- The Ones Who Don't Walk Away from the Philippines
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Back in 1974, renowned writer Ursula Le Guin won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story for "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas". Omelas was a peaceful, prosperous and blissful city. However, every child in the city, as a rite of passage, is made aware that their utopia depends on one child being locked and tortured in a basement. While the author frames the ending of the story in terms of those few who cannot stomach it and thus walk away from Omelas, a more instructive aspect is the part of those who did not—the ones who, no matter how begrudgingly, made the conscious decision to accept the price of paradise.
Halfway into his term, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, with his concomitant strongman approach to "get things done in the wake of democratic dysfunction",1 continues to enjoy a "very good" approval rating from as much as 78 per cent of the population. While it is lower than the 86 per cent rating he held in 2016, it is still exceptionally high compared to those of other post-1986 Philippine presidents.2 Duterte's popularity notably endures despite delays in infrastructure projects, a widely criticized rapprochement with China, doubt about the credibility of the Philippine National Police over the "ninja cops" issue, brewing unrest from farmers arising from competition with rice imports following the passage of the Rice Tariffication Law, and growing international criticism over the country's human rights record as evidenced by the so-called Iceland resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council last June. During this year's midterm election, which was seen as a referendum on Duterte's illiberal [End Page 275] approach to politics, the opposition failed to gain a single seat in the Senate.3 One writer despaired that the elections proved that "the Philippines just became more authoritarian, thanks to the people".4
This chapter joins the chorus of other reviews that have described the Philippine political trajectory as heading towards greater illiberalism and the centralization of power with the executive, which undermines the integrity of democratic politics as a modus vivendi.5 However, as a way forward it also takes stock of Duterte's broader policy agenda, in addition to his governance style and its corrosive impact on democratic institutions, which many writers have emphasized. The novelty of Duterte is not so much in his illiberal approach to politics but in his exclusive focus on the goal of state-building fundamentals (e.g., public order, infrastructure and services) over a values-based agenda (e.g., human rights and anti-corruption) that previous administrations have not openly challenged.
As the Philippines enters its critical period of economic take-off, the reality is that it is beginning to confront more questions of "stateness"—levels of street crime, the presence of vital infrastructure, and issues of social services—which precisely reinforce the logic of Duterte's preference for state-building concerns over high-brow, values-based reformism. This can be seen in the increasing salience of urban development issues in the Philippines' 2019 headlines such as transportation and traffic problems, low-quality interconnectivity infrastructure, and drug proliferation over traditional news staples such as big-ticket corruption during the Arroyo administration, or coup d'etat attempts under Corazon Aquino. Such a focus is not inherently wrong, as state building fundamentals are necessary to the functioning of any society.
Like the moral dilemma of citizens in Le Guin's city of Omelas, the challenge for the Philippines is how to walk away from such an ugly, if not false, belief in a trade-off between state power and liberalism being marketed by no less than the president. The chapter concludes with two observations. First, the shift from a values-based agenda to method-agnostic state-building efforts will likely persist beyond Duterte. Exclusivist focus on intangibles or values will likely suffer electoral defeat, as the Otso Diretso slate learned in this year's elections. Second, the current administration's weak links in the coming years will be coalitional infighting in a...