In his recently released book, scholar Mark R. Thompson underscores how the “people power” narrative gradually lost credibility in the Philippines, as evidenced by the opposition’s resounding defeat in the 2022 elections. This outcome demonstrated the diminishing appeal of this discourse among the majority of Filipinos. Given Thompson’s assessment of Duterte’s election and his populist legacy as the latest iteration of a cyclical pattern in Philippine politics, his book represents a valuable contribution to the literature on populism.
Reviewed by Bulent Kenes
On May 9, 2016, Rodrigo Roa Duterte was elected as the 16th President of the Philippines by the Filipino people. Despite his controversial reputation, which he had acquired during his long political career as the mayor of Davao City, Duterte emerged victorious. He pledged to establish a regime similar to the one he had implemented in Davao City, with the goal of restoring “law and order” throughout the entire country. Following his inauguration, public trust in him soared to an astonishing 91 percent. What factors contributed to Duterte’s remarkable success as an illiberal and penal populist leader? How did the socio-economic environment and troubled political history of the Philippines play a role in the frequent rise of populist strongmen like Duterte? In his recently published book, “The Philippines: From ‘People Power’ to Democratic Backsliding,” Mark R. Thompson explores the socio-political, economic, and structural factors behind the convergence of democratic backsliding and the rise of strongman leaders within the Filipino context.
Thompson’s book utilizes a structuration approach to analyze the country’s recent shift towards strongman rule within the historical backdrop of nearly a century of Philippine presidential politics. The Philippines stands as one of the few global cases of “hyper-presidentialism.” The book highlights the fact that Philippine presidents possess significantly more formal power than their counterparts in the United States, particularly when it comes to their wide discretion over budgetary matters, which is essential in a patronage-driven democracy, making them the “patrons-in-chief.” They can subordinate the legislature, the courts, and independent bodies, despite theoretically being coequal branches of government or constitutionally mandated agencies, thus establishing the President’s authority as nearly omnipresent throughout the state apparatus.
Thompson’s book traces this “tyrannical potential” of Philippine presidents back to the American colonial era. One section of the book explores how a patronage-driven democracy facilitated executive aggrandizement by three transgressive presidents – Quezon, Marcos, and Duterte – who employed strongman messaging as they disregarded weak formal democratic checks. It also examines the stronger but uncertain informal constraints imposed on presidential power by elite strategic groups that employed a liberal reformist discourse. This dynamic first emerged after the manipulated 1949 presidential elections and resulted in Magsaysay’s victory four years later. However, a similar effort two decades later failed to prevent Ferdinand E. Marcos from imposing martial law. Yet, Marcos was later ousted by a people powermovement with a similar elite “hegemonic bloc” at the forefront. Following Marcos’ downfall, corruption scandals, which seemed inevitable in a patronage-dominated system, undermined the promise to restore “good governance” and also discredited the elite strategic groups promoting it. With the weakening of reformism and elite guardianship, a political opportunity arose for Duterte’s highly illiberal messaging. Duterte swiftly regressed Philippine democracy after winning the presidency in 2016. As a pioneer in political violence, Duterte fundamentally transformed Philippine politics by making violent populism appealing to the majority of Filipinos.
The first authoritarian leader in the Philippines was Commonwealth President Quezon, and three decades later, Marcos followed in Quezon’s footsteps. Even before declaring martial law in 1972, Marcos had already become the most powerful president since the country gained independence in 1946. He crafted an elaborate justification for martial law, citing not only threats from the far-left (communists) and far-right (oligarchs), but also utilizing strongman messaging that promised to address poverty, injustice, and bring about political change. Marcos argued that authoritarian rule was necessary to restore order and accelerate development. He imposed strict restrictions on the previously free press, which was factionalized and oligarchical, suppressing opposition criticism of nepotism and favoritism. The Marcos regime quickly transformed into a highly “sultanistic” system, blurring the boundaries between the public treasury and the private wealth of the ruler. Marcos and his wife Imelda became the wealthiest couple in the Philippines and among the richest in the world.
Meanwhile, Thompson emphasizes the presence of four influential non-governmental strategic groups (the Catholic Church hierarchy, big business leaders, civil society activists, and top military brass) that have played pivotal roles in constraining presidential power since independence in 1946, particularly during the later stages of the Marcos dictatorship and in the post-people power era. While not directly part of the government, these groups maintain close ties to the state, with representatives from big business and civil society often holding high-ranking positions in presidential cabinets. They possess extensive organizations that enable them to mobilize supporters in favor of or against a president, either through nonviolent means such as demonstrations or, in the case of the military, through a show of force via military intervention.
