COMMENT: No, we can’t have another autocrat wannabe in power

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  • 2022 Philippine Elections
    2022 Philippine Elections
Policeman keep watch as activists carry signs as various groups protest marking the fifth and final year in office of President Rodrigo Rodrigo Duterte near the Malacanang Palace in Manila. The groups condemned the Duterte administration for its alleged human rights violation for the thousands who have been killed under the government's war on illegal drugs and criminality including the death of activists and critics. Philippines. (Photo: Basilio Sepe/Majority World/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Policeman keep watch as activists carry signs as various groups protest marking the fifth and final year in office of President Rodrigo Rodrigo Duterte near the Malacanang Palace in Manila. The groups condemned the Duterte administration for its alleged human rights violation for the thousands who have been killed under the government's war on illegal drugs and criminality including the death of activists and critics. Philippines. (Photo: Basilio Sepe/Majority World/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Growing up, every time I would encounter the words “autocrat” or “authoritarian,” and the word closest to home: “dictator,” in the foreign magazines I would borrow from my grandfather, I would always imagine a man in silhouette with laser-beam eyes pointing at different institutions (the police and military, mostly) underneath him, and then these institutions would control, jail, or torture members of the masses, especially the vocal ones. He was a big bad wolf — a bad guy.

My imagination was not so far from reality. According to Merriam-Webster, a dictator is "a person granted absolute emergency power," "one holding complete autocratic control: a person with unlimited governmental power," and "one ruling in an absolute and often oppressive way." This is almost similar to the dictionary's definition of an autocrat: "a person (such as a monarch) ruling with unlimited authority," and "one who has undisputed influence or power."

But the traits of an autocratic state today are already changing. They do not just have that one person but a group of elite people who are not assembled together by shared ideals of a flourishing and affluent nation, but by shared interests of power and total control over that nation. Anne Applebaum also said in her recent cover story for the Atlantic that nowadays, autocracies are run not by one bad guy, but by sophisticated networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services, and professional propagandists. 

An autocratic state today also no longer cares about international condemnation anymore; heck, they are proud and unapologetic of their aggressive schemes to fight back against mass discontent. This is why China takes pride in their demolition job of the democratic movements in Hong Kong, or why the Burmese junta tortured and murdered protesters and activists while documenting everything on a series of Facebook Live. Just this year, the Taliban had occupied Afghanistan, resulting in political and economic collapse, but the Taliban did not care about that – their goal was not to establish a prosperous Afghanistan, but an Afghanistan that they can control.

An autocracy today is already run by a group of elite people who are not assembled together by shared ideals of a flourishing and affluent nation, but by shared interests of power and total control over that nation.

That is the thing with autocracy. The ruling elites are willing and ready to see their country fail politically and economically and accept economic crumble and mass poverty – all while garnering absolute power and control that they want to enjoy during their term.

Currently, the Philippines is still, officially, a democratic country. Of course. But we should not rely too much on the comfort of that idea; the rule of law and application of justice remains haphazard and still heavily favors political and economic elites. With the elections coming and having popular strongman names in the list of candidates for top executive positions, our democracy may actually be in a delicate position.

I would like to borrow the three themes of US President Joe Biden’s upcoming Summit for Democracy: “defending against authoritarianism,” “fighting corruption,” and “promoting respect for human rights.” The Filipino people should focus on these three important areas if we really care about pushing our nation to prosperity and progress.

Defending against authoritarianism. It is not a secret to the world that the Philippines was once under the dictatorship of the infamous Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the Southeast Asian nation for 21 years. A 2003 Supreme Court ruling declared $683 million worth of Marcos assets in various Swiss banks as "ill-gotten,” while $5-10 billion estimated alleged ill-gotten wealth was plundered by the Marcoses during their two decades in power. Today, former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., son of the late dictator, has the audacity to come back and assume power over the nation that his father had abused and tortured for 21 years.

That is the thing with autocracy. The ruling elites are willing and ready to see their country fail politically and economically and accept economic crumble and mass poverty – all while garnering absolute power and control that they want to enjoy during their term.

Fighting corruption. Any nation, especially a developing one, knows that this is easier said than done; doing so requires enacting major changes in our systems and overcoming strong hostility from both private and public institutions that currently benefit from it. If we have an unprejudiced leader who is entirely focused on creating a new uncorrupt environment rather than trying to put a few uncorrupt officials in an already-corrupt political environment, we can certainly achieve this in the long run.

Promoting respect for human rights. During the Martial Law, 70,000 were arrested, mostly without warrants of arrest; 34,000 were tortured; 3,240 were killed by the military and the police, and 464 media outlets were shut. Current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte obviously (and proudly) snubs human rights, too; according to the Human Rights Watch, Duterte's war on drugs has claimed over 5,100 lives officially (the media and human rights groups claim the death toll is more than 12,000). He has also acted slowly on emergencies, which, of course, affected most of the urban and rural poor.

The next leaders should be able to ask tough questions and make big decisions out of the answers. Is the drug war necessary? What does killing thousands of people do to the economy (not to mention to public trust and confidence toward the government)? How can we support the lives of the families left by victims of human rights abuses and ensure their stability and security? If we continue to fail to hold these violent regimes to account, they will continue holding onto their sense of impunity. Their greed for power and control will only benefit them and never the Filipino people. We will become the victims of their greed.

If we continue to fail to hold these violent regimes to account, they will continue holding onto their sense of impunity.

While I have learned that pre-election surveys cannot accurately indicate or determine an upcoming elections' results, it still bothers me that Marcos, Jr. (whose vice-presidential partner is the incumbent president’s daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio) is leading the recent Social Weather Stations presidential survey with 47% of the votes. This, even though Marcos, Jr. has not really done anything significant in the past few years, let alone being a son of a former dictator. If 47% of the respondents chose him over the other candidates, what could have been their basis? It could not have been his glowing political achievements, for it is simply nonexistent (he is, essentially, an ex-lawmaker to date). So, was it his namesake alone that prompted people to choose him over other far more accomplished candidates?

We should be alert and cautious more than ever. If we fail to safeguard our democracy and let it fall into the hands of another autocrat-like leader, then it will not be impossible that autocracy will soon define, again, our government and leadership. History has shown that it benefits only the elites and never the general population.

So, true: with the elections coming and having popular strongman names in the list of candidates for top executive positions, our democracy may actually be in a delicate position.

But also true: we are in a position to fight for it and change the course of the history of our democracy. The choice is ours.

Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who has written in-depth special reports, news features, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications in the Philippines. He covers cultures, media, and gender. The views expressed are his own.

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