UPPER RIGHT HAND:  Populist leaders in democratic regimes: why drug war in Southeast Asia is supported

DAVAO CITY (Mindanews / 28 June) — Indonesia, Philippines and the Kingdom of Thailand offer an interesting contrast of democratic consolidation (or decline) in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is the region’s most enduring and the only consolidated democracy since its democratization in 1999 (Pepinsky, 2017). On the other hand, the Philippine’s democracy since the 1986 People Power Revolution gave the country pride in the annals of global democracies. It has weakened (Meinardus, 2005) over the years as state administration circulated among the central elites while Thailand’s is a democracy lost owing to the “vicious cycle of civilian government and military rule” (Croissant and Lorenz, 2018c:292).

The Republic of Indonesia is “regarded as one of the only few relatively stable and well-functioning democracies” in the region (Croissant and Lorenz, 2018a:73). But this evolved from the long years of Sukarno authoritarian regime under his “guided democracy” based on “pancasila” (2018a:75) which was later on transferred to Suharto and his “new order” government in 1968 after the fall of the communist PKI.  The resulting system of corruption, collusion and nepotism caused the downfall of the Suharto regime to usher in the era of democratization or “reformasi” (2018a:76) beginning in 1998. Despite the challenges that followed its democratization, Indonesia is foretold to be “Southeast Asia’s strongest and most stable democracy” (Mietzner, 2012).

The Philippines’ democratic consolidation after its independence in 1946 remained in the hands of a few elites and dynastic clans circulating among themselves as a result of the cacique democracy (Anderson, 1988) established under centuries of Spanish occupation.  While democracy was disrupted with the rise of Marcos’ authoritarian regime, it was restored in 1986 through the People Power revolution. However, with the restoration of democracy came the restoration of the elite capture of the state (Croissant and Lorenz, 2018b:218) which led to the debilitation of democracy thirty years since.  The growing frustration of the elite’s inability to fulfill the promise of People Power at EDSA led to the unprecedented rise of Davao’s 23-year mayor to presidency, the first from Mindanao to have achieved such a feat. Under the current Duterte administration, his tough-talking persona and crass politics continue to undermine democratic institutions allowed by his popular support and making the country’s democracy illiberal in form.

Quite interestingly, Thailand used to be a part of the democratic triumvirate in Southeast Asia along with Indonesia and the Philippines. But due to a history of a strong military-royalty elite rule (Croissant and Lorenz, 2018c:293), the state is vacillating between civilian authority and military regime on account of successful coup attempts totaling to nine since 1932.  While the 1946 Constitution of Thailand was an attempt begin the transition towards democracy, the series of coups staged wrestled this democratic consolidation from the core of Thai government yielding to a total of 20 constitutions from 1932 until 2017 (Croissant and Lorenz, 2018c:296) suiting the political aspirations of whoever is holding the reins of power.  Scholars still debate as to what seem to be irreconcilable conflicts that have plagued this royal kingdom for years.  But most see the deep cleavages between the old and the new elites, the rich and the poor, the military and the civilian and the urban and rural populations as pivotal in understanding the democratic fluctuations.

Despite the installation of democracy in these countries, they were not able to escape the impact of populist regimes into the dependability of democratic institutions in defending and protecting the universality of human rights within the context of the “war” on drug campaign launched by their respective popular leaders.  Takshin Shinawatra of Thailand started it in 2001. The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte nationalized it when he won in the 2016 presidential elections and is now being shadowed by Jokowi Widodo of Indonesia.

While the staggering thousands of deaths alleged to be extra-judicially carried out in Duterte’s campaign promise to end drugs in the Philippines merited global attention, little did the world know that Jokowi echoed in Indonesia what Duterte exemplified in the Philippines and called it a case of “narcotics emergency” (Coca, 2018) resulting to overcrowding in their prison facilities.  This approach to the drug problem in the region is now being justified as issues of security in favor of protecting the general public from the criminal intents of drug dependents, which apparently enjoys widespread support among their constituents.

