Rodrigo Duterte's Trumpian exploits is giving populism a bad name
As an American living in Asia, it’s hard to decide who is copying who: Rodrigo Duterte or Donald Trump?
Granted, the populist Philippine president took office 204 days before the US one did in January 2017. That gave him a six-month-plus lead on attacking the judiciary, legislature, the media—basically, any institution that might hold Duterte accountable and impede his worst impulses.
Trump, of course, is also doing his worse to bend democracy to his authoritarian compulsions.
And while Trump is breaking and smashing everything he can, the damage he can do in four years is somewhat limited by the checks and balance built into the American system.
The same can’t be said of the Philippines, an altogether more fragile and vulnerable system.
To get a sense of how fragile, consider the turnaround story predecessor Benigno Aquino bequeathed Duterte.
When Aquino took office in 2010, the Philippines was a junk-rated, graft-plagued nation whose last president, Gloria Arroyo, would later be charged with plunder.
The man Arroyo succeeded in 2001 faced his own corruption rap. Aquino spent six years curbing graft, boosting tax receipts and increasing transparency and accountability enough to win investment-grade status for the first time.
Duterte was elected to accelerate reforms. Voters hoped his success in revitalizing Davao City, where he served as mayor, would be applied nationally.
Instead, national power quickly went to his head in ways sure to set back a geopolitically vital country. In some ways, the South-East Asian region, too.
Rather than continue Aquino’s drive to get the government out of the economy and narrow the rich-poor divide, Duterte pivoted, oddly, to drug dealers.
Duterte’s war of choice has filled more than 12,000 body bags, according to Human Rights Watch. The international rebukes, which are denting Manila’s global standing, are irking Duterte.
Last week, he told a United Nations official to “go to hell."
That, just three weeks after chief Supreme Court Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno was removed. Duterte called her an “enemy" for opposing extrajudicial killings.
Such headlines are shooting Duterte’s economy in the foot. Top line statistics don’t yet betray big troubles; the Philippines grew 6.8% in the first quarter. But currencies don’t lie, and the peso is one of Asia’s worst-performers, down more than 5% so far in 2018.
Along with the bloodshed, investors are responding to Duterte’s neglect of economic upgrades.
Structural moves to strengthen the independence of institutions, attack corruption, put more government bidding processes and functions online and invest more in education and healthcare are vital to maintaining investment-grade ratings.
Sadly, Duterte is focused elsewhere.
Even his perceived successes—such as green-lighting infrastructure projects—raise concerns. Whereas Aquino favoured a private-public approach to increase accountability, Duterte is bringing back a government-led model. That could mean even more graft, inefficiency and public debt.
When Aquino took office in 2010, Manila ranked 134th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, trailing Nigeria.
When Aquino left office, it ranked 95th. Duterte’s exploits have already knocked the Philippines back up to 111th—not a promising trajectory (India ranks 81st).
Clearly, Trump, too, is reading from the Ferdinand Marcos playbook. He’s following the kleptocracy model the former dictator—for whom Duterte has great affection—championed in the 1970s and 1980s. Trump has brought his family into his administration and turned the White House into a personal ATM. Now Trump’s tariffs are upsetting the global neighbourhood.
Likewise, Duterte’s bluster and erraticness are unnerving South-East Asia.
On the one hand, Mahathir Mohamad’s recent election win in Malaysia lifted the region’s spirits. It suggests Malaysia is, at long last, raising its economic game. On the other, democracy watchdogs worry Duterte is a rising threat to regional progress and peace.
Duterte’s policy zig-zags on the South China Sea are confusing the other nine members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
One day Duterte is cozying up to Beijing for investments; the next, he’s threatening war.
Asean will only be as strong as its weakest links. Duterte isn’t just giving populism a bad name. This is looking like a tragic tale of squandered opportunities that leaves 103 million Filipinos worse off. His Trumpian exploits also may leave South-East Asia less vibrant at the very worst moment.
William Pesek, based in Tokyo, is a former columnist for Barron’s and Bloomberg and author of Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.
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