The book also integrates three key themes from existing literature – patronage democracy, political violence, and widespread impoverishment – to provide a comprehensive understanding of the Philippines’ recurring democratic crises. From a structuralist perspective, according to Thompson, the democratic transition that commenced after Marcos’ downfall in 1986 was only temporary. The “people power” uprising in Metro Manila in February 1986 captured global media attention and received praise from world leaders. This peaceful overthrow of an authoritarian ruler by civilian protesters demanding democratic restoration demonstrated the potential for change. However, Thompson argues that the perception of people power has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis in the Philippines, particularly since the time of Corazon C. Aquino, the widow of the assassinated opposition politician Benigno “Ninoy” S. Aquino, Jr., who assumed the presidency after the heavily manipulated snap presidential elections in early February 1986 that triggered the uprising.
Author recalls that two additional crises unfolded in the subsequent three decades. Another “people power” style uprising took place, but this time it was directed against the freely and fairly elected President Joseph E. Estrada in 2001. His successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, faced immediate and long-term legitimacy issues throughout her scandal-ridden tenure. In 2016, Duterte was elected, pledging a brutal “war on drugs.” Duterte’s popularity during his term created a strong political demand for a presidential candidate with a similar strongman image. Surveys indicated that 85 percent of Filipinos preferred “partial” or “full continuity” of his rule. Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos, Jr., the son of the Marcos dictatorship’s ruling couple, positioned himself as the rightful heir to Duterte’s legacy and won the May 2022 presidential elections with ease. Running alongside Duterte’s daughter as his vice-presidential candidate, the Marcos-Duterte tandem successfully positioned themselves as the successors to Duterte. Despite hopes from opponents that “Dutertismo” would fade away in 2022, there is little indication that Marcos intends to deviate from Duterte’s illiberal path.
According to Thompson, this democratic backsliding occurred against the backdrop of historically rooted structural conditions in which neoliberal economic strategies revived economic growth but failed to significantly alleviate poverty, thereby enabling Duterte to secure power. The author highlights the fact that while post-dictatorship presidents in the Philippines restored financial stability and stimulated economic growth, they were unsuccessful in eradicating mass poverty. “Proletarian populists” who promised to help the majority of Filipinos who identified themselves as poor were either overthrown or subject to electoral fraud. This created an opportunity, according to Thompson, for Duterte to present himself as the last hope for Filipinos. By convincing many that they had been betrayed by the “irresponsible ‘yellow’ elites,” Duterte, as president, initiated a “war on drugs” that resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings by the police and vigilantes linked to law enforcement. He justified these murders by dismissing liberalism and human rights as “Western” concepts. By late 2018, the Chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights estimated that up to 27,000 suspected drug users and dealers had been killed in the drug war. Duterte even targeted mayors and local officials accused of having drug links – by June 2021 more than half of the forty-four mayors, vice mayors, and other local officials identified by the Philippine president as being “narco politicians” had been killed.
Despite his obvious illiberalism, Duterte claimed democratic legitimacy, aligning with larger global trends. Unlike Trump and right-wing populists in developed countries who targeted immigrants, Duterte identified drug users and dealers as “enemies of the people.” His violent populism went beyond the typical “penal populism” seen in the West, representing an extreme form of illiberal rule that embraced an aggressive “us versus them” mentality. Thompson reminds that through his “war on drugs,” Duterte garnered massive popular support, surpassing the levels achieved by other illiberal populists globally. However, according to him, Duterte was not the first Philippine president to extensively employ political violence to consolidate power. Quirino relied on local warlords to intimidate the opposition during his presidential election campaign in 1949. As a young man Marcos, Sr., was convicted of killing his father’s chief political rival. In his controversial reelection campaign in 1969, Marcos employed not just local paramilitaries but also national military force, which he had increasingly brought under his personal control in the run-up to declaring martial law in 1972.
Thompson highlights that while many contemporary illiberal populist leaders have marginalized, imprisoned, or even assassinated those targeted and othered by their rhetoric, Duterte stands out for instigating state-led mass murder against his own country’s civilian population through his war on drugs. While Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey intensified attacks against Kurdish rebels and Vladimir Putin in Russia waged the brutal Second Chechen War and later invaded Ukraine, these are military campaigns rather than “peacetime” massacres, as clarified by Thompson, although Erdogan’s campaigns against Kurds have also involved attacks during peacetime. These strongman presidents effectively crafted messaging to justify their concentration of power, often resorting to political violence and exploiting persistent poverty as a pretext for their power grabs. As poverty rates and unemployment remained high during the post-Marcos era, the liberal reformist discourse appeared uncaring and morally self-righteous.