History would also show  that prior to Duterte’s strong campaign against drugs was the failed “war” on drugs introduced by Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand as early as 2003 (Ranada, 2017) as part also of his commitment to fearlessly pursue drug traffickers, users, and dealers. Resting on a rhetoric of demonization against drug offenders, the anti-drug campaign of Thaksin, just like Duterte’s and Widodo’s, has caused serious attacks against individual human rights and against state democratic institutions. Arbitrary arrests, open listing of alleged drug users, disregard for due process, dismantling of constitutional safeguards and extrajudicial killings are common features of this relentless campaign to end the drug menace.

Despite global condemnation, especially coming from human rights institutions, the “war” on drugs remain acceptable in these Southeast Asian countries. Supporters of the campaign even consent to the use of extremely brutal tactics, including imposing death penalty, if only to end the drug menace. What lies behind this strong support to their government’s hardline stance against drug is the region’s strong populist narratives. Thaksin, Duterte and Jokowi are all advanced as populist leaders of Southeast Asia with a commanding trust, support and validation from their people.  Democracy is therefore under threat in the region because of the rise of these populist regimes that offer unyielding and hard-hitting solutions to social ills.

There appears to be an incompatibility of democracy with populism as Abao (2017) posited that since populism overvalues power, it will logically end up producing authoritarianism, which can undermine human rights. For Alegre (2016), populism and human rights vacillate between cooperation and conflict. On the one hand, they share the memorialization of human rights victims and the use of popular methods of resistance like public rallies and demonstrations. From an observable point of view, populism also appears to elevate the primacy of economic, social and culture rights and vitiates civil and political rights. As such, populism on the other hand can be dismissive of freedoms of expression and redress for grievances and can be antagonistic against dissent and counter-consciousness.

The next possible analytical method is to justify the irreconcilability of human rights with populism. Some thinkers assert that the two are oil and water (Alegre, 2016) since populism capitalizes on particularities while human rights are founded on universalities.

Populism can be considered both as a discourse and a regime trait. As a discourse, it is an ideology that successfully divides the society into two identical and highly hostile groups – the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite” – which follow the argument that politics should be the articulation of the will of the people (Abao citing Cas Mudde, 2017). This “us” versus “them” narrative seeks legitimacy from the people’s support thereby towing the line between the people and the perceived elite. This can make the regime a bit fragile with the dichotomy created.

Among the challenges to human rights in a populist regime is the centrality of the leader as the embodiment of the people. A populist government gravitates around the leader, therefore, the exclusive recourse to manage conflicting interests of the people is through the leader. This becomes problematic especially when the leader does not see the ethical import of human rights. Following the logic that if the leader is the people and the people is the nation, then those who question the leader is perceived as the enemy of the state.  This is anathema to the universality, interconnectedness and indivisibility of human rights which presupposes diffusion among the people and not centralized in a singular leader. Populism therefore defies liberal rationalism, from which human rights draw its inspiration. But confusingly, it cannot be accused of pure authoritarianism because it uses the most powerful tool of liberal democracies – the election and the people’s vote.

The incompatibility of human rights and populism is further widened by their philosophical landscapes.  Human rights are specifically concerned with individualism while populism follows the logic of holism in favor of the people which is manifested through its representation – the leader. If human rights’ universality will also be abandoned in favor of the “leader,” then human rights can be used for convenience due to its relative conception, that is, it can be invoked when favorable to the people through the leader but can be discarded when found to delay the leader’s development agenda owing to the measures imposed by human rights on state obligations.

The demonization of human rights poses a domestic and global threat to the consolidation of democratic principles. When the people accept the demonizing and dehumanizing language of the leaders, they commit themselves in turn to abandon the normative value of human rights, exposing their persons and effects to possible violations against their individual and collective aspirations.

As Coca (2018) said “until citizens across the region start taking a deeper look into the full impact of the war on drugs on society, such populist-driven, anti-drug rhetoric is unlikely to change, and more lives will continue to be lost.”

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews.  Upper Right Hand is a revolving column of the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM).  Atty. Romeo T. Cabarde, Jr. is a faculty of the Political Science Department and the Director of Ateneo Public Interest and Legal Advocacy Center of Ateneo de Davao University.]