Politics

100 Days in Dutertopia

What they've revealed about us as a nation.
ILLUSTRATOR Warren Espejo
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The most popular president in living memory has just passed his first milestone. What the first three months has revealed about Duterte as a leader, and about us as a nation, is truly frightening.

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How long must we go on being outraged? This is not a rhetorical question: being outraged is hard work. We wake up in the morning, check our social media feeds, check the news, read the comments sections. Our blood begins to boil. We feel rage, frustration, and helplessness. But the day’s work must be done, and so we put our feelings on the back burner and go about our business, until something else—the futility of sitting in traffic, the mendacity of the clerks at the post office, the indignity of being sideswiped by a black SUV bristling with bumper stickers declaring their love of guns and allegiance to the new president—reminds us that we now live in Dutertopia. If the Japanese have kaizen, the philosophy of continuous improvement, we have the opposite, whatever it is called: things just get worse every day.

The news is not good. At the top of the list are the extrajudicial killings, often abbreviated snazzily as “EJK,” which makes it sound harmless, like a medical condition. But to press a point, ours is a country without a death penalty, so there is no such thing as a judicial killing. These are murders, pure and simple. They continue, every day; many news outlets have been keeping a running tally. This, and other aspects of Mr. Duterte’s obsession with drugs and drug addicts in general, are chilling. He has said, during the State of the Nation address, no less, that methamphetamine addicts have shrunken brains and are beyond rehabilitation. Drug addicts, furthermore, are “contagious” and turn into pushers who get their friends hooked on drugs. Photos of overcrowded prisons have started to circulate, which further bolsters his solution: to simply kill them, like carriers of a plague.

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The news is not good. At the top of the list are the extrajudicial killings, often abbreviated snazzily as “EJK,” which makes it sound harmless, like a medical condition. These are murders, pure and simple. They continue, every day.

We tend to think that our friends think like us: that’s why they’re our friends, after all. So when intelligent, kind, generous people, with whom we have shared many meals and laughter, declare that they are not just okay with the new politics of violence, but that it’s good for the country, we can’t help but feel betrayed. It’s like discovering that they believe the world is flat. And then we begin to discover that more people than we think believe that this president is a great man, and that what he is doing is beneficial and the sight of a dead “drug lord” is a beautiful thing. This is the point at which we begin to wonder if we’re the only sane people left in the country, and whether the walls of the madhouse are to hold us in or keep the world outside.

This is the dark side of our people’s ability to quickly form collective movements; 30 years ago the empathetic euphoria took on a dictator, successfully, and was given the term “People Power.” It is the same ability to convince ourselves and others that gave a candidate, who won with less than 40 percent of the official vote, the mandate of a 91 percent trust rating in a survey done shortly after his proclamation.

And then we begin to discover that more people than we think believe that this president is a great man, and that what he is doing is beneficial and the sight of a dead “drug lord” is a beautiful thing. This is the point at which we begin to wonder if we’re the only sane people left in the country, and whether the walls of the madhouse are to hold us in or keep the world outside.

Even by the standards of a newly elected president, these are high numbers. The presidential communications team has had no hesitation in trumpeting these numbers to their advantage, nor in casting detractors as an #EnemyofChange. (The coming polling numbers in October is likely to bring a less buoyant vision, but the more ardent supporters can be somewhat selective in their choice of which facts to highlight.)

Since then, Mr. Duterte has parlayed his political capital into a public acceptance of his war on drugs; he has overcome formidable resistance both in government and in the populace to allow Marcos’s burial in the National Heroes’ Cemetery; and he’s begun a process of charter change that would break the Philippines up into self-governing states (i.e., federalism) and change the government to a parliamentary system, albeit one with an elected president. He has also goaded the military to try and come at him with a coup d’etat, threatened to impose Martial Law in response to a rebuke by the Supreme Court, and called the U.S. ambassador a putangina on public television.

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At a certain point all the handwringing eventually peters away, because our wrists are exhausted; all the keyboard warriors stop typing because their fingers are numb; all the voices of dissent stop shouting because there’s no one shouting with them.

Fewer people (than one would have thought) are disturbed by this. At a rally against the Marcos burial only a few thousand—reported by the New York Times as “hundreds”—showed up, an embarrassingly poor showing that further weakened the opposition. At a certain point all the handwringing eventually peters away, because our wrists are exhausted; all the keyboard warriors stop typing because their fingers are numb; all the voices of dissent stop shouting because there’s no one shouting with them.

