Dan Slater on Duterte and the Phillippines

Dan Slater

Dan Slater specializes in the politics of enduring dictatorships and emerging democracies, with a regional focus on Southeast Asia. He is currently director of the Center for International Social Science Research (CISSR), associate professor in the Department of Political Science, and associate member in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago. He is also a co-editor of Southeast Asia in Political Science: Theory, Region, and Qualitative Analysis (Stanford University Press, 2008), which assesses the contributions of Southeast Asian political studies to theoretical knowledge in comparative politics. His book, Ordering Power: Contentious Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia, examines how divergent historical patterns of contentious politics have shaped variation in state power and authoritarian durability in sever Southeast Asian countries. Slater received his PhD from Emory University, an MA in international studies from the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, and a BA in international relations and history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He interviewed with Gha Young Lee CMC '20 on November 22, 2017. Biography and photo courtesy of Dan Slater.

How has the Philippine nationalism formed, and what are its characteristics, different from those of America or Europe?

Philippine nationalism is closely tied to the country’s Catholic identity, since the country is overwhelmingly Catholic, and those identities have become fused over time. There’s also a stream of Philippine nationalism that harkens back to the revolution and has an independent streak vis-a-vis the United States, and resents the view of Philippines as a junior partner to the United States. The fact that Philippines’ Independence Day is July 4th speaks volumes about how for Philippines independence was closely tied to continuing connections with United States. So there’s sort of an independence streak with a Catholic streak to it.
One way that Philippines nationalism is different from a place like Myanmar today, is that it’s not really defined against internal minorities in quite the same way. Even though the predominantly Muslim population of Mindanao hasn’t exactly been brought into the Philippines as full first-class citizens as we would hope, it doesn't mean that they have been targeted by the basis of their differences in the same way. I think that it is a relatively inclusive nationalism, in some ways narrowly defined because of its predominant Catholicism, but in other ways inclusive in the sense that it wasn’t defined against people who were different.

If the national identity is based upon the church, how does that take form in policy?

Philippines has always had some of the strictest laws in the world in terms of the issues that matter to the Catholic church like abortion, divorce, and the like. Historically, the politicians have been wary of taking up policy initiatives that would run them into trouble with the church, because historically it has been the church that has the preponderance of moral authority. The church has usually been savvy in playing a behind-the scenes-role, not getting too blatantly involved unless they have to, but their influence shows in how Philippines differs from so many countries in terms of its conservative social policies. This is a testament to the Catholic church’s effectiveness in maintaining influence both before democratization, and after democratization under multiple presidencies.

What is Duterte’s relationship with the Catholic church as of now, and how does this affect his relationship with his core supporters in Manila?

The overall point with Duterte is that he is an extremely outspoken politician. He has a personal history of abuse since he was a child, and he certainly has a less favorable relation to the church than any other president in the modern history of Philippines, as far as I could imagine. I would say that the relationship is very testy, and some within the church have been cautiously, but openly critical of the human rights abuses that have been occurring with the extrajudicial killings and the anti-corruption campaign. At this point, completely offending the church would be a dangerous step to make for Duterte. They’re still testing each other, feeling each other out as two fighters do before a fight. The fact that Duterte has been polling so well in popularity makes it also harder for the church to confront him directly, and allows Duterte more latitude in making his critiques, and to not be concerned about losing support from his supporters, who for the most part are devout Catholics.

The way that media frames Philippines right now is that Duterte, whose policies are disproportionately affecting select sections of the population, is leading a new nationalistic movement. But from what you’ve mentioned, it seems that as its national identity is more reliant on the church’s authority, and less about internal conflict, that’s not actually the case. Could you talk more about the background in which Duterte was elected, and who he appeals to?

