Make no mistake: It’s downhill from here for Rodrigo Duterte. But the beginning of the unravelling may also initiate a dangerous period for the country, as the President may conclude that only extraordinary measures like martial law could reverse his presidency’s slide into crisis.
What has changed in the last few weeks? It’s that intangible but definitely very real thing called “moral momentum” that we associate with team sports like basketball. It was moral momentum stemming from his electoral victory with 40% of the vote on May 9, 2016 that propelled Duterte’s political offensive in the year that followed, allowing him to ride roughshod over concerns about violations of human rights and due process in his war on drugs, convert Congress into a compliant tool, sideline the Supreme Court, and intimidate the Catholic Church hierarchy.
Moral momentum provided a seemingly invulnerable shield as he encouraged the police to kill with impunity, branded drug users as non-human, made rape into a laughing matter, and sent Senator Leila de Lima to jail on trumped up charges to settle a personal score. This sense of invulnerability was communicated to his followers, who used social media to crucify anyone who dared to question the Duterte line, posting on Facebook an unceasing flow of invectives and threats, like calling for the execution of journalists Raissa Robles and Maria Ressa and the rape of Senator Risa Hontiveros.
The strange thing about moral momentum is that it can disappear owing to the conjuncture of a number of circumstances and elements. One day you’re riding high. The next day you’re adrift.
Losing moral momentum
Analysts will long debate when Duterte lost moral momentum. In my view, Duterte’s reversal of fortune was triggered by the same phenomenon that has undone past ambitious authoritarians: overreach. What constituted overreach was a concatenation of events and developments in August and September.
The shocking news that a record 81 people were slain by police in 4 days in mid-August was immediately followed by the even more shocking news in the days to come that teenagers Kian delos Santos, Reynaldo de Guzman, and Carl Angelo Arnaiz had been abducted and killed, with Kian’s abduction by the Caloocan police captured on CCTV. Shock turned into anger, and among Duterte supporters, enthusiasm into disorientation, as evident in the sharp drop in their Facebook posts defending the regime.
Then came the scandal of the P6.4-billion shipment of shabu tied to Duterte’s son, Paolo, about which the President was eerily quiet, followed by Duterte’s allies in Congress giving the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) a P1,000-budget for 2018, and, most recently, by Duterte’s vengeful threat to investigate the Ombudsman’s office in retaliation for its decision to investigate his family’s finances.
Instead of awing the citizenry as before, these events exposed a sense of entitlement, of being above the law, and a conviction that one could get away with anything. Suddenly, nobody but the most fanatical followers would clap at the President’s drama queen antics, like his recent challenge to Supreme Court Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales to resign along with him.
Few boots on the ground
Duterte, the instinctive politician that he is, was most likely worried by the mobilizations of September 21, the impact of which he preemptively tried to defuse by declaring that day a “day of protest.” It was not just the thousands that filled Mendiola, Luneta, and the CHR grounds that probably alarmed him but how, despite all his government’s resources, the pro-Duterte counter-rallies in Mendiola and Plaza Miranda could assemble only a few thousand participants, most of them government workers bussed from places like Caloocan and San Jose del Monte.
The polls may indicate that Duterte remains popular, but that does not mean people are willing to exhibit their allegiance to him, much less defend him in the crunch. His Facebook supporters may be vicious on the net, but most are not street activists. These people are cyberwarriors, many of them protected by anonymity, who would probably be at a loss on how to chant and behave at a rally.
Dr Herbert Docena of the University of the Philippines draws out the implications of Malacanang’s inability to translate its support into boots on the ground:
“What does this tell us? That compared to those he idolizes [Mussolini and Hitler], Duterte is still so far nothing but a second-rate copycat: He wants to be, or he postures as, a fascist but he can’t even be a proper one. That should be a cause for optimism and for intensified organizing: Yesterday showed not only how strong the resistance is and could become, it also showed just how weak Duterte really is and how isolated he is fast becoming. His regime rests less on active popular support and more on coercion; he is better at having people killed than inspiring and mobilizing them to defend him. It is no longer a question of *if* but when his regime will fall – and what will replace it.”
Popularity, Duterte should realize, is evanescent, and without an organized mass base, one is vulnerable to EDSA-type people power movements. Cabinet Secretary Jun Evasco, a former progressive turned into Duterte’s henchman, has been promoting over the last few months a fascist mass formation, the Kilusang Pagbabago (KP), but his initiative has not received much support from the President, it has received little funding, and other Duterte allies like the Pimentels and Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez have been worried that the KP may displace the ruling party, PDP-Laban. Reinvigorating KP at this point might be too late.
The martial law option
With the rise of resistance exemplified by the September 21 rallies, Duterte might now want to move quickly to impose martial law nationally to advance his authoritarian agenda. The problem he faces is that even if the subservient Congress and the Supreme Court majority were to support this move, the military high command has tremendous reservations, since the Armed Forces does not have the resources to impose martial law effectively nationwide and the generals know that the surest way to elicit challenges from junior officers is to be seen as accomplices in converting the AFP into Duterte’s personal instrument.
Yet, worried by the growing opposition, Duterte may, in fact, miscalculate and declare martial law, which may temporarily slow his regime’s descent into crisis but actually accelerate it in the medium-term.
The maleficent seven
Politics is unpredictable, and things can either unravel very quickly from now on or we might be entering a more fluid period, where the regime, depending on circumstances, can have periods of recovery, followed by phases of retreat. But there is no doubt that the overall trajectory from now on is downhill.
If there is any indication of which direction the wind is blowing, it’s the behavior of the “Maleficent Seven in the Senate.” Some people are puzzled why Sotto, Gordon, Villar, Pacquiao, Pimentel, Zubiri, and Honasan are so angry about their signatures not being attached to a resolution condemning the killing of minors in Duterte’s anti-drug war. Why does Sotto devote a whole privilege speech reacting to a blog calling him and his buddies “Malacañang Dogs”? It’s simple. It’s their sniffing, with their finely honed opportunistic sense of where the wind is blowing, that their patron is no longer invulnerable, and it’s time to say distancia, amigo.
But it’s too late, guys. Duterte’s tattoo is all over you, and, like the triad tattoo, it’s indelible. – Rappler.com
*Rappler contributor Walden Bello is National Chairman of the recently formed coalition Laban ng Masa. He made the only resignation on principle in the history of the Congress of the Philippines in March 2015 owing to differences with President Benigno Aquino III over the latter’s double standards in the fight against corruption, his refusal to take command responsibility for the tragic Mamasapano raid, and his negotiating the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States.