He is a populist, and has endeared himself to the masses. He won the elections by a landslide, and till now, his political party is hard to beat.
He put in place universal health care, poured resources in rural areas, and built massive infrastructure such as mass transit and a modern, world-class airport. Under his leadership, the economy recovered from a crisis and grew impressively. His policies were controversial but popular — huge government spending that stimulated the economy, budgetary support for small and medium enterprises, debt-write-off and low lending rates for farmers, subsidies for public transportation, and the like.
At the same time, he launched a war on drugs. This resulted in the unwarranted killing of at least 2,800 people. He and his government conducted the war on drugs with impunity. And he remains unaccountable for human rights violations.
He had a monopoly of power, appointing family and friends to lucrative positions in government. He courted and consolidated the support of the military and the police, taking advantage of his long-time connections with them.
Further, he was intolerant of those who opposed him. Despite his popularity, he clamped down on the critical media, using legalistic and police tactics. He brutally suppressed the Muslim separatist movement in the south. He provoked the “yellow” protesters, leading to frequent violent clashes in the capital.
Does all this sound like Rodrigo Duterte? But note that the narration above is about the past. The setting is in a neighboring country. The person referred to is Thaksin Shinawatra, former prime minister of Thailand. And it is a capsule of his populism, and his “Thaksinomics,” his brutality and authoritarianism, and the ensuing divisiveness and intense conflict that he engendered.
In significant ways, Duterte is a Thaksin. It does seem Duterte is following Thaksin’s script.
Duterte is a populist. He won the presidential elections by a large margin. He remains popular not only because of his knack for connecting with the common people but also for his “Dutertenomics.”
“Dutertenomics” is no different from “Thaksinomics.” Duterte is giving free irrigation to farmers and free college education to the youth regardless of ability to pay; embarking on a universal health care program; doing a “Build, Build, Build program” to fix the country’s decrepit infrastructure; raising salaries of government workers and slashing income tax rates (but increasing consumption taxes); expanding cash transfers to the poor; promising to stop the “endo” labor practices (short-term contracts), and so on.
His war on drugs has claimed thousands of lives, and many of the killings are extrajudicial. He does not care about human rights, and he even justifies the death of innocents as “collateral damage.”
He does not tolerate sharp criticism. He does not hesitate to bend the “rule of law” to bludgeon arch critics — having Senator Leila de Lima imprisoned, having Maria Lourdes Sereno removed from her position as Supreme Court Justice, and now attempting to have Senator Antonio Trillanes jailed.
Like Thaksin, Duterte believes in politics as an unrelenting and perpetual war against perceived enemies. Thaksin mobilized his “red shirts” to do combat with the “yellow shirts.” Duterte has unleashed his Dutertards and trolls to bully an already emasculated “yellow army.”
Ultimately, Thaksin’s bellicose and polarizing ways became the cause of his downfall. Not only did he mercilessly fight his political opponents; he likewise antagonized the royalty. This led the military to turn against him. With tacit support from the revered King, the Thai army engineered a coup d’etat that toppled Thaksin.
This, of course, has further damaged Thailand’s institutions. Thailand has paid a heavy price.
Will such a scenario play out in the Philippines? The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has exhibited its professionalism and its adherence to the Constitution. It has refused to join the war on drugs despite Duterte’s exhortation. It has deterred Duterte from abandoning US military relations even as his foreign policy has heavily tilted towards China. Recently, it has ignored the order from Malacañang to arrest and detain Senator Trillanes.
Duterte and his subalterns must henceforth be very afraid. Duterte must learn from Thaksin.
In an interview with The Economist (“What Thaksin taught,” July 28th-August 3rd 2018)), Thaksin was asked what he would do differently if given another chance to lead Thailand. His reply: He would no longer follow the stance of “winner takes all;” instead, he would “embrace all.”
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.