Volatile political culture a challenge to Philippines’ Duterte

By Ge Hongliang Source:Global Times Published: 2018/9/21 11:20:15

Assassinations and coups have been frequent in Philippine politics in the past few decades. Now the country is going through a situation that reflects instability with several 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 of 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 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 — such as the anti-narcotics and anti-corruption campaigns. Recently opposition criticism of Duterte has seemingly peaked and some remarks have even targeted his authority as president. 

Among all critics, the loudest has been Senator Antonio Trillanes, who has been mentioned by name by Duterte several times. Some even speculate that Trillanes is among those conspiring to overthrow Duterte. The 47-year-old careerist, a former naval officer, was behind two 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" 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 to become a decisive factor for future development of 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 ever crisis Duterte faces since he took office is posed jointly by the opposition and the aforesaid military forces. 

The Philippines currently 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 is 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 at political tradition when compared to traditional families in Manila, such as the Aquino family. 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. Although he has kept campaigning promises like fighting against narcotics and corruption while maintaining independence in foreign relations, and therefore won high approval rating among the public, 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, which has become the point of contention between him and the opposition. Hence, though the coup has been defeated, crises lying in front of Duterte can hardly be completely resolved. 

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

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