Philippines at a Crossroads: "Iron Fist' vs. 'Straight Path 2.0'?


More than two centuries ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in The Social Contract, envisioned a society where "no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself." Embodying the 'General Will', the French philosopher argued, the modern state ought to bring about social justice by instilling the conditions for exercise of freedom --- not freedom solely in its formal-legal sense.

(Quite controversially, Rousseau also argued: If necessary, the people - perhaps through a benevolent dictator -- should be "forced to be free.") Today, the Philippines broadly approximates Lockean democracy, where pluralism and property serve as the kernel of the existing order. Though an often-incomprehensible bundle of verbosity and notorious obfuscation, the Philippine constitution (1987) is one of the most democratic and liberal documents in human history. It largely reads like an updated version of American forefathers' ideals, filled with Jeffersonian as well as Madisonian principles applied to a continent of "Asian values". Before the law, all Filipinos are equal citizens with equal rights.

A cursory look at the Philippine society, however, reveals a feudalistic nation, composed of an uncaring elite lording over impoverished masses of disenfranchised peasants, exploited workers, and demoralized intellectuals. It is a society, where -- in Orwellian parlance -- "all are equal" in law, but in reality, "some are more equal than others." In this sense, contemporary Philippines is more reminiscent of Tolstoy's decadent Russia towards the end of the Romanov era (1613-1917) than Rousseau's idea of a modern republic.

Yet, one can't deny the priceless significance of the Philippines' formal democratic institutions, which emerged out of a decades-long struggle against the Marcos dictatorship (1971-1986). Form, as Aristotle argued, shapes the expression of substance. In contemporary Philippines, one can still hope to enjoy inalienable rights such as freedom of expression and assembly, especially in metropolitan areas, so much so that many have come to take these basic rights for granted.

Some observers, including Singapore's legendary founder Lee Kuan Yew, went so far as to derisively claim that the Philippines has "too much democracy". The Philippines' formal freedom are the product of countless sacrifices by those who endured unspeakable torture and suffering under the previous regime. And it is precisely based on these foundations that a generation of Filipino progressives are building -- brick by brick -- a genuine democracy, where conditions of freedom are secured in everyday life -- not only in the chronicles of law and ruminations of constitutionalists.

Nonetheless, a growing number of Filipinos are running out of patience, fed up with decades of empty slogans and broken vows. No wonder then, a new set of 'strongman' candidates -- who promise salvation in exchange for (unbending) obedience and loyalty -- has managed to capture the popular imagination.

In the coming days, the Philippines is set to elect its new leaders. As I forecasted, the race may very well end up between the "iron fist" (kamay na bakal) tandem of Rodrigo Duterte and Ferdinand "Bong Bong" Marcos Jr., on one hand, and the "straight path 2.0" (daan matuwid) tandem of Manuel "Mar" Roxas and Leni Robredo, on the other.

It will be a battle of stark contrasts, with each camp promising a new way forward before a tired, restless and broadly impoverished nation. Will the Philippines fall into a Machiavellian cyclical history as it did in the 20th century or, instead, embark on a Hegelian march towards the terminus of genuine democracy?

The Final Stretch

Without a doubt, the emerging zeitgeist in the Philippines is 'grievance politics': a popular yearning for change, for better or worse, expressed through what can be described as 'protest' votes. In this milieu of deep-rooted frustration, outside-the-box candidates such as Duterte and Marcos have made unexpected headway in recent months.

In effect, the Philippine electorate is now split among 'strongman' demagogues, traditional populists, and heterodox reformists. In a single-round, first-past-the-post race, all you need to win is just to get more votes than the others. But the rise of 'strongman' candidates is also a function of the shortcoming of alternative candidates.

Back in January, it was actually the 'populist' Vice President Jejomar Binay, the former mayor of Makati city, the Philippines' financial center, who was leading in the race. But his poor performance in presidential debates, where he struggled to defend himself against allegations of corruption, progressively relegated him to the lower rungs of the race.

Throughout the past year, neophyte Senator Grace Poe, who combines both elements of 'reformism' and 'populism' in her campaign narrative, led the race. But in the past month, as she overcame a difficult constitutional hurdle over her (citizenship/residency) eligibility, she has steadily lost momentum, particularly among the upper- and middle-clases. For long, she was viewed as a 'candidate of change', a seemingly obvious alternative to the two establishment candidates, Vice President Jejomar Binay and Interior Secretary Manuel "Mar" Roxas. And unlike Duterte, she is polished, charming, and articulate. A fast-learner, she can be dubbed as a "crowdsource" president, who is willing to listen to best advisers.

