One of the most contentious points in navigating the terrain of contemporary Philippine politics is how we should approach the seeming polarization of the Filipino public space brought to the fore by Duterte’s unexpected ascent to power.
Entered into the fray by an assembly of yes-men and rabble-rousers, Arroyo stalwarts, and perhaps the Marcos’ deep, deep pockets, the Duterte administration has managed to cement itself in Malacanang. In the process, it has introduced a level of political dissonance previously unseen in recent years. With the almost unlimited power provided to him by his cohorts in the cabinet and the alliance in Congress that pledged allegiance to his—and his name alone. The administration rapidly turned itself into a social phenomenon–cracking open the country’s political space and turning it into their playground, or, perhaps, their own cesspool of greed and anomy.
Any leanings toward populism manifest in social crisis–real and fake. The Estrada administration filled its campaign rhetoric with promises as it attempted to reinvigorate the Philippine economy through deficit spending focused on public investment in agricultural modernization and rural infrastructure.
If this promise of sound public investment sounds familiar, it is best to take note that prior to Joseph Estrada’s election to the presidency in 1998, the Philippines was battered by the El Niño that crippled the country’s agricultural production until inflation played out at 9%. Besides this seemingly Keynesian maneuver to expand the domestic economy, the Estrada administration still continued with the privatization, deregulation and liberalization scheme of the Ramos administration that preceded it. The Estrada administration was also affected by the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
On top of this sat the economic meltdown caused by the 1997 East Asian Financial Crisis–led in part by the collapse of the East Asian Miracle Bubble. The Filipino people needed someone who could rewrite the traditional politico narrative. Estrada–from his supposedly lowly roots as a cinematic champion of the masses–fitted the script perfectly. Not that he came from the masses that loved him, and still do.
Crises play a significant role in the creation of the political sphere. They catalyse the transformation of classes into masses. As exhibited by the rise to power of both the Duterte and Estrada administrations, popular agenda vis-à-vis the rhetoric of bringing change gave them success in the electoral arena.
In the case of the 2016 Presidential Elections, the massive discontent over the policies of the exiting Aquino administration and its empty promise of “kung walang korap, walang mahirap (if there is no corruption, there will be no poverty)” that catapulted Duterte into power.
The summation of this massive discontent translated into the creation of populist movements. To right the wrongs of the previous administration, the Philippines “needed” a social Messiah in the form of Duterte. He was framed as a societal requirement–in Marcosian parlance, “iginuhit ng tadhana (dictated by fate).”
The symbols that make up his image–to quote Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, “lousy pa manumit (he dresses badly),” his apparently lowly provincial roots, and his expletive-laden-multilingual repertoire–painted Duterte as an anathema to Roxas’ attempt to portray “Mr. Palengke,” Poe’s calm demeanor, Binay’s Imperial Makati background, and Santiago’s intellectual acrobatics.
This image was the credo of his campaign, directed at changing the public’s opinion and perception. The accessibility of Duterte’s image spelled out his victory. While political images are most of the time just surface-level projections, his three years at the top with an opposition still in various degrees of disarray, proves the continuing effectivity of the Duterte phenomenon.
Lacking a clear-cut and well-defined political-economic program, populist regimes resort to a variety of mythologemes to prolong their own hold on power: 1) constructing grand narratives of social development and poverty alleviation; 2) pushing the blame for real and imagined social evils on others and; 3) creating larger than life narratives and personalities that can affect public opinion and keep the rest of the populace entertained.
An array of loyal social media lieutenants continuously reify and reconstruct these mythologemes, allowing the Duterte administration to sway opinion in their favor. Imagined or not, hordes of supporters line up the virtual space, echoing whatever is being said by their chain of command. A multitude of voices flood the virtual space with noise, blurring the truth with outright lies and indirectly disallowing any discourse to prosper in the process.
These mythologemes, no matter how effective they appear, will also fizzle out and lose their potency. Even when they are fueled by crises themselves, populist regimes fall into the same crises they have promised to stamp out. This process always begins in the details, the small cracks. The ever-present internal contradictions pre-empted by unanswered and unattended crises crawl their way toward the very heart of the regime, festering, until social upheaval grants them enough strength to split the structure right down the middle.
Estrada could not find the time and space to maneuver against the Asian economic crisis, despite the Philippines being one of the first economies in Southeast Asia to register a positive GDP post-crisis. His administration was plagued with political squabbles and in-fighting. This prelude to the collapse of the Estrada administration was stamped on our history by EDSA Dos.
Another example can be drawn from the Marcos regime, which was partly deposed by successive economic crises during the 1980s. The Marcos regime was propped up by institutional loans from global financial institutions, yet the continuous devaluation of the peso and its diminishing effect on the purchasing power of the everyday Juan contributed to a political crisis that first hit the people’s stomachs.
Perhaps it is difficult to imagine that, less than three years ago, the majority of the Filipino electorate believed in the mythologeme of change as personified by the man from Davao.
Fast forward three years ahead, and what do we have? Thousands dead in a directionless drug war. Military men administering civilian institutions. A devaluated peso. Inflation spikes and foot shortages and, most importantly, a nation divided politically, with no signs of turning back to the pre-Duterte status quo.
As these crises extend their reach across our everyday, dissent becomes more of a necessity. But we must tread this path lightly. Social crises give birth to new mythologemes–the fall of the Marcoses allowed the return of the oligarchs. Ditto for the Estrada and the Arroyo administrations. The quest for a fitting alternative becomes a political question with the highest stakes. This is a gamble that none of us can afford to lose.
About the author: DL Trinos is a writer, critic, and a teacher at Kalayaan College. His research work and essays on spaces, popular culture, and the phenomenon of modernity have earned him awards, publications, and paper presentations. He is writing a collection of essays on the third world condition as viewed from the post-fordist lens.