Furthermore, Duterte eroded democracy through less violent means as well, eroding judicial independence, marginalizing independent institutions, and bullying local leaders, according to the book. His patronage politics undermined institution-building. The country’s bureaucracy has a history tainted by political interference and corrupt practices, with widespread perception of corruption in the courts. Duterte capitalized on a “legally cynical public” that lacked trust in a flawed judicial system, where drug offenders often had their cases dismissed on technicalities and bribery and manipulation were common accusations. Duterte, a former prosecutor, presented his drug crackdown as a silver bullet, appealing to the belief that the corrupt legal system needed cleansing before meaningful reforms could be introduced.
The rise of Duterte’s violent populism was also facilitated by the weakening of key elite strategic groups mentioned earlier in the book. For example, Duterte effectively outmaneuvered the church by threatening to expose its sex scandals, claiming personal childhood abuse by a priest. Institutional barriers were swiftly sidelined, resulting in the emergence of an illiberal democracy. As a political innovator, Duterte drew from and transformed traditions of local political violence in the Philippines, which he continued during his presidency. He also employed the strategy of securitizing problems and scapegoating the urban poor in other policy areas, notably in his highly militarized but ineffective response to the pandemic.
The book argues that the Philippines’ recent democratic backsliding is a result of Duterte’s violation of democratic norms in a patronage-driven democracy with weak institutionalization, following the patterns of Quezon and Marcos before him. The book also closely examines pseudo-reform programs used to divert attention from the persistence of mass poverty. Recently, Duterte’s drug war has primarily targeted the poor, with urban residents who are petty drug users and dealers becoming the focus, while mass poverty continues to endure. However, this approach proved effective in legitimizing his highly illiberal rule.
Like previous presidents, according to the author, Duterte did not harbor a general hostility towards the oligarchy; rather, he used such rhetoric as a means to attack his political enemies and favor his own allies. However, the broken promises of his predecessors to combat corruption and alleviate poverty had paved the way for simplistic solutions to the country’s complex social problems, exemplified by Duterte’s “dystopian narrative” of the drug war. The drug war’s popularity across class lines indicated that Duterte had successfully redirected the grievances of the poor away from the failures of social reform. In line with Marcos and Quezon before him, Duterte exploited the persistence of poverty to justify the erosion of democratic values. Employing pseudo-social reforms, Duterte portrayed his drug war as a panacea for the nation’s social issues, garnering support across different social strata, despite the fact that it harmed and disproportionately targeted the poor.
As a strategy of legitimation, Duterte relied on extravagant but largely hollow promises of implementing social reform, eradicating corruption, and eliminating illegal drugs, which proved remarkably effective as political tools. His “brute force governance,” characterized by personalized strongman rule, blame-shifting, and securitization, undermined the mechanisms of accountability. This enabled him to maintain public approval, despite the drug war’s failure to effectively address substance abuse and the ineffectiveness of widespread lockdowns in curbing the spread of the pandemic. Despite the highly illiberal nature of Duterte’s rule, he continued to claim democratic legitimacy based on competitive elections and high approval ratings, while adhering to constitutional norms. This undermined electoral opposition and weakened resistance from critical figures such as Catholic bishops, influential business groups, and civil society activists. According to Thompson, among the major strategic groups in the Philippines, only the military remained a significant check on Duterte’s power.
In conclusion, Thompson underscores how the “people power” narrative gradually lost credibility, as evidenced by the opposition’s resounding defeat in the 2022 elections, particularly with Marcos, Jr.’s victory. This outcome demonstrated the diminishing appeal of this discourse among the majority of Filipinos. The recent democratic backsliding in the Philippines serves as a cautionary tale about the failure of a liberal reformist project to improve the lives of ordinary people and fundamentally reshape the political system to reduce reliance on patronage, strengthen institutions, and mitigate political violence. Given Thompson’s assessment of Duterte’s election and his populist legacy as the latest iteration of a cyclical pattern in Philippine politics, this book represents a valuable contribution to the literature on populism.
Mark R. Thompson. The Philippines: From ‘People Power’ to Democratic Backsliding. As part of “Elements in Politics and Society in Southeast Asia.” (Cambridge University Press). May 25, 2023. 86 pp. €21,24 ISBN: 1009398482. DOI: 10.1017/9781009398466