But her 'cumulative' association with business oligarchs, former president Joseph Estrada, a convicted plunderer, inter alia, gradually chipped away at her aura of authenticity -- leaving Duterte as the only seeming 'authentic' choice in the race among four competitive candidates. President Benigno Aquino's anointed successor, Mar Roxas, a reformist technocrat, has for long been tagged as uncharismatic and unpopular, mainly thanks to his wobbly PR campaign throughout the past year.

His biggest mistake in earlier stages of the campaign was to present himself as essentially a referendum on the status quo, which, in an era of grievance politics, is sure to backfire. During presidential debates, he sometimes appeared like a re-electionist. In recent weeks, however, Roxas, who has performed well in all presidential debates, has gathered momentum by projecting himself as an improved version of the incumbent and, more importantly, a 'steady hand' and 'sound mind' who will serve as the protector of democratic institutions against the ostensible prospect of what Filipino sociologist Randy David calls "Dutertismo".

Pleading for patience, for "the best is yet to come", Roxas promised to take the Philippines, in venture capital parlance, from "short pants to long pants." The latest survey, for the very first time in months, puts Roxas ahead of Poe, though statically tied with her. He seems to have regained his lead in Visayas, a supposed bailiwick, and has steadily regained support among the upper- and middle-class, who are abandoning the Poe-Escudero camp and are mostly supportive of Duterte and Marcos, who have promised safety and effective governance.

With two decades of executive and legislative experience in national office, having led various key departments (with varying degrees of competency), Roxas is a favorite among investors and economists. No less than The Economist magazine has put its weight behind him, arguing the "dull but diligent Mr Roxas would make the best next president."

The Robredo Factor

Aside from possessing formidable electoral machinery, which nonetheless has suffered noticeable defections in recent weeks to Poe, Roxas can also count on the support of his charismatic running-mate, Leni Robredo, who has begun to passionately campaign for her presidential partner. For decades, Robredo, a neophyte congresswoman from Bicol region, served as a public servant, helping marginalized farmers fight against abusive landowners. Largely unknown just a few months ago, she is now leading the vice-presidential race, though statistically tied with Marcos.

Living a very simple lifestyle, she is seen by may as a highly 'authentic candidate', though an anti-thesis of Duterte. For some of her supporters, it seems all she has to do to win the elections is to simply introduce herself to voters. Crucially, she has vowed to continue the legacy of her late husband, Jesse Robredo, a beloved and highly respected statesman who preceded Roxas as the interior minister.

In many ways, she represents not the Aquino administration's 'straight path', which has lost its luster among most voters, but the progressive "Naga model" - an alternative to, if not antithesis of, Duterte's strongman 'Davao model' of governance - of participatory, democratic and effective leadership, which has turned Naga City and surrounding regions into one of the most desirable places in the country.

Nonetheless, Duterte seems to have the upper hand in the presidential race. But his victory is far from assured. After all, Roxas seemed like a runaway winner at this stage in the race back in 2010, just to lose to then Mayor Binay in the vice-presidential race. It is also possible that Duterte's impeccable lead is more a function of campaign-period euphoria, but not necessarily translating into actual voting come Election Day.

Duterte, who managed to overcome the 'rape joke' fallout unscathed, could end up losing some points due to an ongoing investigation with regards to his alleged hidden wealth - an ordeal that may chip away at his image of 'authenticity' among 'softer' supporters. Clearly though, the reformist vote is now split between two candidates, Roxas and Poe. Thus, reformist voters face hard choices: Unless they coalesce behind one of those two candidates, Duterte is expected to sweep the elections next week. And the markets and business community areextremely jittery.


Third Time Lucky

"Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth - that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible," Max Weber once argued. The senatorial race seems more encouraging for reformist candidates, including progressives. One candidate, who is doing well in the surveys, is Risa Hontiveros, who was recently the director of PhilHealth. If elected into office, she will arguably become the first openly social democratic senator in Philippine history.

In her, voters will effortlessly detect intelligence, diligence, sincerity, and charm. And she has decades of political activism, excellence in journalism, and an impeccable legislative track record (in the Philippine Congress) to back up her bid for the Senate.

