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The Philippine elections

Anton Cu Unjieng

May 18, 2016

The Philippine elections have been making international headlines for two reasons: because Rodrigo Duterte won a clear victory, and because Geraldine Roman just became the country's first transgender woman to be elected to congress.

The excitement over Roman's election is entirely justified. This is a country in which elected senators can call queer people worse than animals or suggest that they should go to live on another planet, where the law expressly forbids trans people from changing their names and gender on government records. Roman's victory carries an historic significance for all transgender Filipinos and for the queer community generally with whom she has explicitly expressed solidarity.

It should be remembered, however, that Roman is part of a wealthy and well-established political dynasty and was the bet of the ruling Liberal Party (LP). Her election is a victory for trans inclusion, but it should not erase the memory of how much the queer community has suffered under LP rule or of how unreliable even the most liberal of the political elites have been in our struggles for liberation.

In contrast, the election of Duterte will no doubt be remembered as a historic low point for the Philippine's shabby democracy. He is an unapologetic homophobe, expressed regret at not having been included in the gang rape of an Australian missionary, and has promised to eradicate "heinous crime" (drugs, kidnapping, and—without apparent irony—rape) within the first six months of his presidency by inspiring "the people to  take the cudgels for the country" and kill 100,000 criminals. This is evidently also intended as a creative solution to food scarcity, as he has promised that, under his presidency, the fish of Manila Bay will "grow fat" on the bodies the criminals.

Less often talked about is the fact that Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr. (son of the late dictator), who entered the arena of national politics in 2010 when he won a seat in the senate, made a run for the Vice Presidency. At the time of writing, LP bet, Leni Robredo is winning by a slim lead in the unofficial count. Marcos has cried foul, but it does not look like his claims of cheating will be substantiated (which is not the same as saying that they are false. It is a fair bet that there was cheating on all sides, although the LP is better able to intervene in the count).

President Aquino, Jr.

The sudden and meteoric rise of Duterte to national significance, as well as the popularity of the son of the late dictator must have come as a surprise to the current President whose father's assassination sparked the first EDSA revolution and whose mother's presidency oversaw the transition to democracy.

President Noynoy Aquino—who had the nerve to contract President with Noy into "Pnoy" (a homophone of "Pinoy," a short hand for Pilipino) —spent most of his presidency patting his own back for the country's relatively consistent economic growth in the context of a sluggish global and ASEAN economy. He has credited this growth to the policy he called "daang matuwid" (the straight path) and to what he has characterised as his struggle against tax avoidance and corruption. Mar Roxas, his successor in the LP, ran on the basis of continuing along the straight path laid by Aquino.

In political economic terms, Acquino's administration was an historic achievement for Philippine capitalism. The LP united the most productive sections of the class around a plan for development centered on resource extraction, the special economic zones, urban construction, the service industry (especially call centers), and, of course, as ever, OFW remittances ($30B in 2015, $20B in 2014). To put this in perspective, there are now at least 288 special economic zones in the Philippines in which industries pay a rent of 5 per cent of their gross income and zero taxes. Fully 178 of these zones are dedicated to IT parks and centres—call center work making a large proportion of these. Workers employed in these zones, often as PBOs (outsourced labour), have some of the worst conditions and are among the most poorly organized.

There are 17 “Agro-Industrial” zones, but a proportion of these are actually ports and warehouses. At least one is dedicated to bio-fuel. In other words, to the extend that the agricultural industry has been given the “incentives” of the ecozones, this has not gone into food security. In the SONA2015, the administration actually claimed that the Philippines had hit 96 per cent rice self-sufficiency and had stocked up for the drop that they already knew the El Nino would cause. Who knows what statistical magic they have used to come up with these claims. Either people are hungry because there is not enough rice, or there is indeed enough rice but they cannot afford it. The poverty rate among farmers remains crushingly high—above 38 per cent. Almost 40 per cent of the labour force is employed by this sector, meaning that more than a third of all food producers want for food. Of course, not only farmers are hungry. The casual disregard to which the hungry poor—particularly those in the periphery—continued to be treated by the elites was bloodily demonstrated to the electorate in March 30 when farmers demanding the food relief to which they were entitled were shot at by cops, who killed at least three and injured over a hundred more.

