Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How Populism at Home Can Detract from International Image: a Case of Duterte's Philippines

It is no understatement to say that the Philippines is going through some interesting times with the inauguration of a new president.  Sticking to his words on the campaign trial, President Duterte immediately set out to wage a low-intensity war against distributors and users of illegal drugs.  While the exact casualty figures from the campaign is up for debate, there is definitive evidence that police forces tasked with the "cleanup" have indeed shot and killed quite a few people in the process.  The president, in rather dubious legal grounds, have promised protection for officers who have resorted to "shoot first, ask later" methodologies.

Obviously, such turn of events have not gone down well with liberal interventionist policies of the US and the Western world in general.  And the reason for the opposition is not hard to understand.  By giving armed officers a free hand to "shoot and kill" suspected drug dealers, for instance, Duterte has in reality stripped drug dealers of any right to defend themselves in the court of law, to prove either their innocence, or at the very least, the reason that they should be given sentences less than automatic death sentences on the street, by the barrel of guns of some trigger-happy police officers.

Unsurprisingly, Duterte has not taken kindly to the level of opposition shown by foreign leaders to his drug campaigns.  True to his outspoken self, he has so far lashed back in every way from threatening to quit to the United Nations to cursing the American president in vulgar languages.  By displaying his defiance toward Western criticism, Duterte has shown that he does not share the West's beliefs in human rights as something enshrined in a country's political and legal institutions.  By emphasizing that "the Philippines is an independent country, not an American colony," Duterte implies that the country is not in the "Western ideological camp."

What is perhaps much more surprising is the level of popular support Duterte has received from the Filipino, and even Southeast Asian, public on his aggressive stance.  Sure, in some ways, the silence of Duterte critics can partly be attributed to the social conformist culture of the country, but that still does not explain why people actively commented on social media to defend Duterte's preference for extrajudicial killings as the right move for the country to solve its street-level drug problems.  It is almost as if the people is giving the president a clear mandate to ignore the country's laws and bureaucracies to solve a problem.

Looking back at recent Philippine history, however, may offer a glimpse of rationale behind the virulent popular support.  In much of the same way as Duterte did in the recent presidential election, Marcos swept into office decades ago with the mandate to prop up a country supposedly falling apart from misgovernance.  Despite rampant corruption and systemic wrecking of the country's economic structure, Marcos still manage to be remembered fondly by some Filipinos as provider of "efficiency."  Today many Filipinos still seem to yearn for the same thing as they look to Duterte.

Moreover, with "Filipino pride" as an important component of the Filipino psyche, Duterte, with his vocal rashness, have for once in many moons managed to provide international attention on the country as a bastion of strength and action, even if it might some laws are violated.  For a nation that export large numbers of low-pay, easily abused migrants to various wealthy international destinations, to be recognized as such through the words and deeds of their leader may be more significant than people from other cultural contexts can realistically fathom.

But of course, the militant populism whipped up by Duterte will have their negative consequences in the long term.  As Africa demonstrates, the use of vigilante justice will only weaken the rule of law.  The result is increased suspicion by foreign entities that the method by which Duterte handle drugs can easily be replicated to deal with a plethora of other issues, particularly when it pertains to conducting certain businesses that may superficially seem to be detrimental to the interest of the Filipino state or people.  Outwardly using "opposition to illiberalism" as an excuse, many Western firms may reduce involvement in the Philippines.

Furthermore, and maybe more important than detrimental economic consequences, the long-term political fallout will isolate Philippines in an undesirable way.  International diplomacy is, above anything else, based on presence of shared values and interests between and among states.  Without finding common grounds, it is difficult for cooperation to move forward.  Duterte's devil-may-care attitude toward foreign criticism may sound arousing for the domestic audience, but to a foreign one, it is anything but.  Any international goodwill the country has gained since the South China Sea arbitration is now quickly being eroded, in a way that a Philippines, dependent on international diplomacy to push forward its claims, cannot afford.

No comments:

Post a Comment