Rodrigo ‘Digong’ Duterte, who is stepping down as president of the Philippines after six years in power. Eloisa Lopez/Reuters
Under Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines suffered 14 years of martial law – a period marked by human rights abuses and ‘disappearances’, pilfering by the presidential family and US interference. Now, over three decades since Marcos was ousted in a popular uprising in 1986, his son leads the race to become the Philippines’ next president.
Marcos Jr has been emboldened by his alliance with the family of the sitting president, Rodrigo ‘Digong’ Duterte, who in six years has torn up the country’s weak semblance of liberal democracy and brought the nation back to the brink of disaster. Ahead of May’s presidential election, Novara Media spoke to organisers and intellectuals in the Philippines about the president’s blood-soaked rule and its likely legacy, and how the left – in a country with one of the world’s longest running Maoist insurgencies – is fighting back.
“The war on drugs is essentially a war on the poor,” says Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of Karapatan, a prominent Philippine human rights group. This war has, she says, “affected the very fabric of social solidarity in urban poor communities in the country.”
The bloodbath, and Duterte’s coarse language – curses, rape jokes, Holocaust threats – has made him anathema among English-speaking liberals. Within the Philippines, however, he has remained the most popular president of all time, with approval ratings cruising at 80%. While his popularity has been dented during the pandemic, polls consistently show overwhelming support for his drug war across all social classes.
Duterte’s foul-mouthed speeches offer an antidote to the technocratic language of traditional politicians. He positioned himself as an outsider, rising to power as mayor of Davao City in the war-torn island of Mindanao, far to the south of ‘imperial Manila’s’ traditional elite. ‘Tatay Digong’ (Daddy Duterte), as he’s known to his supporters, promised to steam-roller inefficient bureaucratic institutions, riding to the country’s rescue as a gun-toting, can-do patriarch. His tough-guy approach was first tested as mayor, when he used the ‘Davao death squad’ to violently transform the city.
“Because of the failure of liberal democracy,” says Palabay, “people tend to veer to the right. They think that this delivers more than what the liberals have delivered.”
Due to his subversion of polite political mores and disregard for liberal institutions, many have lumped Duterte in with other late-2010s ‘populists’ or ‘disaster nationalists’ like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi. But while these leaders cultivated a rightwing religious base, Duterte went to war with the Catholic church – the largest religious institution in the Philippines – which repaid him by backing the ill-fated anti-Duterte alliance in the 2019 midterm elections.
Even more divergently, Duterte promised to expand social provisions, positioning himself as the country’s first ‘left’ president who would break with the neoliberal economics of the past. Public spending was increased and poured into infrastructure as part of his ‘build, build, build’ initiative, while he promised social reforms that would benefit the majority of Filipinos.
In reality, however, his administration has overseen a dramatic acceleration of neoliberal capitalism. “While people focused on the drug war, they didn’t focus too much on the economic transformation that was taking place,” says Walden Bello, a respected leftwing Philippine intellectual. “With Duterte, you really had a reassertion of neoliberalism in a very strong fashion.” Restrictions on foreign ownership were lifted in utilities, retail and industry; WTO dictates were implemented in agriculture.
Sonny Africa, executive director of the IBON Foundation, a progressive think tank that works closely with mass organisations in the Philippines, says: “President Duterte, despite his socialist rhetoric, kept all the old liberalisation, deregulation, privatisation policies.” Africa points to two large tax reforms passed in 2017 and 2021, calling them “categorically the most sweeping, the most regressive tax reforms in Philippine history”.
Similar double-speak can be found in Duterte’s foreign policy. While utilising anti-imperialist rhetoric – pledging to end the long-running military domination of the Philippines by the US – he has doubled down on collaboration with the former coloniser. He personally pardoned a US marine who killed a trans woman, received Trump’s blessing for his drug war, and declared martial law in Mindanao to assist a massive US-backed military assault against the city of Marawi in 2017.
Duterte and the Philippine left.
The Philippine left is broadly split into two major blocs. The largest, the ‘national democratic’ (‘natdem’) movement, comprises an array of mass worker, student, women and peasant organisations that share principles and analysis with the Maoist-influenced Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). The CPP commands a substantial guerilla force in the countryside, the New People’s Army (NPA).
Another bloc, represented by coalitions like the Laban ng Masa (People’s Struggle), attempts to replicate the left populist successes of European and Latin American movements rather than plan for the violent overthrow of the state. Some sections in this bloc come from the ‘rejectionist’ left, so-called due to their traumatic break from the CPP in the early 1990s. Others are ‘social democrats’ (‘socdems’), an NGO-centric soft-left.
Duterte had something of a relationship with the natdem left before taking office. As Davao City mayor he released political prisoners, instituted progressive gender reforms and even allowed a mass funeral of a prominent NPA commander. In his youth he was a member of the Kabataang Makabayan, a militant student organisation started by the founder of the CPP, Jose Maria Sison. During the election campaign, Sison expressed hopes that his former student could become a Philippine Hugo Chávez.
The natdem movement didn’t endorse Duterte or give him official support in 2016, but once in office Duterte remarkably released several CPP prisoners, began peace talks, and even tapped natdem organisers to lead three government departments. The decision to take up these positions was criticised by liberals and other parts of the Philippine left.
It was not, however, out of keeping with the approach of the other bloc. Socdems had long argued the need to engage with government in order to win technocratic reforms; Akbayan, an alternative left electoral alliance, had a close relationship with the previous president, Benigno Aquino III, despite rampant assassinations and archetypal neoliberalism.
