Since the election, last spring, of President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has witnessed the effects of increasingly demagogic politics on its culture and institutions. While Duterte has won praise domestically and internationally for some of his efforts, including plans to resolve the southern insurgency and strategies to reduce economic inequality in the Philippines, he also has increasingly personalized politics, while dramatically undermining the rule of law. Campaigning as a demagogue, he has often governed as a demagogue, brooking little opposition and overseeing bloody policies. His war on drugs, which has descended into a bloody killing spree with few seeming constraints on the power of the security forces, is but one example of how the rule of law has deteriorated in a few months. [The New York Times has a compelling and graphic new look inside the antidrug campaign here.]. Duterte also has threatened journalists and other members of civil society, while embarking upon a foreign policy that has bewildered many Philippine security experts. The president’s mercurial style, although popular with many Philippine citizens so far, has often made it difficult to know what policy initiative—in both domestic and foreign policy—to take seriously, and which to ignore.
The country’s politics, always noisy and vibrant, have become especially dangerous, and currents of opposition to Duterte appear to be forming. After Duterte’s administration approved the burial of the body of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a hero’s cemetery, with little warning, anti-Duterte protests have swelled in Manila. (Although Duterte comes from a left-leaning background, he has long expressed warm feelings for the Marcos family, and Duterte’s father served in the former dictator’s cabinet.) The protests, which began as Philippine citizens realized Marcos was going to be interred, quickly spread from Manila to other parts of the country, and included not just older Filipinos who remembered the Marcos era but some younger men and women who objected to the burial, and who used the demonstrations to voice anger at some of Duterte’s dictatorial approaches to politics.
As Mong Palatino notes in The Diplomat, Duterte seems to have underestimated the strong lingering anger over the Marcos era and over giving Marcos any hero’s burial. The president also seems to have underestimated the possibility that anti-Marcos burial protests could become rallying points for supporters of the previous administration, and opposition parties, to air grievances about Duterte’s policies and approach to governing. Duterte’s administration, meanwhile, has repeatedly responded to the demonstrations by calling the protesters agitators who are seeking to foment violence.
Now, just after the burial demonstrations, a new crisis has emerged. In the Philippines, the vice president and the president are elected separately, and so the country often winds up with a vice president and president from different parties—indeed, two political figures who are major rivals and who clash, rhetorically, for the president’s whole term. This is the current situation; in the same election in which Duterte was elected president, Leni Robredo, a respected human rights lawyer and former mayor from a different party as Duterte, was elected vice-president.
Predictably, Robredo and Duterte, who is not known for his interest in human rights norms, have clashed from the first day of his administration. While she was given a Cabinet position in addition to her vice presidency—she was working as a housing secretary in the Cabinet—Robredo claims she was essentially frozen out at Cabinet meetings and her agency was ignored. Earlier this month, she quit her position as housing secretary, while retaining her post as vice president. She told reporters she had sent Duterte a letter saying “remaining in your cabinet has become untenable.” More worryingly, she publicly insinuated that the administration had been maneuvering to remove her from the vice presidency, possibly to replace her with Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son of the former dictator and a close ally of Duterte’s. According to Bloomberg, she warned of a “plot to steal” the vice presidency from her.
There are several dangers from Robredo and Duterte becoming more publicly alienated from each other. Duterte could maneuver more aggressively to replace Robredo, though the constitutionality of such a move would prove challenging. Still, if he succeeded he might trigger much larger protests, since Robredo is nearly as popular as the president. The second, also worrying implication, is that Robredo could increasingly be seen, by many Filipinos who oppose Duterte’s brutal style of governing, as a viable alternative leader—especially if Duterte continues to abuse the rule of law. Although Duterte’s actions are dangerous, corrosive to the rule of law, and potentially dislocating to the Philippines’ safety and security, if his opponents want to challenge him they should do so in the legislature and the courts and the media. Doing so in these ways would push back against the president’s reported abuses while reinforcing the rule of law. But too often in the past, Philippine leaders have been forced from power in murky, sometimes extralegal ways—and having a vice president beloved by Duterte’s opponents exacerbate the risk of some kind of extralegal challenge to the presidency.
One does not have to look too far back for an example of a controversial, even dangerous president being removed through questionable means—with his vice president ready to take over and possibly playing a role in his ouster. In fact, this is roughly what happened to former president (and now mayor of Manila) Joseph Estrada in 2001. He was replaced by his vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Estrada was no role model. His removal certainly rid the Philippines of a president who did little to promote the rule of law—after stepping down following massive street protests, an impeachment, and the withdrawal of army support for him, Estrada was later convicted of graft. In office, he had weathered massive allegations of graft and widespread complaints from advisors and foes alike that he was uninterested in public policy. But Estrada’s removal, a combination of a legal process, street protests, and a kind of coup, did little to strengthen Philippine institutions or set any precedent for how to address illegal activities by a president.