This gradual acceptance of the status quo is a slow plummet to the bottom. Only automatons can go on without a break; only true zealots don’t stop to question themselves. We begin to wonder if popular wisdom has been right all along. Perhaps this really is what the country needs. Human rights are for sissies and the squeamish, and a purge is a necessary sacrifi ce to rid the country of the twin vices of drugs and corruption. We have been blind, so blind all along, to how China and the previous administration was turning this country into a narco-state. It’s probably just rival gangs offing one another, so even if it’s bloody it’ll be the good guys who are left standing. The US and other prim finger-wagging first world countries know nothing of the realities of our grinding poverty and the grim reality of drug use that have broken up families and turned good men into murderers.

This gradual acceptance of the status quo is a slow plummet to the bottom. Only automatons can go on without a break; only true zealots don’t stop to question themselves.

When frustration and futility turn to indifference, the self-justification starts to kick in. Look, Marcos’s body isn’t even a body, it’s just a wax figurine, and it’s all just symbolic, after all. Let it be done, so we can get on with our lives. Allow the president his personal obsession if he can deliver on his promises to instill the fear of God in the predatory government bureaux who make our lives hell. Maybe he’ll even succeed, and heaven knows, there is nothing to like about crystal meth. This is change worth pursuing. How wonderful, how blissful it feels to surrender, to stop fi ghting it, to accept the premises of Dutertopia. It feels, ironically, like letting morphine course through the body: no more anger, no more frustration, let daddy take care of things. He’s on your side and he’ll keep the bad people away.

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In a warped, oddball way, this is finally the idea-based politics that the Philippines has been lacking. We don’t actually have a divide between Democrat and Republican, between Liberal and Conservative, between far-right and socialist. Yes, our parties do have platforms, perfunctorily, but our election politics is largely personality-based. But the main fault line in our democracy is the polarization between people who believe in government institutions who operate within a system of checks and balances, and those who believe in a more efficient, autocratic, authoritarian system of government. And the failure of institutions during the previous administration has swung the pendulum toward authoritarianism.


They are unable to understand that opposition is an integral part of how running a country works, and that those who disagree are just as much patriots as them, and simply see a different path out of the woods.

To a certain extent I understand the supporters of Mr. Duterte. Most of them want the same things that I do: safe streets, trains that run on time, and a sense of sovereignty. They believe in the “Singapore model” of discipline, order, and hierarchical leadership. I could even come to an agreement with them on some points if only Mr. Duterte’s administration were not one of such grinding stupidity, and his tactics so bullying, and his most outspoken supporters so vile. They are unable to understand that opposition is an integral part of how running a country works, and that those who disagree are just as much patriots as them, and simply see a different path out of the woods.

Instead of debate and dialogue, disagreement and dissent are dealt with using the tactics of the schoolground bully: threats, sometimes carried out, of physical harm, rape, murder. Online, they engage in the worst possible behavior, swarming the feeds and accounts of their dissenters with ad hominem attacks; they use lies and half-truths to fuel their arguments, and they are impervious to considering opposing views. “So what are you going to do about it? Oh, are you going to cry? Go on, run to the Commission on Human Rights, run to the UN and hide behind their skirts.”

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But why would they act otherwise, when their hero employs these tactics himself and carries himself with sarcastic braggadocio and channels Hugo Chavez in his dealings with diplomats, when he lashes out at critics by calling out their personal lives. Worryingly, he has alienated the Philippines’ biggest strategic ally, the United States, not just by insulting their president, but forgoing important bilateral talks in a childish sulk. He has also lashed out at the UN and the EU for daring to criticize the effectiveness and methods of his drug war.

But why would they act otherwise, when their hero employs these tactics himself and carries himself with sarcastic braggadocio and channels Hugo Chavez in his dealings with diplomats, when he lashes out at critics by calling out their personal lives.

In every conflict it is worth looking for the humanity in one’s adversaries, and I would like to think that most of Mr. Duterte’s supporters are people who have the country’s best interests at heart, but see a different, darker, harsher form of government than the one I want. At the far end of the spectrum are the trolls and extremists, rumored to be paid to use social media to attack, but perhaps—and I’m honestly not sure which is worse—not paid, and simply hateful people dripping with vitriol and willing to stoop to the lowest depths of dirty trickery and foul language to keep dissenters in line. At the moment there is simply no communication going on between the factions of those who support the president and his administration, and those who are critical of it. To even dare raise objections gets one labeled as an “enemy of change,” and are punished by online shaming and harassment—and they are no less hurtful for being online.