What is clear is that the path to internationally competitive development paved by Noynoy is (in general terms) the only one available to the Philippines and countries like it. It is not an accident that contractualisation has expanded to such a degree that it has become an electoral issue nationwide. Nor is it an accident that at the start of his term, the president attempted to break PALEA in their struggle against contractualisation. Noynoy paved the path of Philippine development against workers, against farmers, against the petty bourgeoisie—and, interestingly enough, against the old but relatively unproductive fractions of the Philippine ruling class. The most dynamic sections of the class (eg the Makati business club) fully back the Liberal Party because his plan has worked extraordinarily well for them. Nevertheless, the last six years saw s (largely successful) attempt to restructure Philippine capital, and important sections of the ruling class were also left out in the cold in that process.

At the same time, inequality has only risen throughout this whole period of growth. But an important inflection of this is that the provinces (whose wealth is simply siphoned off to Manila) have tended to feel the insult of this inequality most keenly. This is perhaps most true of the resource rich Mindanao region, the site of a messy civil war. The administration had hoped to open it up for more stable development by establishing a peace in the region, which thanks to grassroots organizing by ordinary indigenous populations, the Bangsamoro, and the sections of the settler population, would finally have culminated in the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). This would have given the Bangsamoro much greater sovereignty over the region. Unfortunately, a year into the peace process, a military gaffon the government's part caused the death of forty-four members of the Special Armed Forces at the hands of Moro resistance fighters. The resulting nationalist reaction scuttled the BBL, whose popularity had already been frail among the settler population and Filipinos generally.

The renewed civil war, the deplorable mismanagement by Imperial Manila of “its” provinces, and the sense that the country's growth has been limited to a small elite in the nation's core has meant that a politics that could be called “regionalism,” which was always important in the Philippines, has gained in significance in this election. Hence, Duterte had an overwhelming majority in his home region (Mindanao), while Marcos was able to count on his base in the "Solid North," and Robredo was strongest in Southern Luzon and Visayas. All three explicitly campaigned on the basis of representing their regions and bringing their interests into the national arena. But only Duterte managed to convince a majority of Filipinos in the rest of the country that his political training in his region enabled him to represent their interests generally as well. This in itself is a potent indicator of the failures of the current administration.

Duterte and the Left

Into this comes Duterte and Marcos. By no means ingenue in the world of Philippine politics but both, in a sense, locked out of the set that rules in Manila. The rise of Duterte begins with the abject and repeated failure of Malacanang to “manage” its rule over Mindanao. Duterte has a long record of (at least verbally) supporting an end to the civil war on the basis of a recognition of the Bangsamoro and supported the Bangsamoro Basic Law and All Out Peace in Mindanao. He opposed Estrada’s “all out war” and has explicitly said that the armed Moro resistance groups need to be included in any peace. Appealing to the rapacity and officiousness of “Imperial Manila,” he has brought the question of federalism back into political discourse. He also made mistrust of the government a major electoral issue, betting correctly that massive inequality in the cities, the utter shambles of the roads and public transportation (the consequences of which are well nigh unimaginable in the first world), the ever increasing precarity of life in the midst of consistent economic growth, has meant that anger is not limited to the periphery. The presidential palace sits at the heart of a blisteringly discontented, desperate, and angry population. Of all the candidates, only Duterte was enough of an outsider to tap into this anger.

Duterte completely outflanked the Left on all these issues. His massively attended closing rally was called “Occupy Luneta,” the byline on a poster of the campaign’s facebook page read “we are the 99% who are tired of: corruption, crime, poverty, drama in the government, traffic, selective justice, war in the South, etc.” and, amazingly, informs Duterte that he doesn’t “need money to campaign! We are here to support you!” Before the event, his campaign characterised the rally as "the denouement of a national drama where people worked, campaigned, supported and defended a presidential candidate who does not have the money and resources. Saturday will be history unfolding.”

