Authoritarian creep (pun intended)*

When President Rodrigo Duterte says something really outrageous then it backfires or he is proven to be lying or at least dissembling, he uses several tricks to get away with it.

He or his apologists say he was just joking and because we are so gullible, we are asking for it. Or they say he just loves to use hyperbole to stress a point and his listeners should learn to discern when to take his word for it and when not to.

His damage-control crew says he was merely misunderstood and taken out of context. So Duterte modifies his previous statements with qualifiers to make what was patently unacceptable, even illegal and morally reprehensible, pass for a justifiable position or policy pronouncement.

He or his alter egos may simply say the exact opposite of what he previously said, without batting an eye, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for the highest official of the land to make contradictory statements. At one point, Duterte was forced to admit that he manufactured supposed foreign bank accounts of Senator Trillanes, an unmitigated lie that he lamely excused as a “bait” to catch his tormentor.

When all else fails, he and his henchmen resort to bullying, Duterte style.

The President and his copycat officials use abusive and insulting language and character assassination to brutalize their targets into fear and submission. This also works to distract people’s attention and muddle the issues.

He and his subalterns accuse those who point out his inconsistencies, factual errors, and even outright falsehoods as being biased or just plain stupid.

Those who criticize Duterte’s “war on drugs” because of wanton human rights violations are either harebrained coddlers of illicit drug users and traffickers or perpetrators of such unsavory activities themselves deserving of the same deadly treatment.

Those wary of the Duterte regime’s use of strong-arm tactics to solve pockets of armed rebellion in Muslim Mindanao and the long-running communist-led armed struggle nationwide, as well as his open admiration for the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and complicity in the political rehabilitation of the Marcoses, are labelled either “reds” or “yellows” out to destabilize his regime and ultimately oust him from Malacañang.

Duterte taunted organizers of the huge protest demonstration held last Sept. 21, on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of Marcos’s declaration of martial law, as either “yellows riding on reds” or “reds riding on yellows.” He then ended up declaring a “National Day of Protest” where he ludicrously claimed he was one with the protesters (against himself?).

Not only did Duterte cancel classes and close government offices to prevent any massing up of students and employees that could be mobilized for the protests that day, local government officials were told to hold a counter rally at Mendiola near Malacañang while rabid pro-Duterte groups held another one at Plaza Miranda. The government-organized rallies were small and anemic compared to the tens of thousands of impassioned demonstrators gathered at Luneta Park and many other cities all over the country.

Duterte’s creeping authoritarianism consisted first and foremost in ensuring the military’s canine loyalty by plying them with funds, perks and privileges, awards and personal visits. He keeps a tight rein on the police forces by a system of rewards and promotions and promised impunity for extrajudicial killings committed in the course of the “war on drugs.”

The overwhelming dominance of Duterte’s henchmen and lapdogs in Congress and in local government units was only a matter of Malacañang paying each opportunist politician’s price for their blind obedience and cooperation.

Duterte has also packed the civilian bureaucracy with retired generals and lower ranking former military men to the extent that he wryly quipped there was actually no need to declare martial law because the military was already very much in control of his government.

Now Duterte is after the remaining pillars of the remaining liberal democratic façade. His business cronies are extending their tentacles onto the mass media even as he threatens with closure those outlets he considers anti-Duterte. His supermajority in the House of Representatives attempted to emasculate the Commission on Human Rights (chaired by a known ally of former president Benigno S. C. Aquino III and vocal critic of the “war on drugs”) by giving it a measly budget of P1000. This craven move was only defeated by a strong public outcry.

Two Supreme Court justices have been the objects of Duterte’s ire. One is Justice Carpio for his sharp criticism of Duterte’s policy of appeasing China by reneging on the assertion of Philippine sovereignty over disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea. Another is Chief Justice Sereno over her being perceived as another “yellow” loyalist what with her speeches critical of the Duterte regime’s lack of adherence to the rule of law. The latter is the subject of an impeachment move and Duterte is slyly utilizing contradictions within the Court to further pressure Sereno.

Most recently, Duterte renewed his verbal attacks against the Office of the Ombudsman, not only because Ombudsman Morales is another “yellow” appointee but her office has acted on the complaint of Senator Trillanes regarding the alleged ill-gotten wealth amassed by Duterte and his two children, Davao Mayor Sara Duterte and Vice-Mayor Paolo Duterte.

Duterte has gone ballistic, threatening to set up a so-called “independent commission” that will investigate alleged corruption in the Ombudsman’s Office.

It now appears that Duterte is not just “onion-skinned” as some critics say, but highly vulnerable to charges of graft and corruption himself. He was able to skirt this issue during the presidential campaign. Now his carefully crafted image as a longtime mayor who was incorruptible and maintained his modest means may be blown apart if he is unable to stop the Ombudsman’s investigations. Even though Duterte may not be charged while in office, the political damage caused by these investigations could impact on the stability of his regime.

Such an outcome could be anybody’s guess but it will take more than Duterte’s bluster this time around to save his fast ebbing credibility.

*Thanks to Sonny Africa who first used the term in his blog post.

Carol Pagaduan-Araullo is a medical doctor by training, social activist by choice, columnist by accident, happy partner to a liberated spouse and proud mother of two.

carol_araullo@yahoo.com

Published in Business World
Oct. 3, 2017

Featured photo from the Presidential Communications (Government of the Philippines)

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