[This commentary was originally published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer on January 9, 2017.]
While President Duterte rode on the support of groups and individuals with diverse, even contradictory political leanings to win the 2016 election, the luster of his populist promise of change that many pinned their hopes on seems to be quickly fading away.
Though his oft contradictory statements in the past six months were invested with progressive meanings, the only things consistent in them were his outright contempt for human rights and recurrent hinting to embrace patently authoritarian measures.
On top of the repeated declarations to eliminate thousands of drug suspects, Mr. Duterte has talked about suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, placing the police under military control, expanding martial law powers, and reviving mandatory military training.
Alongside an enhanced “Oplan Bayanihan” in the counterinsurgency war in the countryside is the militarization of urban areas through his antidrug campaign that has now claimed the lives of over 6,000 people.
On drug users, he said, “I’d like to be frank with you, are they human? What is your definition of a human being? Tell me.”
As Hitler did to the Jews and Ferdinand Marcos to the communists, Mr. Duterte incites hate against drug addicts as social scums that need to be eradicated to purify the national community. And he has repeatedly assured the police and military forces that they will be absolved of any legal charges arising from rights abuses. “Of course, I will believe the police even if it is not true, I will believe the police and you, the military guys, because we are together in government, I’m the commander in chief,” he said.
The President’s statements have glaring similarities to what philosopher Herbert Marcuse described as the Nazi’s “new mentality” denigrating all moral and rights-based restraints long-recognized in democratic values and under the rule of law. He admonished police officers against recognizing human rights because “human rights are always the antithesis of government.” He has also spoken of human rights as un-Filipino: “When you start to be soft in this country and allow Western thoughts to seep in, that’s when you start to have problems.”
Left unchecked, these statements could embolden state forces to target Mr. Duterte’s political dissenters and opponents. Already, he warned — purportedly joking — of having rights activists killed, even as this seemingly is already happening as indicated in the arrest of three peasant leaders in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan, and the murder of two antimining lumad activists in Mindanao last year.
We therefore cannot dismiss his provocative statements as mere jokes as these could also be read as pushing the boundaries of “allowable antidemocratic measures” under the Duterte administration. They betray the elected President’s fascistic bent.
Stripped down to its essentials, fascism is an antidemocratic response to defend an old, oligarchic order by attacking human rights and mobilizing sections of the population against a constructed, imaginary enemy.
Some commentaries have attributed Mr. Duterte’s rise to power as a symptom of the crisis of the post-Marcos social order that emerged after the 1986 Edsa uprising. Legitimized by a democratic facade, this was marked by the absence of fundamental social change and the perpetuation of elitist neoliberal policies that breed inequality and injustice.
Mr. Duterte has rechanneled popular frustrations with the failings of an oligarchic democracy into a “drug war” against poor drug suspects reclassified as nonhuman. In this narrative, the systemic roots of our national problems are downplayed even as Mr. Duterte is presented as the “last card” who can resolve through extraordinary, authoritarian measures all social contradictions in behalf of the Filipino people.
Seen from this lens, the President’s sanctioning a hero’s burial for Marcos may be read not simply as payment of political debts but as an expression of the sense of affinity he harbors with the late dictator’s fascist reign.