This is nonsense, of course. Duterte, like every other Filipino politician of note is part of a powerful political clan. In fact, he is closely related to no less than three major political families in Mindanao and Visayas, including the infamous Duranos the warlord clan the delivered the Cebu vote so efficiently to the late Marcos.

But the point is not Duterte's honesty, it is that he very cannily gave the left no room to operate. Whether we call this populism, Peronism, or fascism, it is clear that Duterte makes his appeal in much of the same ground on which a principled Left should have been hegemonic. More than that, to a significant degree, his rise has set the terms in which these issues was cast for many of the same social forces that the Left wants to organise. In part, the “Left” itself bears responsibility for this: the re-affirmists (the Moaists), inveterate opportunists that they are, have worked in coalition with Duterte in Davao for ages (rumour has it, they comprised part of his death squads) and its leader JoMa Sison and the Mindanao section officially backed Duterte, while the other half of the party limited their criticisms to his 'neoliberal' policies. The Maoists sabotaged things for the “rejectionists” (the various groups that broke with the CPP line) by their sheer strength relative to the rest of the Left. A principled opposition by the Communist Party and its various satellites would help to de-legitimize Duterte’s populist appeal, and it would go a long way towards creating the kind of organised and armed opposition that will become necessary if he turns out to be as good as his word. As it stands, the force on the Left with the most extensive roots among the farmers and working class, the force which is almost hegemonic in its strength basically gave Duterte their imprimatur.

Duterte, Marcos, and Order

Duterte ran his campaign on the basis of challenging the hegemony of Manila and its ruling oligarchy. But he built his reputation as the Mayor of Davao that held it together against the chaos of crime and disorder. His statements on crime are easily his most flamboyant and spectacular. The claim is that the paramilitary Davao Death Squads which he lead saved the city from its own wanton underbelly. The concrete success of the DDS in eradicating crime in Davao is debatable, nevertheless, the Mayor and his gang of thugs and hitmen have long been wildly popular there in and in Mindanao. It is a measure of how bad things have gotten in the rest of the country that a policy developed in the context of the social pressures generated by civil war should be gaining traction outside of Mindanao.

The same anxiety which propelled Duterte to victory is also behind the reemergence of the Marcos' to national relevance. According to Rappler, Marcos is the preferred candidate among voters in the top 3 income brackets (ABC). This is an exaggeration and it does not say which sections of the elite classes in particular tend to prefer him, but it says something about the kind of revolution that EDSA I was: the kind that mobilised the entire population right down to the poorest squatters in order to allow a different section of the elites to take over. The gains of that revolution should not be discounted, but this fundamental reality remains. What we are talking about here are rival fractions of the entire ruling class, fractions, moreover whose borders are exceedingly porous. Hence Enrile can be Marcos’ defense minister before defecting then support Marcos Jr. once again to no one’s surprise. Hence the presence of the Cojuanco’s on either side of the fence. Hence Cory Acquino's favour for the Duterte's in Mindanao in spite of their links to Durano. Even where individuals do not skip fences as easily as one might change a shirt, the ABC is composed of siblings, cousins, friends, and classmates who each back one horse or another but maintain their connections. The political prospects of the Marcos’ were not eliminated because their class remained in power -- and with this class, they are fundamentally close, tied by blood, acquaintance, culture, sensibility, and money.

The middle and ruling classes have, since the first Aquino administration, waxed nostalgic about the discipline and order of those happy days where the police could tell a boy how short to crop his hair. The development of Philippine capitalism is today disintegrating its own social structure, and criminality and anxiety are on the rise. Elites are having to share congested roads with hoi polloi who won’t be put in their place because no place exists. The nostalgia of the rich who may well have marched against the dictatorship for the good old days is the affect of a class that wants to keep on raking in the profits without having to suffer the blow back of a dispossessed population. But ordinary people have also suffered from this social disintegration, and the absence of a strong Left alternative has meant that disaffected sections of the elite were able to call upon a massive movement that span every class as the foot soldiers of their faction's revolt against the Manila oligarchy.