To connect nationalism with the election, the key thing about the Catholic foundations of nationalism is that its grounded in a sort of morality. Generally, nationalism needs moral foundations. This might be surprising, but Duterte is trying to provide an alternative to the moral foundation to the national identity. As far as he sees, he’s essentially going after the bad guys. There’s a moralizing tone and tenor to the way that he describes his anti-corruption and anti-crime campaign in particular. The people also identify him as the good cop who’s fighting the bad guys. He’s tapped into the same kind of emotional attachment and desire for moral leadership that people have looked for in the church. In that sense he’s trying to replace this historical religious nationalism to something that’s more secular, and where the state plays a bigger role. That speaks to his electoral appeal – again, Duterte was, like so many politician around the world right now, seen as something different. He wasn’t a political outsider: he comes from a political family, and has a tremendous amount of governing experience in one of the largest cities in the Philippines. He wasn’t a political neophyte, he wasn’t a total outsider but he does have a very different style from his predecessors, and the entire elite political class in the Philippines.
Duterte mostly appealed to voters who felt, quite rightly, that Philippines politics have not been responsive to their concerns, and the political class exists from its own benefit and reproduces itself without sharing much of the country’s wealth with the people. It’s an unbelievably unequal society – long has been – and to be fair, it’s not simply a product of the lack of concern by the Philippines politicians. The fundamental fact about the Philippines is that it’s a very weak state. The state apparatus doesn’t have the political or administrative capacity to access the fortunes of its wealthiest citizens. That leaves it unable to provide the kind of infrastructure and security and public services that people desire. Duterte can’t be the state, but he can say that he will overcome these political handicaps, and by sheer force of will bring security and stop corruption. He can make these claims, and tap into the yearnings for better governance.

When Duterte is replacing the old national identity with something that’s more secular, and trying to overcome the inequality of the power dynamics within Philippines – is there something beyond his own rhetoric and personality that persuades the people?

I do think that the biggest difference in Duterte is the rhetoric. With the exception of the anti-crime campaign, which is all action, he is prone to dramatic speech. Again, the governing apparatus that he has, the machinery at his command just doesn’t have the capacity to make dramatic changes. It’s largely about the style, and it does help with his popularity when he says that he’ll stop import of rice, or stop the dependency on the United States, and import rice from China. It shows that they’re not just the little brother, and he appeals to the desire among Filipino to come from a full-blown country.

When Duterte was elected, was there a strong divide among the population who voted for him, or was it more of an unanimous consent?

I would say that he drew support from multiple segments of society; He’s not a candidate of the poor or the rich or the South.
A lot of his appeal doesn’t have to do with a specific class. Strong man politics can gain support from across the spectrum. Also, for all of its diversity and inequality, Philippines is not a polarized state, partially because the political parties are so weak that they’ve never been able to polarize the electors among ethnic identity or class identity. I think the most Philippines was ever polarized was around Joseph Estrada, and the battle of the Estrada vs. Macapagal-Arroyo in the 2000s. The Philippines was much more polarized then than now. So that’s one way that Philippines is different from a lot of the trends that we’re seeing in the world right now, which is becoming more, not less, polarized.

Within the Philippines, who are voicing concerns about Duterte’s policies regarding the war against crime, corruption and drugs?

I would say that people who are opposed to his policies would be liberals, in general. People with higher education levels, and outraged by the use of the military in ways that shocked the sensibilities of Filipinos who take great pride in how Philippines is one of the oldest and most robust democracies in Asia.
One interpretation of Duterte and the anti-crime war is that it’s basically class warfare – the rich against the poor – and I think that doesn’t really hold water. When Duterte unleashes his death squads into the urban slums, he’s not taking everyone out. At least in principal, he’s trying to take out the criminal elements who a lot of people in the neighborhoods want to see gotten rid of. Given levels of corruption and incompetence in the police, as well as the total impunity these actors are given, there is no question that in perfectly innocent people are being killed in a crossfire or in some kind of individual revenge plot. But it seems that the poor Filipinos don’t view themselves as being targeted, but rather that Duterte is killing the bad guys. We’re poor and we’re good guys and we want our neighborhoods to be free of drugs. It’s a serious social problem, and its not a completely farce for him to say we need a way to stop this drug trade. Of course, it’s been done with complete disregard for laws. There has always been problems by police endorsement and abuse, but now it’s endorsed by the government, and it’s a big chance for the support to come from the top.

Duterte’s policy focuses on crime, corruption, and illegal drugs. What makes the Philippines focus on those three right now?

