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  • Toxic Democracy?The Philippines in 2018
  • Nicole Curato (bio)

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Toxic is the Oxford English Dictionary's word of the year for 2018. It is a word that captures the mood of our time, evidenced by the 45 per cent spike in frequency of people who looked up the term.1 Used in tandem with the word masculinity, toxic has served as descriptor to emphasize the physical harm, emotional damage and lethal effects of patriarchal power.

The same word can summarize the year 2018 for the Philippines. Beyond President Rodrigo Duterte's overt displays of toxic masculinity is a discernible pattern of his administration's aggressive attacks against the integrity of democratic institutions. From attempting to jail opposition figures to forging controversial deals with China that place the Philippines' sovereignty at risk, the regime has demonstrated the extent to which it is willing to breach the boundaries of state power while evading accountability.

This chapter analyses the Philippines in 2018 around the three themes of toxic politics, toxic policies and toxic deals. Each of these themes focuses on specific issues that will draw attention to broader patterns of Duterte's rule, which, as this chapter argues, has assumed a toxic quality for democratic life. Toxic politics focuses on issues of press freedom and the ouster of the Supreme Court chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. Toxic policies examines how Duterte's iron-fisted approach to governance shaped the conduct of the Boracay island shutdown and Marawi rehabilitation. Finally, toxic deals focuses on Chinese investment and new tax laws. [End Page 261]

By identifying these issues, this chapter does not intend to portray a bleak future for Philippine democracy. The final part of the chapter demonstrates how the public has responded to this political trajectory, and prompts reflection on where the nation may be headed.

Democracy's Autoimmune Disease

There has always been a danger that the populist President Duterte would have a toxic effect on Philippine democracy.2 Populism, as political theorist Simon Tormey puts it, is a pharmakon, "a powerful substance intended to make someone better, but which might end up killing him or her".3 There is no way to know the outcome in advance, he argues, for the toxicity of populism "depends on the dosage and receptivity of the body".4

In the first two years of Duterte's six-year term there was reason to think that the foul-mouthed mayor from Davao City infused just the right amount of populism to enliven Philippine democracy. His campaign may have unleashed a toxic online culture through his army of "trolls", but it also invigorated citizens who have long felt alienated from elite democracy to start actively taking part in grass-roots electoral campaigning.5 Beyond the disparaging comments about Duterte's political style are hopeful remarks about how the first president from Mindanao gives voice to the suffering of the people in the country's most war-torn region. The man who has lived through conflict can solve conflict, the story goes, as many pinned hopes on his administration's peace deals with rebel fighters.6 Shifting the country's unitary system of government to a federal one was pitched as "our last card to attain peace and order in this country".7 PHederalism — the Philippine version of federalism — was discussed among elite circles of government, business and academia, down to over 42,000 barangays (villages), whose leaders were encouraged to pass a resolution supporting this agenda.8

There is of course a dark side to these developments. The brutal anti-narcotics campaign has, according to official police figures, cost the lives of over five thousand people. These victims — often young male breadwinners from poor families — are dismissed as "collateral damage" of a war meant to keep the streets safe. Senator Leila de Lima, one of the president's most vocal critics, was jailed on bogus charges. The burial of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Cemetery of Heroes sparked a series of protests. The Islamic City of Marawi was devastated by months of air strikes by government forces to liberate the city from ISIS-inspired fighters. [End...


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pp. 260-274
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