This is her third run, but -- similar to Pia Wurtzbach -- it seems that she is finally on the verge of a breakthrough. Recently, I asked her about her views about the ongoing elections and her vision for the country. She seemed both upbeat and perturbed, but, as always, flashed her indubitable sense of optimism and displayed her signature moral courage that has inspired millions of young voters across the country.

Heydarian: What made you decide to run, for the third time, for the Philippine Senate? Is this a Pia Wurtzbach 'third-time lucky' moment? Why do you think you should be elected as a Senator, what do you bring to the table that is lacking in other candidates?

Hontiveros: Pia Wurtzbach is a great example for Filipinas of grit and tenacity, indeed. I think people put too much premium on effortlessness, on instant gain, and too little stock on perseverance. Those who keep at something are often ridiculed, and women even more so. I think this mindset has to change, and Pia, I think is a important example of a woman who goes after what she wants. J.K. Rowling is another. She recently released on social media her rejection letters, and that was incredibly inspiring to read.

I am running now on a platform of universal health. I have already been a health advocate in Congress, with my authorship of the Cheaper Medicines Law. And I think everyone knows my position on the reproductive health bill. I believe it is very important to have a health advocate in the senate to push health reforms forward and to make sure that health is front and center in the national agenda. Our maternal mortality rate is going up, teenage pregnancies are still high. These means we have been making bad policy decisions through the years, and the call to prioritize health is an urgent one.

Heydarian: Without a question, you are widely acknowledged as one of the most recognizable faces among "progressives". Is it a disadvantage to be branded as a progressive/leftist in the Philippines? What do you think about the role of and the place of progressives in the country, why are there so few of them in higher offices like the Senate?

Hontiveros: I would like to think that there is a wider acceptance of progressive politics, and that the progressive message is beginning to resonate among the mainstream audience. I am an activist, and I trace my roots to the Left. To disagree with a certain Vice Presidentiable, ako ang aking nakaraan. I will always view the world with an activist lens. The reason why I and my party never gave up after two successive failed attempts is because we believe that if we want to create meaningful reforms, we cannot always do it from the fringes. We should aspire to occupy chambers of power, and higher offices like the Senate. And from there, we can work for and with the fringes.

Why are there so few progressives in higher office? I think that answer is obvious. The senate is full of big names and political dynasties. So is the House, apart from the party-lists. Politicians in the Philippines have deep financial resources to draw from. That's something we don't have. And that is something we should constantly fight against: money politics, the politics of entitlement and impunity. It's a wall that keeps people out of governance. But I believe we can break that wall, chip by chip. We can transform governance by sheer tenacity, by dint of hard work -- by running for the Senate three times! - and then when we succeed, by pushing for the reforms that matter through more hard work. One thing that always stayed in my mind was what I heard from Randy David many years back, quoting Louis Althusser. He said that it is always important for us to establish combat positions within the state.

Heydarian: In recent months, there has been a disturbing upsurge in 'autocratic nostalgia', as certain candidates, including Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, began touting their tough, disciplined "Davao model" as the way forward for the country. Do you think there is an alternative model to the woes of basic governance and democratic deficit in Philippine state institutions? Is that the "Daan Matuwid" of the incumbent?

Hontiveros: I think Daang Matuwid, with its emphasis on good governance and anti-corruption, is necessary to start with, but it is not sufficient. Inequality is still the great problem of our time, and I suspect that it is the root of the discontent that gives rise to the hunger for Duterte style politics. We need Daang Matuwid with a greater emphasis toward redistribution, social protection, and asset reform - this means agrarian reform, anti-contractualization, balanced housing, and of course, universal health.

Heydarian: What is your message to the Millennial voters and the Filipino youth, many of whom seem to be very attracted to the "strongman" model forwarded by the likes of Mayor Duterte and Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr? How do you think should they vote, what standards should they employ and characteristics in candidates should they look at? Are you worried by the seeming upsurge in autocratic nostalgia in the country?

Hontiveros: I am worried that the strongman message resonates with the youth, and I am worried that it is our collective failing as the generation that came before them. I am a mother of four inquisitive and opinionated millennials and so I do my best to talk to them about important questions of the day and make sure they think critically. It is gratifying to see young people have opinions and voices on how government should be run, and can only hope that building on this, they vote for candidates who deepen our democratic processes, and who will create spaces and windows for them to further engage government.

Note: This piece is the third part of a series of essays on the Philippines' elections. You may read parts I ("The End of Philippine Democracy?) and II ("The Folly of Philippines' Autocratic Nostalgia") here.