Depriving the populist fire of its oxygen: Listening to the Philippine populist publics
By: Cleve Arguelles
In Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, fears of further democratic backsliding have dominated conversations among democracy advocates. To counter this backslide, civil society groups and democrats are experimenting with strategies on responding to a populist president who has openly attacked human rights norms and democratic institutions. Some are considering convicting Duterte in national and international courts, others are flirting with the idea of impeachment or another extra-constitutional people power revolt, and many more are eyeing electing opposition politicians in the 2019 midterm elections. Regardless of the strategy being considered, the consensus is there is a need to counter the threats of Duterte’s rule to Philippine democracy.
However, with Duterte’s enduring popularity with his supporters and the populist publics continuously seduced by undemocratic alternatives, ensuring that democracy is still the “only game in town” in the Philippines requires work beyond forming broad and strategic anti-populist, pro-democracy and rights coalition among politicians and parties or seeking international and national legal remedy. In this report, I argue that depriving the populist fire of its oxygen entails appealing to its own supporter base. The work required then of democracy advocates is to grasp the causes of popular discontent and to counter democratic erosion in a way that the populist publics can embrace. In short, there is a need to listen to the populist publics so democracy and human rights advocates can win their hearts and minds. This report summarizes a study that responded to this particular need.
Drawing from deep conversations with many of Duterte’s supporters in big slum communities in the cities of Caloocan, Manila, and Quezon for several months, this report makes three key contributions to our current thinking on how best we can respond to populist threats to Philippine democracy:
- What explains Duterte’s enduring popularity among his supporters even for those who come from communities victimized by the president’s war on drugs is his capacity to make visible, give voice, and effectively respond to the conditions of everyday misery long experienced by the populist publics. The populist publics see the war on drugs as providing temporary but much needed relief in their communities.
- Yet the support for the war on drugs is also increasingly becoming fragile. The populist publics themselves have started to express doubts on the effectiveness of the anti-drug campaign due to its negative impacts on their community relationships and its selective and biased targeting against the poor. However, while this speaks to their disappointment on the war on drugs, the admiration for the president remains.
- The disappointment with the war on drugs may serve as an opportunity for democracy and human rights advocates to appeal to Duterte’s supporters. However, their current initiatives do not resonate well with the populist publics because of its shortcomings in responding to their conditions and motivations. The report offers several lessons, drawn from conversations with them, on how best to engage them and make them embrace the democracy and human rights projects.
In this report, these three points are discussed comprehensively including the details of the methods, theoretical orientations, and other aspects of the study. This report also builds from previously published ILEAD “expert analysis” pieces that are also drawn from the findings of the study.
Download full paper here.