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The Future of the Liberal Order in the Philippines, Part II

The 1987 Philippine constitution supposedly reflect a liberal agenda post-Marcos era. One of the major changes enshrined in it is the 6-year term of the president. The idea was sound then that with a continuous 6 –year term without reelection, the incumbent will focus on what is good for the country and not be distracted by a reelection campaign.

Alas! The framers were not thinking of a Rodrigo Duterte occupying the office. Duterte was not alone. Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo all tried to change the charter for reasons albeit political. The point here is that the 6-year term did not and does not for Duterte, immunize them from political ambitions. They have seen the view from the top and they all liked it!

Reelections allow incumbents to ask for the people’s blessings, whereas the 6-year term allows them to experiment on what they believe is good for the country – like the drug war Duterte is waging - and believe it will justify the means in the end.

This is one important reason why the 1987 constitution is not sacrosanct and should be revisited especially with proposals to shift to federalism. The constitution was clearly a product of fear for the Marcos ghost. It should be a living document. Besides, this very idea of a six-year term without reelection is illiberal and undemocratic. It is also an oxymoron. We want a good president to succeed with his good deeds but we don’t want him to serve again!

Duterte in many ways, is trying to ape Donald Trump with his inward nationalistic thrust. Damn the Mutual Defense Treaty, sport an anti-USA attitude, and pursue an aggressive domestic idea to address long neglected areas such as the country’s crumbling transportation structures, or go after the Reds and other nationalists. To him, the China issue or human rights complaints are secondary. Thus, the colliding interests between the Duterte admin and the liberal opposition.

With conflicting pursuits, the idea of détente will be lost particularly for the opposition. The administration will have the upper hand and more so with the impending win in the upcoming elections. The liberal opposition will find itself more marginalized after the election. At that point, the Duterte admin might be so emboldened by their super majority that pursuing cooperation with the opposition may become a much lower priority.

There was a time when the definition of nationalism was clear. During the 20th century, Filipinos’ nationalistic fervor was trained on either the Spaniards, the Americans during the Philippine-American revolution, and during the Japanese occupation. But soon, its meaning started to blur with the Maoist insurgency and later versions of it. It still worked during the Martial Law era given the abuses of Marcos but post Corazon Aquino presidency, the Marcos bogeyman started to lose its luster.

Nationalists these days are branded communists. Thus with the liberals currently in bed with the nationalists, they are getting lumped-in with the Leftist nationalists and therefore has become less appealing to the voters as suitable replacement for the Duterte admin.

Was this alliance necessary (given a similar elections outcome without it) or was it a tactical Liberal Party (LP) mistake? There is a difference here. Not pursuing the alliance is accepting current political realities and acceptance of the potential outcome. The alliance decision was a mistake if its future repercussions were not considered by the LP leadership. Although it appears to be a temporary solution due to lack of political options, this could have lasting repercussions for the restoration of liberal order in the Philippines after Duterte leaves his office.

If the May 2019 elections deliver a sweeping mandate for Duterte (which is very possible), then Duterte will definitely shape the next generation of Filipinos. It sounds ominous but Duterte’s liberal instincts could be a silver lining. Future leaders in his mold will no longer be afraid of the Catholic Church whose clout could also be diminished by Duterte’s ongoing assault such as the threat to revoke the church’s non-profit status or exercising imminent domain on church lands to benefit Duterte’s land reform program.

This is certainly not a post-mortem analysis but rather a 20/20 look at the future of liberalism in the Philippines. Accepting the fact that Duterte will finish his term or that his successors will be a 2.0 version, will give the liberals an opportunity to device a sensible approach to having a seat on the table. After all, liberalism has many variants.

From the Latin “liber” meaning free, liberalism is a concept based on liberty and equal rights. Politically and philosophically, that translates into many things that liberals espouse like the government role in people’s lives, individual rights (including civil rights and human rights), capitalism (free markets), democracy, secularism, gender equality, racial equality, internationalism, freedoms of speech, of the press and religion. Such diversity in interpretations gave rise to different types of liberals that could be simply labeled as conservative, progressive, classic, or leftist/radical. In the Philippine setting, however, liberalism as practiced by politicians is very confusing. While former president Benigno Aquino III and former senator Mar Roxas can be called progressives with their support of birth control pills as part of reproductive health, they are also classical liberals in many ways with their support of free trade (and the oligarchy).

VP Leni Robredo on the other hand, is a variant of conservative liberalism. A variant because conservative liberals are strong supporters of the separation between the state and the church. Robredo is a constant defender of the Catholic Church. Conservatives also believes in self-reliance and not dole outs (welfare programs). Former VP Jejomar Binay is more of the leftist, radical type honed by his opposition to Marcos. Duterte is of the same mold with Binay as liberal imperialists. Many people probably does not realize it but Binay was very much an authoritarian as mayor of Makati and explains why he got in trouble.

So, where do liberals go from here? Should they continue criticizing the Chinese connection and ignore the successes of Duterte’s Build, Build thrust in terms of stabilizing the economy and creating jobs? Should they continue criticizing progressive ideas like building dams or nuclear power in support of indigenous peoples or anti-nuke proponents? My two cents is chart a course for the next leader by understanding the current politics of the nation-state.

Accept the fact that Duterte is not a dissatisfied authoritarian seeking to revise the status quo but a liberal of a different mold. Today’s difficulties (such as Duterte’s drug war, China’s hegemony) are not going to pass that soon. There is some beauty to what Duterte is doing like conversion to federalism whether in toto or by installment (Bangsamoro). Giving due attention to land reform and not just useless political exercises that presidents Aquino did at Hacienda Luisita or Danding Cojuanco in Negros. And finally addressing a huge albatross that set back the country for a long time: the illegal drug trade. Finding peace with Duterte could bode well with the country.

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