The Philippines’ autocratic nostalgia

Amid instability, demagogues and autocrats are in a strong position to capture the imagination of the disaffected.

Candidates attend prayer vigil in Paranaque
Vice presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Junior, left, presidential candidates, Vice President Jejomar Binay, second left, and Grace Poe, second right, in Paranaque, south of Manila [EPA]

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” Milan Kundera once wrote.

Three decades after the Philippines’ People Power Revolution, which deposed the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, a growing number of Filipinos are suffering from democratic fatigue.

Fundamental values such as civil liberties and human rights do not seem to have as much appeal as the widespread yearning for resolute, single-minded leaders.

Surveys suggest that Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, only son of the former dictator, is a major contender for vice-presidency. If successful, he is widely expected to make a run for the highest office in 2022.

Davao’s firebrand mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, who has made headlines around the world for highly controversial statements, is in an equally strong position to win the presidency.

Fed up with leadership incompetence, systemic corruption, and decades of empty campaign promises, the Filipino electorate is expressing openness to outside-the-box candidates, who promise a decisive, authoritarian brand of leadership.

The country will have to either establish a functioning democracy or risk sliding back into authoritarian rule.

Perils of change

Almost half a century ago, in his book Political Order in Changing Societies, Harvard University professor Samuel Huntington perspicaciously observed the link between political instability and rapid economic growth among developing countries.

After years of rapid economic growth and relative political stability, the Philippines is once again flirting with autocratic rule. With only days before elections, the Philippines presidential race has finally produced a clear frontrunner.

Periods of accelerated economic growth, Huntington explained, tend to create growing inequality, deep frustration among the aspirational classes, and an explosion in social mobilisation.

Amid instability and/or deepening social discontent, demagogues and autocratic personalities are in a strong position to capture the imagination of the disaffected sections of society.

Instability, therefore, is more common among rapidly growing countries than those suffering stagnation or destitute.

Huntington’s thesis has been validated by recent developments across emerging markets, which have been the toast of international investors in recent years.

India is part of the elite BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) club, while Indonesia has been touted as Asia’s new tiger economy. On its part, Peru has been among the best performing economies in Latin America.

Yet all of them have suffered from growing inequality, corruption, and social discontent, paving the way for the rise of tough-talking politicians who promise salvation.

Strongman contagion

Single-minded leaders have made huge strides across rapidly growing but semi-dysfunctional democracies.

In India, Narendra Modi, the strong-willed and controversial chief minister of the state of Gujarat, managed to become the Indian prime minister by promising efficient, centralised leadership after years of wobbly governance under the ruling Congress Party.

READ MORE: Rodrigo Duterte: the Donald Trump of the Philippines?

In Indonesia, the highly charismatic Joko Widodo, affectionately known as “Jokowi”, came close to losing the 2014 presidential elections to Prabowo Subianto, a Suharto-era general, who promised to bring back discipline and an authoritative brand of leadership to the country.

In Peru, meanwhile, Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a former dictator (Alberto Fujimori, currently in jail), is leading the current presidential race, raising concerns that she may free her father once in power.

Presidential candidate Mayor Rodrigo Duterte speaks in front of a communist rebel group New People's Army (NPA) flag [Reuters]Presidential candidate Mayor Rodrigo Duterte speaks in front of a communist rebel group New People’s Army (NPA) flag [Reuters]

As one of the first liberal democracies in East Asia, the Philippines, which has been among the fastest growing economies in the world, has followed a similar pattern. A more careful look at the country, however, reveals that recent growth has been far from inclusive, while political dynasties have been dominating the elected institutions.

The 40 richest families, for instance, accounted for 76 percent of newly created growth in recent years – the highest rate of growth-concentration in Asia.

Meanwhile, up to 70 percent of legislators hail from political dynasties, which control 73 out of 80 provinces. The Philippines, just like India, Indonesia, and Peru, is essentially an oligarchy disguised as democracy.

Oligarchy fatigue

After years of rapid economic growth and relative political stability, the Philippines is once again flirting with autocratic rule. With only days before the elections, the Philippines presidential race has finally produced a clear frontrunner.

The latest survey suggests that Mayor Duterte (33 percent) is pulling away from the rest of the pack, despite the supposed fallout from his highly controversial “rape joke“, with two reformist candidates, Interior Secretary Manuel Mar Roxas (22 percent) and Senator Grace Poe (21 percent), trailing far behind.

READ MORE: Why the Philippine ‘Punisher’ could be president

In the vice-presidential race, Leni Robredo is leading (30 percent), followed by Marcos (28 percent) in a more tightly contested race, but the latter is widely considered as the candidate to beat in the race for the second most powerful office.

Duterte, who brought about stability and discipline to the formerly conflict-ridden city of Davao, has promised, quite astonishingly, to end crime and corruption in the Philippines within his first three to six months in office.

Marcos, meanwhile, hasn’t been shy about glorifying his father’s legacy by claiming the Philippines would have turned into a mega Singapore if not for the 1986 People Power Revolution.

Both Duterte and Marcos are astutely tapping into the deep-seated frustration of certain sections of the society.


They are, for instance, very popular among the residents of Metro Manila, who have been suffering from the world’s worst traffic jam, lack of rule of law, and growing income inequality.

Promising more political autonomy for provincial regions, Duterte is now a leading candidate in the central and southern islands of Visayas and Mindanao.

The richest and most educated demographic classes are also largely supporting both strongmen candidates, who have promised to bring about a more effective form of governance to the country.

Of course, victory is far from assured for Duterte and Marcos, since the race could take an unexpected turn in the coming days, and it is far from clear whether the candidates aim to and will be capable of chipping away at the Philippines’ democratic institutions.

What is clear, however, is that the Filipino people are beginning to lose faith in the status quo as they increasingly embrace outside-the-box candidates.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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