Rodrigo Duterte has been elected president of the Philippines
Frida Ghitis: The Philippines is the latest entrant into the strongman club
Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Take a look around the world and the phenomenon is hard to miss: the call of the strongman echoes in all corners of the world. Indeed, while Donald Trump might seem like a one-of-a-kind to many Americans, he’s simply the Made in the USA version of a familiar figure around the globe.
Unfortunately, we have seen this movie before – narcissistic, muscular politicians who promise to solve the country’s difficulties by the sheer force of their personality. Look at Vladimir Putin in Russia, or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, who promised much, but ended up delivering a steady erosion of democratic freedoms.
The Philippines is the latest entrant into the strongman club. This week, voters were set to elect Rodrigo Duterte, a controversial provincial mayor who made statements so outrageous many refused to believe he could even become a serious contender. For example, when discussing the rape and murder of a female Australian missionary, he said he was disappointed he wasn’t first in line. After all, he suggested, she was beautiful. This was meant to be a joke. But Filipino voters didn’t seem to care it wasn’t remotely funny – his poll numbers kept rising.
Duterte’s outlandish promises resonated with a public fed up with crime and corruption. He would, he vowed, do things differently, not like the “Trapos,” the traditional politicians. “The Punisher,” as he is known, said he would kill 100,000 criminals and toss their corpses into Manila Bay. In his previous job, he had bragged about having links to death squads to clean the city. Human Rights Watch backed his claims.
Would he become a dictator? Sure, he said, why not? He reportedly said he would issue presidential pardons for himself and all who helped with the civic cleanup or massacres, whichever term you prefer. Again, he was joking. Maybe. Either way, his poll numbers kept climbing, and his opponents panicked.
Duterte is by no means alone in being able to appeal to voters looking for a Superman. But it was only a few decades ago that Filipinos struggled to overthrow a dictator. They will now have to live with an erratic, unpredictable President. Their democracy may not survive it. Some are already talking about a military coup.
After all, candidates with authoritarian tendencies don’t like to give up power. Just ask the people of Russia or Turkey, who have seen their strongmen presidents systematically undercut democratic freedoms to extend their rule. Or ask Venezuelans, who elected Hugo Chavez President in 1998 for a five-year term and saw him change the constitution and hold onto power until he died, in 2013.
Democratically elected proto-dictators use a two-pronged approach after taking power by legitimate means. They dismantle challenges to their power while simultaneously stoking the devotion of their followers, ensuring that a significant segment supports them and accepts their hollowing of democracy, all the while hailing the leader’s achievements.
In Turkey, Erdogan spent almost a dozen years as a popular prime minister in a country where presidents had, until now, been mostly ceremonial figures. He decided to change that and try to make the presidency more powerful. His foes say he wants to become a new “Sultan.”
To solidify his grip on power, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, the AKP, needed to sweep parliamentary elections and change the constitution. But voters shocked him last June – the AKP failed to capture a majority, despite Erdogan’s allegedly illegal role in campaigning.
But that was not the end of it. With no clear winner, negotiations to form a coalition government failed. Meanwhile, fighting with Kurdish separatists restarted. Critics suggested Erdogan was manipulating the conflict. Then, five months after the first vote, the elections had to be held again. This time the AKP won. Erdogan has now forced out his prime minister to clear his path forward. He has imprisoned journalists, confiscated newspapers, suppressed protests, fired judges and overhauled the military high command. There is no sign he will relinquish power anytime soon.
Then there is, of course, Putin – another democratically elected president who has managed to cement his position, decimate the opposition and devastate democracy. How long will he remain in power in Russia? Probably as long as he wants. Of course, back in 2011, a dozen years after Putin came to power, many Russians had had enough. The biggest protests since the Soviet era erupted in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Standing in the freezing cold, protesters held signs reading “Russia without Putin.”
But since then Putin has grown even stronger. Anti-government protests are now essentially forbidden. Opponents have been imprisoned or mysteriously killed. So have journalists. The media has been methodically taken over by the government. Most Russians hear the version of the news that their government wants them to hear. Through it all, Putin remains enormously popular, fomenting nationalism and personal support through military interventions in Ukraine and Syria.
Could something similar happen in the United States if Trump becomes President? America has a stronger democratic tradition – and more rigorous democratic institutions – than any of these countries. But it’s a truism that a man with authoritarian tendencies will seek to maximize his power. America’s democracy would probably survive. But the battle would be costly and deeply damaging.
Already Trump has suggested he would be prepared to go after journalists – even in defiance of the First Amendment, and he at one point boasted of willingness to order the military to commit war crimes, before “clarifying” his remarks after a storm of criticism.
It’s easy to dismiss much of Trump’s rhetoric as empty pronouncements from the campaign stage. But he has much in common with other popular, forceful “outsider” political figures – charismatic politicians who have built cults of personality.
We’ve seen this played out before. Filipinos are about to find out what happens when the tough-talking politician moves from campaign performer to real-life president. And in just over five months, we will get to see if Americans will decide to give a Made in America version of this story a chance to play out.