The election of Davao City “warlord” and gangster Rodrigo Duterte as president of the Philippines last month raises many questions. The man has a history of human rights abuses in ordering the extra-judicial killings of thousands of petty criminals. Some of those were children. His death squads were made up of police, hired gunmen and ex Communist Party fighters.
After his election he vowed to bring back the death penalty, abolished in 2006, and boasted that some “criminals” would be hung until they were decapitated. Duterte has an appalling attitude to women. He joked about the rape and murder of an Australian nun during a Filipino prison riot, saying that he regretted he hadn’t had the chance to rape her first.
Duterte is a reactionary right wing politician who uses populist rhetoric in order to appeal to working people and the poor. He has said that he would appoint people from the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) to cabinet positions responsible for the environment, rural reform and labour. His deliberate self-constructed image as a “strongman” is meant to appeal to the most backward elements in society, including sections of the middle classes who are worried about crime.
His anti-women comments sit strangely alongside his support for LGBT people. The aim of this mixture of ideologies is purely to win himself mass support. There are no principles involved.
His flirtation with the Maoist CPP has been reciprocated by Jose Maria Sison, the founder of the CPP, who says that it is time for reconciliation. Today the Maoist CPP is no force for progress. At best its Maoist ideology in the past was a form of authoritarian Stalinist conservatism and nationalism. Like all Stalinist parties it is obsessed with cross-class alliances with bourgeois politicians. The “Maoist” communist parties in China and Nepal now support neoliberal economic policies.
If Duterte is not just talking hot air about appointing Communists to cabinet positions, these appointments will not result in any serious progressive policies. There is a historical precedent for appointing leftists as ministers of labour in the Philippines. After the overthrow of the dictator Marcos, president Corazon Aquino appointed Augusto Sánchez of the militant CPP-influenced KMU union federation to head the Ministry of Labour. When bourgeois politicians appoint people perceived as leftists to ministerial posts it is so that they can better control the social movements, including the unions. When their job is done they are removed. This is what happened to Sánchez.
Before Duterte’s victory, Sonny Melencio from the non-Stalinist leftist party Partido Lakas ng Masa (literally translated as “Force of the Masses Party”) wrote that socialists should not support either front-runner in the elections. The Liberal Party candidate, selected to succeed Aquino’s son, Benigno Noy Noy, was Duterte’s main rival. As Melencio points out, the victory of Duterte shows that the population were fed up with the old “trapo” (“filthy rag”) elite politicians who have done nothing to improve the lives of ordinary working people and the poor. Duterte’s victory is also due to the weakness of the left alternative.
Melencio goes on to explain that Duterte reminds him a bit of Juan Peron, Argentina’s former populist dictator who built alliances between the left and the right. Yet Duterte shows no sign of being able to use the state to pursue corporatist policies like Peron. Melencio has rightly dismissed the idea that Duterte is an “outsider” because he actually comes from a local political elite who dominate the island of Mindanao. But Melencio’s tone is too conciliatory towards this gangster and his supporters. He maintains that the old “trapo” parties of the elite are the main enemy. But Duterte is equally the enemy of working people.
The left needs to put forward a real alternative platform to campaign for a welfare state, trade union rights and an end to the oppression by the state. Of course, the left must also oppose any attempts by the mainstream parties and the military to stage a coup, and if such a coup were to take place and a huge pro-democracy social movement were to arise, it would be right to stand with supporters of Duterte in opposing a threat to democracy.
Now is not the time for the left to build any kind of alliance with Duterte. For too long, the left in South-east Asia has spent time building cross-class alliances in the hope of a shortcut to power. The non-Stalinist socialists in the Philippines is a real presence in the country. It would be a shame to waste the opportunity to grow even stronger.
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