COVID-19 tightens Duterte’s iron grip

Author: Imelda Deinla, ANU

On top of its health impact, COVID-19 has thrown the Philippines further into economic and political uncertainty. The government under President Rodrigo Duterte is demonstrating to the world yet again that a forceful exercise of power is its preferred mode of governance. Yet despite harsh quarantine measures, the Philippines continues to struggle to contain the spread of the virus.

President Rodrigo Duterte speaks at Davao International airport in Davao City in southern Philippines, 8 September 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Lean Daval Jr).

The Philippines has one of the highest infection rates in Southeast Asia with 26,420 infections as of 15 June. As restrictions were lifted and businesses reopened on 1 June, the country is awakening to 2.6 million job losses, a figure that could reach up to 10 million by the end of the year.

The government’s initial response to its first case in January 2020 was to dismiss the severity of the virus. After the first cases of community transmission were recorded in the first week of March, Duterte responded with an ‘enhanced community quarantine’ (ECQ) order.

Some high-risk areas followed the ECQ while other provinces adopted a more moderate approach. The ECQ is a total lockdown prohibiting the movement of people except for the most essential services and necessities. Temporary emergency power was granted to the executive through the Bayanihan Heal as One Act. This allowed officials to implement urgent healthcare measures and provide social safety nets to decrease the economic impact of the lockdown.

The Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) was created to implement the Act. It is composed of military personnel with little experience in dealing with health crises.

COVID-19 has also amplified existing social cleavages and the lack of political consensus among ruling elites. The political leadership has done little to bridge this gap and forge unity. Duterte’s political agenda is centred on cementing his grip on power. This has been done through a command and control, securitised and threat-heavy approach to governance. The pandemic has also presented an opportunity to further erode free and independent press with the recent closure of ABS–CBN, the country’s largest television network. This was followed by the conviction for cyber libel of journalist Maria Ressa, a known critic of Duterte.

The implementation of the lockdown has disproportionately impacted the poor and vulnerable. Millions of Filipinos are struggling to feed themselves and their families, are unable to work or have been left stranded in places outside of their homes. As dissent on social media and street protests in Manila grow, the government has started to arrest online critics as well as environmental and human rights activists.

Vice President Leni Robredo was threatened by a commissioner of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission with an investigation for allegedly ‘competing’ with the government’s response strategy. Duterte later repudiated this move and fired the commissioner.

Local governments have been threatened with legal cases and sanctions if they do not get case numbers under control. But they are also censured and threatened with investigations if they implement effective policies as in the case of popular Pasig City Mayor Vico Sotto. The Philippine National Police prided itself on low crime rates during the lockdown and the arrest of over 17,000 ECQ violators. This further compounds the problem of overcrowded jails which have become epicentres of the virus.

The COVID-19 crisis further exposes the progressive weakening of institutions, particularly rule of law institutions. This is partly the result of an institutional leadership unable to stand up to discretionary power, which is being excused from accountability and is standing above the law. While thousands have been arrested even for minor infractions, senior officials close to the administration flouting quarantine regulations have been dismissed or treated with compassion.

After the Philippines emerges from the pandemic, effective institutions will be essential for economic recovery and business confidence. Around eight business groups have issued a joint public statement pointing to a lack of clarity on lockdown rules and denouncing brazen violations by public officials. Five business groups have again issued a joint statement expressing deep concern over Ressa’s conviction noting serious constitutional questions involved in the case.  Filipinos have cited inefficiencies in the delivery of transport services and distribution of the social amelioration package. They have little trust in the frontline agency, the Department of Health, doubting the accuracy of its data.

The economic turnaround for the Philippines post-Marcos ensured greater political stability and neo-liberal economic reforms forged through a democratic social compact. Despite delivering strong growth, these developments failed to distribute wealth equitably and alleviate poverty. Duterte is using an illiberal model hoping that it delivers the same or better economic outcomes.

The COVID-19 pandemic is testing his regime. The increasing dissatisfaction among his support base regarding his handling of the crisis may not erode Duterte’s popularity in the short term. If it does, Duterte may use more draconian measures to maintain control. What is clear is that there is no categorical buy-in for most of the government’s flagship economic and political programs being pushed out to solve the issues generated by the pandemic — including a second tax reform package, the anti-terror bill and constitutional amendment. The pandemic has shown that Philippine dissenters and civil society will not give up their freedom and right to demand accountable government.

Imelda Deinla is Director of the Philippines Project and a fellow in the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet), The Australian National University (ANU).

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.