What can Brazil learn from the Philippines?

and . Nov 18, 2018
philippines rodrigo duterte bolsonaro Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte salutes the honor guards at Metro Manila's airport

President-elect Jair Bolsonaro is often referred to as the “Trump of the Tropics,” a comparison Mr. Bolsonaro fuels himself, emulating the Trumpian style of politics. However, if we’re comparing Brazil’s next president to other populists around the world, we would be best served looking to the Philippines and President Rodrigo Duterte, with his macho law and order discourse and shoot-to-kill war on drugs policy.

Both have a penchant for making offensive and “unpresidential” remarks. One suggested soldiers should shoot female communist rebels in the vagina. The other told a congresswoman she was not worth raping and pledged to “machine gun” his opponents. Both were perceived as political outsiders despite having held public office for nearly three decades.

Messrs. Bolsonaro and Duterte are products of what Filipino political analyst and policy advisor Richard Heydarian calls “emerging market populism.” Different from right-wing populism in the United States and France, built largely on anti-immigration sentiment among the so-called “losers of globalization” from the middle class, Brazil and the Philippines are quite different, with populism taking root in other ways and propagating in institutional environments with limited checks and balances.

</span></p> <div id="attachment_11660" style="width: 737px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-11660" loading="lazy" class="size-full wp-image-11660" src="" alt="Jair Bolsonaro Rodrigo Duterte" width="727" height="485" srcset=" 727w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 727px) 100vw, 727px" /><p id="caption-attachment-11660" class="wp-caption-text">Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro</p></div> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Just over one month ahead of Mr. Bolsonaro’s inauguration, Brazilians may look to learn a thing or two from the Philippines’ experience under Mr. Duterte, as both represent stark shifts in their countries political course.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">“I think the most long-lasting effects of Duterte are on us Filipinos, culturally and on a psychological level,” says Liana Barcia, who left her home country one year ago to study in Germany. She recently visited her family in Manila. “Back home, people have become more paranoid. They definitely think they can be shot in broad daylight by anyone,” she says. There are fears Brazil could be headed down the same path.</span></p> <h2>Why do people support a &#8220;shoot-to-kill&#8221; policy?</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">EJK. This is an acronym most Filipinos have become familiar with, appearing on Tagalog-speaking national media with some regularity, despite standing for an English term. Extrajudicial killings, the number of which have surged in the Philippines due to Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs. The national police force has recorded 23,518 homicide cases since he took office in June 2016—an average of 33 people killed each day.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Despite this campaign of violence, Mr. Duterte remains almost as popular as when he was inaugurated. He enjoyed an approval rating of 65 percent in June 2018, in contrast with the 76 percent level recorded in September 2016, according to the local pollster Social Weather Stations. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Heydarian points out, though, that societies are not monolithic. Different people support Mr. Duterte’s human rights violations and war on drugs for different reasons. “Some people do not agree with the method but agree with the principle. There are those who are just afraid and simply don’t oppose the war on drugs. Others agree with his economic policies, so they opportunistically support him,” he illustrates.</span></p> <p><img loading="lazy" class="alignnone size-full wp-image-11661" src="" alt="Jair Bolsonaro Rodrigo Duterte" width="950" height="633" srcset=" 950w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 950px) 100vw, 950px" /></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">“Surveys show that Filipinos welcome the war on drugs, but not the killings,&#8221; says Jayeel Cornelio, sociology professor in Ateneo de Manila University. &#8220;People are worried, but they welcome it, because paradoxically it makes them feel safer in their communities.”</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The eagerness for some sort of solution is another factor, pointed out by political analyst Ramon Casiple, head of the Philippines Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. “There is a desire for change and an acceptance that the president must have a firm hand to provide an immediate solution to the main problems that concern them.”</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">This is where the war on drugs hits its mark. It ignited a national discourse on how a traditionally conservative and nominally Catholic society embraced extrajudicial killings without question. Recent polls show at least 78 percent of Filipinos approve the state-led killing spree. Again, the acceptance of this discourse has more to do with a growing frustration against political elites than with an abrupt shift in beliefs among the population.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">“It is not so much that Mr. Duterte has changed traditional Filipino values. On the contrary, the time was ripe for him to become president because many Filipinos were already disillusioned with previous regimes marred by corruption, inefficiency, and a perceived preference for the elite,” said Mr. Cornelio.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Duterte presented himself as someone familiar, someone who the electorate could connect with and get behind. “His macho words are reminiscent of those of a sleazy uncle or a drunk neighbor, someone who makes us feel uncomfortable but is also a part of our lives,” said Nicole Curato, senior research fellow of the University of Canberra’s Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance. “One can say that Mr. Duterte did not himself change societal values, but he mirrors a part of it.” </span></p> <h2>Shoot first, ask questions later</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The parallels with Brazil are remarkable. Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s shoot-first approach helped him gain traction among a large portion of the electorate that feels little has been done to improve public security. His suggestions for loosening gun ownership rules to allow “good citizens” to defend themselves was well received, even among conservative sectors of Brazilian society, such as evangelical Christians.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Like Mr. Duterte, Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s casual, politically incorrect and seemingly improvised persona is key to understand his support among such large portions of the population. Just as Mr. Duterte comes across as familiar, Jair Bolsonaro presents himself as an average Brazilian, with his slapdash social media videos and his disruptive statements about nearly any given public policy issue.</span></p> <p><img loading="lazy" class="alignnone size-full wp-image-11662" src="" alt="Jair Bolsonaro Rodrigo Duterte" width="940" height="529" srcset=" 940w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 940px) 100vw, 940px" /></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The comparable social context in the Philippines and Brazil, in which “outsiders from the inside” have thrived, is noteworthy. In Brazil, a high level of dissatisfaction with political elites—witnessed during the mass street demonstrations in 2013—was the first step toward this shift. The resentment over the economic policies of former President Dilma Rousseff and anger toward widespread corruption scandals fueled the fire some more. