ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Next Philippine Election Looms as an Institutional Stress Test

Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump has shown the resilience of U.S. political institutions. Will the same be true of the Philippines?

Next Philippine Election Looms as an Institutional Stress Test

The entrance to the Philippines Supreme Court in Manila.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Patrick Roque

In 1714, Bernard Mandeville published a satirical poem that incensed the British public, not just for its defense of all manner of vices and its mockery of virtue, but for its claim that Britain’s political stability depended on the institutions imposed by what some considered a foreign intervention. A famous verse went:

No Bees had better Government,
More Fickleness, or less Content.
They were not Slaves to Tyranny,
Nor ruled by wild Democracy;
But Kings, that could not wrong, because
Their Power was circumscrib’d by Laws.

For Mandeville, an Anglo-Dutch philosopher, the inspiration for this well-functioning “Human Hive” was the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Mary II and her Dutch husband usurped power only to quickly constrain their rule, introducing new laws, separations of power and even a Bill of Rights – the institutional scaffolding of the constitutional monarchy that has existed ever since in the United Kingdom. For Mandeville, it was this system of fair and just institutions that could best secure political stability, whilst all manner of public and private selfishness flourished to the benefit of the economic good. What mattered most, he asserted, were the pillars of society, not the temperament or virtue of those who ruled. Honest government, not honest politicians.

Mandeville would have been impressed by the recent U.S. election. The most powerful person in the country continues to act in the most unvirtuous manner but virtue hasn’t changed the result; the political institutions of the U.S., those laid down in the late 18th century, have remained strong and unbending.

Filipinos will find themselves in a very similar position at their next presidential election in 2022, asking whether their political institutions have withstood the pressure exerted by an unvirtuous leader with dictatorial cravings. So far, there appears there no certainty that President Rodrigo Duterte will get his ultimate wish and impose a constitutional change to revoke the single six-year term limit for presidents (“cha-cha” is what Filipinos are apparently calling it). If that restriction holds it would be some achievement and Duterte could be forced out of office in 2022, whether he likes it or not.

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However, most of the pillars of the political system have already bent to his rule. He has gone after opposition senators (notably Leila de Lima, who continues to languish in jail, and Antonio Trillanes IV), as well as the chairs of the Commission on Human Rights, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the chairwoman of the Office of the Ombudsman. In May 2018, the Supreme Court took the arguably unconstitutional measure of removing its own chief justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno. The country’s biggest broadcast network, the ABS-CBN, was shut down this year after being denied renewal of its franchise. Famed journalists, like Rappler’s Maria Ressa, have been jailed.

“While a semblance of democracy is still in place and our democratic institutions somehow continue to function, we are already like the proverbial frog swimming in a pot of slowly boiling water,” stated a letter signed by Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, acting president of the Catholic bishops’ conference of the Philippines, in July.

One case in point is the Anti-Terror Act of 2020, imposed that month, which removes most checks-and-balances from law enforcement. Various groups are trying to fight the law in the Supreme Court, but with little apparent success. Indeed, the pandemic has provided Duterte with an excuse to gather up even more authority, from emergency powers in April to new restrictions on public protests.

The letter from the bishop added that the anti-terror law “cannot but remind us of the initial moves in 1972 that eventually led to the fall of democracy and the rise of a dictatorial regime that terrorized the country for fourteen years. It all began when an elected president also legalized the [arrest, search and seizure orders]. It was from there that we gradually sank into the mire of authoritarian rule.”

How did we get here? In 2019, analyst David G. Timberman wrote in a report for the Carnegie think-tank that “the combination of the Philippines’ powerful presidency and the malleability of most of its political institutions is resulting in significant democratic backsliding.” Another report from last year noted the mistake of assuming that the decline of Philippine democracy came “solely from the populist leader as the country’s elites have generally paid lip service to institution-building and democratic deepening.”

Indeed, past presidents and politicians warrant censure. Many delayed or opposed reforms to the political institutions, mostly out of self-interest, that would have strengthened them before a leader like Duterte came along. In many ways, the Philippines made the classic mistake, believing that each new president would act just as honorably as the last – the same belief most Americans held before 2016. But when tested, their political structure was founding wanting. This should also serve as a warning to other democracies in the region, not least Indonesia, and a reminder to any democratic leader that the greater legacy they can leave is to ensure they’re not the last.

Timberman concluded that one (not-easy) solution is to “improve and expand the sharing of ideas and strategies for how to defend and strengthen democratic institutions and norms.” Much depends on the embattled political opposition and civil-society, and we ought not to be overly pessimistic for that would be a disservice to the many courageous Filipinos. Indeed, the pushback against Duterte is apparently growing; “#OustDuterte” trends on social media, the economic collapse in the Philippines this year may be worse than in any other Southeast Asian country, and Duterte’s populist economic policies are now ringing hollow.

If they are to be successful, they will need outside backing. While Duterte has congratulated Joe Biden on his electoral victory, suggestions are that he has lost an important ally in outgoing President Donald Trump and that, come January, the U.S. could get tough on Manila. Much depends on whether the Biden camp wants to preserve the alliance and ensure that the Philippines, a treaty ally, doesn’t float off towards Beijing again, as Duterte threatened to do after his victory in 2016. Duterte postponed the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement in June but could restart the process of its demise depending on Biden’s actions. Democrats in Congress have certainly been the loudest to call for sanctions and reprisals against Duterte’s government, and Biden has promised to put human rights and democracy back at the foreground of U.S. foreign policy.

Whether or not it’s all too late waits to be seen. If the Biden administration does decide to tread lightly with Duterte, it would be most sensible to conserve its influence in opposing any effort by the Philippine president to remove term limits from the constitution. That might mean more of the country’s political institutions crumble in the meantime, but at least there will be a chance for renewal if Duterte is out of office come 2022 and is forced to have a protégée compete in the election. In the unlikely event a moderate wins, the political system will need to be re-modeled from the ground up.

Biden would do well to remember the centrality of political institutions, which have allowed him to get to where he is now, should he meet with Duterte next year.