It is also interesting that Marcos did not only take the North, he also took Central Luzon and the National Capital region. If not for his thoroughly understandable unpopularity in Mindanao and Robredo’s popularity in her home region in Southern Luzon and the Visayas, he would have swept the VP elections by a landslide. The ‘Solid North’ does not explain Marcos’ strength: the administration’s track record does. The most important indicator of voter support for Marcos is not location or age. It is dissatisfaction with Acquino. Those who highly trust the president vote Robredo, those who don’t overwhelmingly vote Marcos. It is clear that most ordinary Filipinos are dissatisfied with the administration. It was Acquino Jr. who wound up paving the way for Marcos Jr.

A Duterte Presidency

The problem that Duterte faces is that not many paths are open to Philippine capital. Duterte has played a dangerous game by stirring up the anger of the Filipino people. It is far from clear how he can meet the expectations he has raised among any of the significant social classes.

In spite of the radicalism of his rhetoric, his promise to go after contractualisation and poverty, and his self-presentation as representing interests other than those of the elites, Duterte's transition team has already promised to maintain the macroeconomic policy of the Aquino administration. He has also promised to keep the administration's target of 5% of the GDP for infra-structure spending, improving on their performance only by "addressing bottle necks."

He has also promised to lower taxes, particularly for people who are not in the very top income brackets. But since he is not raising taxes on the ultra-rich, this could have significant repercussions for government revenue.

Unsurprisingly, his transition team has promised to make Davao a model for the nation's development, arguing that "reducing crime in the area will ... increase the security of businessmen as well as the consumers," boosting the economy. But it is far from clear that Duterte will be able to do to the whole country what he has done in Davao. While the police would certainly be happy to be given sweeping powers to spy and kill as they please, the population outside of Davao does not have the same kind of direct experience of what this means: the active participation of citizens as informants or as actual members of the death squads. Duterte won with a clear lead over his rivals, but he did not get even half of the registered voters let alone the whole population. Actually making good on his promise to murder 100,000 people he calls criminals is bound to engender resistance from a population that has experience fighting police raids and evictions. Nevertheless, we are likely to see an increase in impunity and police violence.

Moreover, Duterte is going to find himself squeezed on many sides. He has already promised to shoot labour unions who may wreck his administration with strikes, and has even told workers to "give the Philippines a respite of about ten years" before organising themselves into unions. The strength of the organised working class is not the strongest it has ever been, but even in its present state, it is not likely to take such threats quietly. The Left has an advantage with Duterte that it has not had with any president since Marcos: he has been entirely plain about what he wants to do, if it maintains illusions in him, these can only be illusions it has foisted on itself.

Duterte's promise to continue Acquino's economic policies has comforted the capitalist class to no end (both locally and abroad) and shows that he cannot fundamentally change the tracks on which Philippine capital finds itself. At most, he can tweak which sections of the ruling class profits most from it. But he will do this in the heartland of the Manila Oligarchy's power.

A return to instability?

Noynoy's presidency saw the Philippines become internationally competitive in the context of a struggling global economy. Duterte will want to hold on to this acheivement. But this competitiveness could not have been achieved without the special economic zones, the extraction economy, OFWs and PMOs, and contractualisation. The development of capitalism means the development of profitability for the ruling class -- there is no necessary correlation between this and improvements in the situation of the poor. At the same time, Duterte will face an analogous problem to that faced by the LP: either by making good on his promise to continue Aquino's policies or by failing to, he cannot help alienating powerful sections of the ruling class.

The elections were not only a crisis for the Liberal Party. They revealed a political limit to Philippine capital. We are likely therefore to see a return to instability. This may mean the same fratricidal jockeying for power that has historically characterised the rule of the capitalist class in the Philippines. But even if it does so, it is likely to be more virulent. It is not likely that this will be limited to maneuvers in the House of Representatives, the mass of the population is almost certain to be mobilised by the competing elites.

At the same time, and assuming it can weather the state sponsored violence that Duterte is likely to inflict upon it, the Left will be presented with new openings. Duterte's presidency will be difficult for the poor, for workers, and for the Left. But this election also proves, with heartbreaking clarity that the challenge of building an independent, principled, revolutionary Left remains as the fundamental condition for breaking the deadlock of Philippine capitalism. 

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