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Heydarian, the Manila-based political analyst, ponders that in a society overwhelmed by problems that never seemed to be addressed, over time, basic notions of human rights and due legal process are no longer ingrained in people’s minds. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">According to him, that also explains why the support for Messrs. Duterte and Bolsonaro should not be considered “highly abnormal.” “When people feel let down by the traditional political class and begin to doubt values of democracy and human rights to the point they want to try something different, it is reasonable that they are willing to take two or three years to test their choice,” he says.</span></p> <h2>Methods to madness</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The impact of such leaders, however, goes beyond the individual level. In the Philippines, Mr. Duterte has also affected the country’s institutions and the way politics is done. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In office, Mr. Duterte wasted no time in going after his opponents. His frequent clashes with Maria Lourdes Sereno, former Chief Justice, led to her ouster. Mr. Duterte also publicly went after one of his biggest critics, former Senator Leila de Lima, which led to her eventual imprisonment.</span></p> <div id="attachment_11663" style="width: 1034px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-11663" loading="lazy" class="size-large wp-image-11663" src="" alt="Jair Bolsonaro Rodrigo Duterte" width="1024" height="682" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1520w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><p id="caption-attachment-11663" class="wp-caption-text">Former Filipino Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno</p></div> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">At the same time, we saw his allies rise to positions of power, regardless of their qualifications or suitability for office. The current Speaker of the Congress, for instance, is Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. She is a close ally and former president whose plunder charges were dismissed weeks after Mr. Duterte assumed office.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Duterte&#8217;s political appointments spell the difference between incompetence and cronyism. They highlight the fact that institutions, some which were weak even before he assumed power, were shaken to the core by his divisive policies. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">“Institutions are supposed to be impartial and work on an operational basis but they were increasingly personalized by purging those who do not agree with the new government,” Mr. Heydarian adds. “That erodes institutions.”</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Unlike previous Filipino presidents, Mr. Duterte’s political moves mimic those of authoritarian leaders who secure power by buying loyalty with government seats. The political analyst from Manila labels this as a “rule </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">by </span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">law” instead of the rule of law of a functioning liberal democracy. “Authoritarian leaders resort to semi-legal means and they create imperial presidencies.”</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The reaction of Mr. Duterte&#8217;s detractors has also led to the weakening of Filipino institutions. “The opposition has never accepted his victory,” says Ramon Casiple, in reference to accusations of the president’s shady bank accounts, alleged to contain undeclared millions. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">These disputes create friction between the branches of power. In Brazil’s recent history, the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff was rooted in the opposition&#8217;s refusal to accept her victory, embarking on a legal battle to deteriorate her Presidency until she was removed from office. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Although all the procedures were undertaken within legal boundaries, public and governmental institutions were used for political gain, in what is called lawfare. “The institutions are caught in the crossfire of these political battles,” Mr. Casiple says. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">It would not be a surprise if a similar process was to unravel in Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro. This week, a routine analysis of his campaign finances indicated “inconsistencies” and Mr. Bolsonaro was given three days to present his defense.</span></p> <h2>Does Jair Bolsonaro pose a greater threat?</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Vincent Bevins, a reporter for </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">The Washington Post</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> with extensive experience covering both Brazil and the Philippines, argues that Mr. Bolsonaro is more extremist than his Filipino counterpart. In a thread on Twitter, he argued that “Mr. Duterte campaigned as a ‘socialist’ and was friendly with the left when he started the Presidency.” The journalist adds that the Asian politician initially took a pro-environment stance once in office and is “fairly pro-LGBT,” in clear contrast with Mr. Bolsonaro’s main proposals. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Heydarian highlights how both presidents harbor nostalgia for past military regimes. He points out, though, that in the Philippines, the military is very professionalized due to its links to the United States (which occupied the Philippines from 1899 to 1946). Those ties cause friction for someone like Mr. Duterte, especially because of his connections to China, revealed mostly by his pro-Beijing decisions on disputes in the South China Sea.</span></p> <div id="attachment_11664" style="width: 1010px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-11664" loading="lazy" class="size-full wp-image-11664" src="" alt="Jair Bolsonaro Rodrigo Duterte" width="1000" height="667" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><p id="caption-attachment-11664" class="wp-caption-text">Prior to the election, dozens of thousands protested Jair Bolsonaro</p></div> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">That puts Brazil in a “much more vulnerable position,” the Filipino analyst argues. “With Mr. Bolsonaro in power, it is not just a far-right administration, but it is also a militarized one.” Mr. Bolsonaro is a former Army captain, and has already named several members of the military to his cabinet.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Now more than ever, Filipinos need to take responsibility for their ballot decisions and contend with the political reality. “Filipinos used to be known for being open to each other and caring, especially during natural disasters, but now many Filipinos cannot trust each other anymore. [Duterte] has really split society down the middle,” says Liana Barcia. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The <a href="">2018 elections</a> seem to have done the same in Brazil. It remains to be seen whether increased hostility against minorities becomes the new normal, but given what has happened in the Philippines, Brazilians at least know what to expect.

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Mario Braga

Braga is a journalist from São Paulo. He is an Erasmus Mundus Journalism scholar pursuing his Master’s degree at Aarhus University (Denmark) and at the London’s City University.

Ramon Royandoyan

Ramon is a Filipino freelance journalist. He is a student at the Erasmus Mundus master program in Media, Journalism and Globalization

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