security, are opposed by pro-American forces in political circles. Such groups have influenced the military to push for cooperation with the US and a stronger US-Philippines alliance. Therefore the biggest crisis Duterte has faced since taking office is posed by the opposition and military forces.

The Philippines faces economic and social challenges as Duterte's administration enters its mid-term. The current government is now confronted with diverse and profound crises, which are also an outcome of another round of competition between family-based old and new political parties and other forces.

Duterte, through decades of strenuous efforts, has indeed earned prestige for his family in Davao, the third-largest city in the Philippines. However, his family is without doubt still quite young in political tradition when compared to the traditional families of Manila such as the Aquinos. After becoming president, Duterte has replicated his authoritarian style of ruling from Davao to Manila, strengthening the power of his family and the political party behind it at the cost of other traditional political families. Duterte has kept campaign promises like fighting narcotics and corruption while maintaining independent foreign relations. This won him high approval ratings with the public, but such measures have not been welcomed by these traditional political families.

Duterte amended the constitution and led a more widely influential federal reform in 2018 after his successful anti-terrorist crackdown in South Marawi. This has become a point of contention between him and the opposition. Although the coup was defeated, the future crises facing Duterte can hardly be completely resolved.

The author is director of the College of ASEAN Studies at Guangxi University for Nationalities and a research fellow with The Charhar Institute. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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