Last Monday, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte arguably pulled off the greatest electoral victory in the history of midterm elections. His name was not on the ballot, but the election was fundamentally a referendum on his heterodox, disruptive, controversial, yet highly popular presidency.
As I described it -- and later adopted in a Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial -- we witnessed nothing short of a Monday (Night) Massacre. The liberal opposition suffered complete, absolute and indubitable political evisceration. Among the more than a dozen opposition senatorial candidates, which includes progressives such as Neri Colmenares, not even a single one made it.
Only three, including two former senators and one physician-turned-social media superstar with more than 10 million followers, made it to the top 20, which was dominated by a cocktail of administration bets and traditional politicians. In the Congress, the Liberal Party, formerly a hegemonic political force, was reduced from hundreds of members to barely over a dozen in only three years. Their performance in the gubernatorial and mayoral race was even more tragic.
Instead of checking his worst instincts, as the midterm elections tend to do in the United States (the former colonial empire that established our modern political institutions), the 2019 elections may have given the president a carte blanche to push his authoritarian populist project to its logical conclusion. But does this make Duterte a “dictator” à la Ferdinand Marcos? The short answer is, no.
There are two reasons for this. First and foremost, as I argued in a New York Times op-ed, it’s unlikely that Duterte will ever gain what political scientists such as Samuel Huntington called “subjective” control over the armed forces, namely personal grip over the policy, promotion and operations of the men in barracks (see, for instance, Huntington’s classic The Soldier and the State).
Let me be crystal clear: subjective control over the military is a sine qua non for personal dictatorship. Marcos was able to achieve that after three years of constant courting and packing of the top brass in the late-1960s. As former president Fidel Ramos, and top military officer during the Marcos regime, told me earlier this year, “He [Marcos] used us. He saw us [soldiers] as his mere subordinates.”
Together with Charie Jaoquin of the National Defense College of the Philippines, I am currently conducting a detailed qualitative and quantitative survey on civil-military relations under the Duterte administration. Preliminary findings suggest that the military continues to preserve a remarkable degree of institutional autonomy in spite of the president’s charm offensive and authoritarian tendencies.
From the West Philippine Sea disputes (see my Foreign Affairs piece here) to civil-military relations, including Duterte’s arbitrary call for arrest of a former soldier-turned-senator, the defense establishment has held its ground. This was even more apparent in their rejection of the president’s call for a “revolutionary government” in late-2017.
I doubt Duterte will be able to gain “subjective” control over the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) anytime soon, if ever. In contrast, if one looks at other authoritarian populists, who were able to gain subjective control over the military, they were either former military officers (Hugo Chavez) or former intelligence services elite member (Vladimir Putin). Or, as in the case of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, had more than a decade of power, enough youth and vigor (plus luck), and fantastically-scripted intrigues and legitimate coups, to systematically purge the top brass to institute a more pliant military.
None of these conditions apply to the aging Duterte, who neither has a military-security background, nor a coherent strategy to achieve what some of his peers were able to in other emerging market democracies. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer who ran along top generals, has a better chance.
The second reason Duterte is not (and will likely not ever become) a dictator is that he (unlike Chavez or Erdogan) does not possess a real political party or sustained grassroots movement. The 2019 elections were more a triumph for traditional politicians and tactical allies of the administration sans any pretense to liberal values than a clear victory for Duterte loyalists.
Among all the 24 senators, for instance, one could only think of Bato Dela Rosa and Bong Go as full-fledged loyalists, who will vote 100 percent along his preferences. At most, one could add Francis Tolentino, Imee Marcos, and Bong Revilla, but their ties to Duterte is more a reflection of political debt of gratitude than complete loyalty and dependence.
Four senators are opposition. So that leaves around 15 senators, who are a surreal and messy mélange of tactical allies, (soft) independents, loyal oppositionists, and traditional politicians. And it’s this group of politicians, each with his/her own ambition (including for presidency in 2022), ego, and self-interest, who will ultimately decide the future of our republic.
And, politicians as they are, these group of senators will be sensitive to public opinion well beyond the 2019 elections. Thus, watch out for clash of self-interests, and lots of horse trading, rather than a straightforward rubber-stamp senate.
What awaits us is less a dictatorship than an ‘imperial presidency’, where the commander-in-chief stands almost above the law, but isn’t’ fully in control of the state institutions. Duterte occupies a gray zone between all-out dictatorship and a constitutionally-compliant chief executive. The Philippines has entered a twilight zone.