The recent ouster of Robert Mugabe as Zimbabwe’s leader after ruling the country for 37 long years with an iron fist offers lessons to our beloved country.
The similarities between Zimbabwe’s Mugabe and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte attract attention.
Both gained power at the start through democratic means, winning the elections convincingly. However, Mugabe later changed the rules of the game to perpetuate his being president. Duterte, on the other hand, has threatened to install an extra-constitutional revolutionary government. Both have mastered combining legal and extralegal means to maintain or expand power.
Both do not tolerate a strong opposition.
Mugabe’s political party, the Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front (ZANU — PF) employs coercion and fraud to destroy the opposition. On different occasions, Mugabe jailed political rivals and banned the opposition from organizing assemblies.
In one instance, Mugabe, displeased by the High Court’s decision against his policy of confiscating lands owned by the white people, succeeded in pressuring the then Chief Justice to resign.
Duterte enjoys a supermajority in Congress by raiding the weaker parties and coalescing with politicians representing big business. His administration jailed a strident critic, Senator Leila de Lima. The Duterte administration threatened stripping the budget of a vocal and independent Commission on Human Rights. It is likewise using the weapon of impeachment to suppress Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales.
Duterte’s troll army uses the social media to vilify those who criticize his administration. Duterte himself insults and intimidates the Fourth Estate. Succumbing to the relentless attacks, the Prieto family sold the Philippine Daily Inquirer to a tycoon allied with Duterte. Arguably, Mugabe is worse. His military henchmen jailed and tortured journalists.
Mugabe and Duterte disdain human rights.
In the 1980s, Mugabe’s notorious Fifth Brigade, trained by North Korean agents, killed around 20,000 people who were accused of being dissidents. Mugabe gave immunity for the killings perpetrated by his troops. He acknowledged that the killings were whimsical, saying that “we can’t tell who is a dissident and who is not.”
Duterte, on the other hand, has unleashed the Philippine National Police, to kill drug users and drug dealers. The death toll has reached 7,000, consisting of deaths from police operations and vigilante-style killings. The police sugarcoats extrajudicial killings, calling it “deaths under investigation.” Duterte himself has publicly endorsed the killings and has justified the death of innocents as “collateral damage.”
On economic policy making, both are populists. And they both claim to be socialists, though their socialism is only in words, not in deeds. Socialism must be measured in terms of outcome, not rhetoric. In particular, socialism translates into having a citizenry freed from poverty, a citizenry having higher living standards, a citizenry empowered by their rights, and a citizenry enjoying liberté, égalité, and fraternité.
To consolidate his political base, Mugabe ordered land redistribution, which eventually became confiscatory. His egregious economic policies (like price control and expropriation of private property only to be given to political allies) have resulted in mass starvation and a devastated economy, with inflation rate once hitting 100,000% and unemployment affecting 80% of Zimbabwe’s labor force.
Duterte’s populism finds expression in policies like allowing free irrigation, free college education for all, hiking salaries of uniformed personnel and the like, even if the source of financing for such has not been identified.
Meanwhile, Duterte has not given much attention to the comprehensive tax reform, making it complicated for the Department of Finance to convince the politicians to pass a good bill. Indeed, the Senate version of the tax reform is severely compromised.
But one can see the difference between Mugabe’s economy and Duterte’s economy. The Zimbabwe economy has crumbled. The Philippine economy is experiencing impressive growth. So far, the endearing characteristics of the Philippine economy — a highly competitive exchange rate, benign inflation rate, fiscal space, consumption spending — have withstood the problems created by Duterte. In a manner, the economy is growing in spite of Duterte.
But overconfidence can be Duterte’s Achilles’s heel.
Reckless actions like installing a revolutionary government or destroying the institutions like the Supreme Court and Ombudsman by removing their heads can trigger a political crisis that will spill over to economic uncertainty. The political and economic costs will make it harder for Duterte to govern.
Lessons from the tragedy of Mugabe and Zimbabwe are thus relevant to the Philippines.
First, being bad will ultimately fail. It may take a long time to defeat the bad. Ferdinand Marcos fell after enjoying absolute, dictatorial power for 14 years. Mugabe lasted longer — close to four decades. But in the end, Mugabe’s departure was most inglorious. Being bad has intrinsic risks; the bad creates too many enemies, even from the bad’s narrow circle of allies.
Second, unwise policies that are disguised as popular measures do not immediately lead to a crisis. A semblance of exuberance is created, which can linger. But locking in hard reforms like tax reform or a competitive currency deters an economic fall, notwithstanding popular measures like free college education or higher pensions.
And third, it’s always good to be part of the good forces. Remember, the bad will inevitably fail. The caveat is we cannot be deterministic about this. Having a just cause does not instantly spell victory. We have to persevere, work hard, and be clever.
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.