For those who support the president and his methods, I must ask: Where is your moral compass? Where is your basic sense of decency and humanity? Do you believe that the end justifies the means? Because if so then I have news for you: This is not the story arc of a television show. There is no end in politics: it goes on and on and turns into history. The various means available to do things: the way we build a society, the way we disagree, the way we choose to solve problems; these are all we have.

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He is a bully and a narcissist; he has no regard for human life and basic morality; his obsession with the war on drugs precludes his involvement in other pressing internal and external matters that bore him and will be delegated to the incompetent or the corrupt; and he brings out the worst in both his supporters and his detractors. He is simply the wrong man for the job, and even his most fanatic devotees should pause for a moment and check in with their humanity at the most basic level.

Those of us who believe that government should be run as a set of institutions that collide because they must, and impose checks and balances against one another can very well see the merits of the opposing point of view that a single strong leader with a compliant government could work in certain circumstances, with the right person.

But Mr. Duterte is not that person. Even as he reaches his first 100 days, this is patently obvious. He is a bully and a narcissist; he has no regard for human life and basic morality; his obsession with the war on drugs precludes his involvement in other pressing internal and external matters that bore him and will be delegated to the incompetent or the corrupt; and he brings out the worst in both his supporters and his detractors. He is simply the wrong man for the job, and even his most fanatic devotees should pause for a moment and check in with their humanity at the most basic level.

Worryingly, while the outraged middle classes are busy being aghast at the incivility of it all, and fighting ideological battles about the Marcos burial, he has quietly been amassing more power for himself. His first executive order as president is a reorganization of the Executive Department that creates a narrow hierarchy with one of his closest aides at the top. He has proposed a tenfold increase in the budget of the Office of the President. He has also asked Congress to sign off on a fuller reorganization act of the various bureaux and departments of the government—an alarming proposition, given his alliances and intents. This has happened only four times in the past: 1935, 1946, 1972, and 1987; if you think about those dates closely you will understand the kind of sea change that is imminent. And not least of all, hovering over all of this, is his plan to move toward a federal and parliamentary system of government; again, I am open to the idea, but under different circumstances: this is not the right time, and this is not the right man.

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Worryingly, while the outraged middle classes are busy being aghast at the incivility of it all, and fighting ideological battles about the Marcos burial, he has quietly been amassing more power for himself.

The popularity of the president and the willingness of his supporters to abandon common sense and openness to debate and dissent has become a magnet for a power play among the political elite that will change the landscape of Philippine politics for generations. The most obvious is, of course, the move toward a dictatorship; this will not be opposed by the majority of the politicians as long as they have a seat at the table. The ousting of Leila de Lima as justice committee chairperson in the Senate proves that Mr. Duterte and the oligarchic coalition behind him have the numbers for it.

More importantly, he has if not the support, then at least the consent, of the people. Through a clever use of propaganda, fake news, appeals to emotion, distortion of facts, and simply making things too confusing for people to follow and understand, there is popular support for authoriarian rule. It is amazing how quickly things have moved: we are just approaching the new president’s first 100 days, and Dutertopia is already here. Was our democracy so weak, that it be so easily felled in one quick blow? Was our resentment at the elite so strong and so easily channeled? Are we so blind, so easily swayed by rhetoric of violence, so easily cowed, so quick to fall in line and obey?

Through a clever use of propaganda, fake news, appeals to emotion, distortion of facts, and simply making things too confusing for people to follow and understand, there is popular support for authoriarian rule.

How long, then, must we go on being outraged? How long before we act? We can take it lying down, or we can take it on our knees; either way, we’ll be screwed, just in a different way. The only way not to be is to be on our feet and fighting; but the opposition is scarce and scraggly, we don’t have the numbers, and we don’t have a leader behind whom we can rally. The safest recourse is to wait, and make feeble protests, the kind we make when someone else offers to pay for the bill.

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But the safest option might not be the best one, and even as a despot shows his true colors he is less and less easily unseated. We will grow less safe, our government less democratic, our country less civil.


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About The Author
Clinton Palanca
Clinton Palanca has won awards for his fiction and in 1998, came out with Landscapes, a book compiling his short stories and earlier works for children. Today, he ventures into food writing with his regular column on Inquirer Lifestyle, and with restaurant reviews for other publications.
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