Bello, a former CPP member who is now a figurehead of the ‘rejectionist’ left, thinks there was a “quid pro quo” between Duterte and the military around this time. In return for supporting Duterte, the military – always “ideologically opposed to any sort of compromise with the Communist Party” – was given a “free hand” by the president to try and wipe out the NPA. Generals flooded into the cabinet.
“It took a turn for the worse after the NTF-Elcac was established,” says Palabay. “Here you have a government task-force which is openly red-baiting. If you are red-tagged, the target is on your back […] and what comes next is either death or arrest.”
Her organisation, Karapatan – associated with the natdem left – has become a particular target. Palabay was arrested in 2020 for perjury, charges she is currently on bail for.
“Our colleagues have been arrested since [then], some of them remain in jail, and many have been killed,” she says. Fifteen Karapatan human rights workers have been assassinated since Duterte came to power in 2016. One, Zara Alvarez, was gunned down in August 2020. She had filed for official protection at the Supreme Court the year before, warning in her affidavit: “I might be killed”.
Marco L. Valbuena, chief information officer of the CPP, spoke to Novara Media while underground in the Philippines. He described the effects of this new war on the left: “Every state agency, in effect, is now run by the NTF-Elcac [… the] counter-insurgency campaign is utterly brutal in the countryside […] The distinction between civilians and combatants has been blurred. Civilian communities are being occupied by the military. Fascist troops take over the civilian structures such as the village office, schools and even day care centres.”
Duterte against the oligarchy?
If, as Eric Hobsbawm argued, the European bourgeoisie rarely chose to operate the levers of political power directly, the opposite holds true in the Philippines.
In Philippine politics, families – not parties – are the primary political unit; elite clans dominate state institutions. Dynasties run their land holdings, industrial affairs and public positions like family businesses, ruling local fiefdoms through ‘guns, goons and gold’. Oligarchical families spar for nationally elected positions: the Cojuangcos, Marcoses, Ampatuans; what Benedict Anderson called “cacique democracy”.
Duterte set himself up in opposition to this system. It’s clear, though, that his beef is with rival oligarchs, rather than the oligarchy per se – his favoured clique has been enriched by his largesse.
“The so-called fight against cronyism was really just transferring power from one set of oligarchs to another set of oligarchs tied to him,”’ says Bello.
Africa of the IBON Foundation describes the case of Manny Villar: “You have a former senate president, who went back to his business, was replaced in the senate by his wife, he’s the richest Filipino, he’s backing the Nacionalista party […] his son is in the Department of Public Works and Highways, so they know exactly where the roads are going to be built […] they’ll know what land to buy cheap, because once the roads are built that land value will go up […] Manny Villar saw his wealth quadruple between 2016 and 2021, even during the pandemic.”
Other elites have lost out. The Lopezes, sugar industry titans who trace their family wealth back to late Spanish colonial rule, have been in Duterte’s firing line. He used his super-majority in congress to deny the franchise to the Lopez-run media outlet, ABS-CBN – the largest broadcaster in the archipelago. While Western onlookers and Philippine liberals have leapt to their defence as beacons of free speech, the Lopez family have long wielded their media ownership for political gain.
Underlying the story of an authoritarian government silencing media critics is a clash between two political dynasties, the manoeuvres of competing elite factions. Under pressure, ABS-CBN sold its assets this year. The buyer? Manny Villar.
Duterte’s presidency has been partly defined by his response to the Covid-19 pandemic, marked by some of the harshest, most prolonged lockdowns in south-east Asia. Schools have been shut longer than anywhere else on Earth, exercise punishments have been meted out to transgressors, and the president ordered ‘troublemakers’ to be shot. The measures spared the Philippines the biblical carnage witnessed in India, at the cost of hemming the poor into their homes with little social provision.
Ultimately, some of the worst fears about Duterte – that he would declare nationwide martial law and abrogate presidential term limits, that he would use the ‘Jakarta method’ to wipe out the left in a virtual genocide – haven’t quite come to pass. He has, however, broken most of the liberal constraints that kept the worst excesses of the Philippine state in check during the post-Marcos era.
This new form of politics will be cemented if, as the polls suggest, the allied Marcoses and Dutertes win the upcoming elections. Ferdinand Marcos’s son, Bongbong Marcos, and the president’s daughter, Sara Duterte, are running for president and vice-president on a joint ticket from hell.
Bello, who is running an alternative left campaign for vice-president with worker candidate Leody de Guzman, warns: “You’re talking about the whole Marcos family being ensconced back in power […] The Marcos family is coming back, with its whole set of networks and cronies from the old days.” With a sizeable lead in the polls, the pair may well push the Philippines back toward the martial law era of Marcos Sr.
In the face of this, the Philippine Communist resistance continues, embedded in communities across the country. The CPP remains one of the largest militant Communist parties on the planet, with little sign of dying out.
“Duterte’s campaign against the patriotic, progressive and revolutionary forces has been brutal and bloody, marked by assassinations, extrajudicial killings, abductions, torture, unlawful arrests and prolonged detention,” says Valbuena, the CPP spokesperson. “This bloody campaign of suppression further enrages the people and rouses them to defend their rights […] the NPA and the masses are fighting back valiantly.”
Connor Woodman is a writer who has visited the Philippines twice.