Crime and corruption are the eternal conditions of Philippines politics and society. These are very real concerns felt in people’s everyday lives. Particularly in terms of corruption – the political class in the Philippines have always been a corrupt establishment. The system is set up so the corruption is ubiquitous. When Duterte says that he is going to fight corruption, it seems more credible coming from him, rather than some typical cologne-wearing son of a former president saying it. Again, it taps into people’s general anger and disgust about corruption in general. Duterte talks likes he’s disgusted by corruption and crime. The people of Philippines say, we are good moral people but have to deal with these bad evil people, and Duterte is on our side to get rid of these bad people, whether it be drug dealers or criminals, or corrupt politicians.

Was it predicted by the major public that a demagogue like Duterte would be elected, or was it as much of a surprise as Trump was to the liberal half of United States?

I think that Duterte was much less surprising than Trump. First of all, Philippines already had a populist president, in the person of Joseph Estrada – a populace entertainer who didn’t speak in very coherent sentences and was not competent or had expertise. Competence was obviously not what people found appealing in Estrada. Estrada was a man of the people. He was the real break from the long string of elite politicians to serve in Malacañang. Estrada was the departure from precedence, and that led to a decade of polarizing conflict. Once the Philippines can elect someone like Estrada, there’s no shock they can elect someone like Duterte. The thing with United States was that we’d never elected someone who was so angry or pessimistic about America or would say such unpleasant things about American soldiers or American war heroes. The idea that someone could tap into that anger in the United States was a more stunning outcome.

Moving onto the relationship between the Duterte and the United States, I was wondering how he taps into the national identity of the Philippines, and how Duterte has been balancing relationship with the United States to effectively gain popularity and balance international relations.

The big story of the Philippines foreign policy and Duterte is basically that Philippines is becoming more of a normal southeast Asian country. The pattern in southeast Asia across almost the whole region is to have a diverse and balanced set of dependencies on the powers across the world. It’s always been worrisome for countries in the region to feel too dependent on America, or China, Soviet Union, Japan, etc. The impulse for these relatively small powers that are in between these major powers is to make sure that they don’t get trampled by either side. So the goal is to have balance in both regions. In the Philippines its always been different because Philippines arguably wasn’t decolonized when they gained independence in the region. Until the U.S. bases let in the 1990s, the Philippines was a large part of US foreign presence in Asia.
What you see with the criticisms of the United States and the reaching out to China, is that Philippines is acting more as a ASEAN country. They don’t want to antagonize China, they don’t see the United States as a terribly reliable ally in the region, they don't see the US as completely unreliable, and they also don’t want to completely antagonize the US. So ironically for someone as antagonistic as Duterte, his foreign policy is actually less antagonistic. They’re careful to make sure that nobody sees themselves as on the wrong side with the Philippines. Philippines is willing to reach out and collaborate with any side, which is the classic, strategic plan for a small power.

Who are Philippine’s traditional allies?

Essentially, Philippines is close with countries that the U.S. is close with. To the extent that United States is close with Japan and is close with South Korea, the Philippines is part of that general, multilateral alliance. Politics for the Philippines has mostly been a bilateral experience. The US and Philippines have a strong bilateral relationship, and that leads to less emphasis on Philippine’s ties to other powers – though the ASEAN does allow another venue for its multilateral relations. Basically, with the new Trump administration, the United States is completely casting aside connections to multilateral institutions or alliances in the Asian Pacific, so that means that the United States - Philippines relations will be at the heart of Philippines foreign relationship, but Philippines is going to be looking at these multilateral organizations so that its interests are at least being heard in global affairs, even without much in the way of military capacity.

Just as Philippine’s people power movement influenced the democratic movements of neighboring countries back in the day, is there something we can learn from Philippine’s current movement to learn what’s happening in other southeast Asian countries?

There’s a general movement across the region, not just in southeast Asia, for a responsive government. For leaders who pay attention to ordinary people, leaders who can speak in the idioms of ordinary, non-elite citizens. You can see it in Indonesia with President Widodo. If there was a flood, he was up to his waist checking out the situation. In Thailand, when Chan-o-cha became prime minister, he was reaching out to groups that were ignored politically for all of Thai electoral history. The trick is for people of more liberal sensibilities and people who are concerned about human rights abuses, to also find political leaders who could be responsive and try to represent ordinary citizens.

Gha Young Lee CMC '20Student Journalist

Featured Image by Karl Norman Alonzo, Ace Morandante and King Rodriguez [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *