COM 04/2016

Tracking Philippine Elections, Strongman Politics, and Rodrigo Duterte

Dr. John Linantud, Associate Professor, Faculty of Political Science, University of Houston Downtown


This article appeared with graphics in the CPG online Magazine. Please refer to the PdF-version of issue 04/2016

I. Introduction

This essay provides a two-part method of analysis that should enable observers to track important changes in Philippine democracy for the 2016 election of Rodrigo Duterte and beyond. The first method is to understand the relationship between election violence and decisive political reforms, using the perspective of counterinsurgency. The second method is to apply Samuel Huntington’s Two-Turnover Test to the post-1986 democratic regime. The essay concludes with a brief analysis of Duterte in relation to established patterns of violence and presidential turnovers.

II.“Acceptable Levels of Violence”

In 1971,  Home  Secretary  Reginald  Maulding used the phrase “acceptable levels of violence” to describe British expectations for Northern Ireland. [1] Maulding’s cynical choice of words represents the willingness of governments to tolerate bloodshed, provided it does not directly jeopardize the state’s strategic interests. Britain’s core interests in Northern Ireland were to retain British rule over Ulster, and to prevent Catholic areas from joining the Irish Republic. By and large, the British regime in Northern Ireland remains secure today, despite the decades of turmoil that followed Maulding’s comments.

After seventy years of private armies and local strongmen (and women) since independence in 1946, it is also fair to conclude that illegal violence is a de facto part of the Philippine election landscape. Like Britain, the Philippines has a history of internal conflicts, and its mixture of democracy with guerilla wars provides a novel framework to understand election violence.

The combination of insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN) would bring the threat of deadly force to elections anywhere in the world, including the Philippines, where communist-led insurgents have fought for a national revolution since the 1940s, and Muslim separatists have sought independence since the 1970s. Yet turmoil caused by insurgencies or elections remains tolerable to elites unless it escalates into crises of national security, or popular legitimacy that may destroy or change the regime. From this perspective the difference between acceptable and unacceptable violence is tantamount to the difference between “low” and “high” boil. Election-related threats threats and casualties occur throughout the Philippines, but only under certain circumstances would they pose a threat to the regime, or to a core national interest.

The political science conundrum of whether strongman rule and socioeconomic maldevelopment are ultimately causes or consequences of the insurgencies has become a Gordian knot. In three cases since 1946, however, strongman politics has yielded to decisive political action. The common but underappreciated thread between them is the conviction among advocates of change that partisan abuses had put national security at risk.

The first case concerns the communist-led Huk Rebellion in the 1940s and 1950s. As the Huks grew stronger in their base territory of Central Luzon, local strongman politics became unacceptable to counterinsurgents  because  lawless  behavior  fed the rebellion― and because the towns and plains of Central Luzon created a natural muster point for a guerilla invasion of Manila unimpeded by the mountains and water that separate the capital from other  parts  of  the  country.  COIN  thus  balanced military   actions   with   cleaner   elections,   better governance,  and  land  reforms  to  neutralize  the Huks and protect the capital. Likewise, in the 1960s and 1970s a new generation of counterinsurgents defeated the campaign by the New People’s Army (NPA) to rebuild Huk strongholds in Central Luzon.[2] Manila has subsequently contained actual NPA battle fronts to north Luzon, the central Visayas islands, and the southern Mindanao region for well over forty years. Likewise, the Muslim rebellion has contained  itself  to  Mindanao  and  achieved partial autonomy. Though the loss of sovereignty over Muslim lands certainly challenges the national interest, separatists do not pose a threat to invade Manila, and they lack foreign allies that could render such intervention. It is therefore not surprising that the most consistent areas of concern for election security have been located near these distant fronts, where both partisan bloodshed and guerilla activities can be more easily tolerated by elites in Manila.[3] The second case concerns the martial law regime of 1972-81, which terminated strongman democracy, and the rotation of the presidency between the Nacionalista and Liberal parties that predated independence. Turmoil had increased for several reasons, including President Ferdinand Marcos’ challenge to traditional elites, which included his re-election in 1969; the furious struggle between the NPA and COIN across Luzon; and the stirrings of Muslim separatism, which can also be traced in part to Marcos’ assault on the old guard and foreign policy  adventurism  against  Malaysia.  Over  nine hundred people were reported killed before the 1971 by-elections, the steepest total since independence.[4] Marcos’  decision  to  declare  martial  law  is rarely attributed to geopolitics. But after the Nixon Doctrine of 1969 and friendly overtures between Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong, the nation faced the possibility, though remote in retrospect, of a two-front war against China and the NPA that could negate COIN gains in Central Luzon at a time of uncertain American help against external enemies. If that worst-case scenario were to unfold, then the state  would  require  an  unprecedented  degree  of political order that could, in theory, be broached via the use of martial law against both the NPA and clan- based partisans.

Marcos vowed to restore democracy via legislative elections in 1978  and  1984,  provincial  elections in 1980, the end of martial law and a presidential election in 1981, and another presidential election in 1986, but the campaigns before these elections resulted in over five hundred deaths.[5] The most impactful political murder of that time was the 1983 assassination, at the Manila airport, of opposition figure Benigno Aquino upon his return from exile. The death of Aquino indicated that the rule of law could not resolve the contradiction between popular expectations of competitive elections and Marcos’ desire to retain power. In response the NPA exploited the surging illegitimacy of the regime, and guerillas seemed poised to tip distant fronts into new levels of conflict, and migrate back to Central Luzon if government corruption and popular discontent were left unchecked.

The third case therefore concerns the EDSA I revolt that overthrew Marcos and installed Corazon Aquino shortly after he won their disputed election in 1986.[6] By that point Marcos, president since 1965 and ill, had become the singular strongman whose abuses of power became unacceptable to both counterinsurgents and elites concerned with human rights and the national image. The individual faces of EDSA I were Aquino, Secretary of Defense Juan Ponce Enrile, the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), General Fidel Ramos, and Cardinal Jaime Sin of the Catholic Church.

Subsequent iterations of People Power/EDSA have been less transparent. Ramos’ defection and subsequent loyalty to Aquino proved decisive, because he helped her remain in office despite both a vicious urban warfare campaign by the NPA, and several failed coups-with-People Powers by RAM motivated in part by Aquino’s perceived weakness on COIN. Ramos succeeded Aquino as president in 1992-98, and rejoined her and Sin to replace Joseph Estrada with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo during EDSA II in 2001, again in part because of fears that Estrada would discredit the regime and abet the communist movement. By contrast, Enrile supported Estrada in the failed EDSA III revolt against Macapagal- Arroyo a few months after EDSA II.

III. Two-Turnover Test

In 1993 Samuel Huntington proposed the Two- Turnover Test of democratic consolidation  to assess the extent to which democracy had become embedded in post-authoritarian states.  This method defines a Turnover as a partisan transfer of executive power via a competitive election, wherein the incumbent party or faction not only loses, but actually vacates and thus “turns over” the offices of state to the former opposition. The method uses a discrete timeline: a Founding Election that indicates the demise of the prior authoritarian regime; the first transfer of executive authority from government to opposition party via election (Turnover #1): and the second transfer of executive power via election (Turnover #2). Once a state reaches Turnover #2, it passes Huntington’s test and should not easily fall back to dictatorship.[7]

The main advantage to this method is the bottom- line focus on elections and turnovers, and outcome- based analysis that does not have to detail the intrigues, rumours, scandals, and reports that accompany democratic politics. Even by comparative standards, however, any partisan transfer of executive power after a Founding Election by means other than the ballot, including capital revolts, military coups, foreign invasions, assassinations, and the like, clearly interrupt the Two-Turnover Test.

A generous application of the test to a regime would classify such events as mere hiccups in the consolidation timeline. If so, a Founding Election may retain that status even if it precedes one or more interruptions, provided that elections and turnovers follow at some later point in time, the length of which is subject to the analyst’s judgment. A generous application could also consider the electoral transfer of office between two executives of the same party as a Turnover, assuming it indicates a step forward from dictatorship. By contrast, a stricter application of the test would restart the timeline after each and every hiccup, and insist that turnovers be partisan.

Given the Philippines’ democratic identity and long experience with elections, this essay employs stricter criteria and several realistic caveats. At the comparative level, we must recall that the Two- Turnover Test dates to what Huntington called the

“Third Wave” of democracy. In that era, taking and  passing the test aligned a state with global trends. The global trends around Duterte’s election, by contrast, are less promising. The 2016 Freedom House report, for example, is subtitled “Anxious Dictators, Wavering Democracies: Global Freedom under Pressure.”[8] Passing the Two-Turnover Test in this milieu may be both more difficult, and less indicative  of  democratic  consolidation.

In the Philippine context, violence must also be regarded analytically as a durable part of elections. Though intimidation and murder literally eliminate voters and candidates, elections still determine who rules. This state of affairs makes the Philippines an illiberal democracy, i.e. one of many states that elect public officials but struggle with the rule of law. Finally, several factors expedite partisan turnovers but reduce stability, namely six-year presidential term limits; a party system with weak ideological foundations that makes it easier for coalitions to form and re-form under different names; plurality rather than majority victories; and separate races for vice-president.

Partisan Transfers of the Presidency, 1986-2022

Indeed,  as  described  in  the  table  above,  the Philippines has yet to pass a strict version of the Two- Turnover Test thirty years after EDSA I. Though an honest count might have made Aquino the winner of the 1986 election, she became president because of EDSA I. The transfer of office due to EDSA I would have made the election of Ramos in 1992 the Founding Election, and the transfer of office to Estrada in 1998 Turnover #1. That timeline however, was interrupted by the transfer of the presidency from Estrada to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo via EDSA II in 2001.

Does  this  make  Macapagal-Arroyo’s  election in 2004 the Founding Election of the Philippines’ current timeline? A strict application of the Two- Turnover Test would conclude no, because a founding election is supposed to redirect the country away from executive abuses of power. She did win the official count and two exit polls in 2004.[9] But she originally took power as a result of EDSA II, not an election, and her victory has been tainted by the “Hello Garci” voter fraud issue, EDSAs II and III, and allegations that she exaggerated military unrest to justify emergency powers. On the twentieth anniversary of EDSA I, Corazon Aquino called for her to resign.[10]

This makes the 2010 election of Benigno Aquino III the Founding Election of the current timeline, and the election of Duterte Turnover #1. If Duterte completes his term and transfers the presidency to an elected successor of a different party in 2022, then the Philippines will have passed the Two-Turnover Test.

IV. Enter Duterte

Duterte’s reputation for violence in word and deed seems well-founded.[11] But prognostications should be tempered by his long career and experience governing in situations where the rule of law is weak. Duterte is over seventy years of age, and comes from a political family. He is therefore a living witness to virtually all of the turmoil and regime changes described above since the Huk Rebellion, including the communist and separatist insurgencies, the rise and fall of strongmen Marcos and Estrada, and the resilience of illiberal democracy. Duterte hails from the Visayas, and built his reputation in Mindanao. Like other officials in those regions, he understands how Manila has made Central Luzon a national security priority, and has  used  limited  resources to deal with Manila’s unwillingness or inability to eradicate insurgencies and organized crime in that region.

Like his predecessors, Duterte’s primary task should be to maintain political order in Central Luzon and Manila. The problem is that Luzon may be backsliding. Across the bay from Manila, seven partisans were killed in a single ambush on Election Day 2016 in the historic province of Cavite.[12] A deeper pattern has developed around the equally historic province of Nueva Ecija, whose northern border stretches towards the mountains where the NPA has found refuge for decades, and which is separated from Manila to the south by only Bulacan and Pampanga. Nueva Ecija has long been classified as a problem area because of partisan rivalry and low-level NPA activities.[13] In 2016 election officials reportedly  also  considered  Bulacan  and  Laguna, which  borders  Cavite,  to  be  problematic.[14]

By Election Day in May, the official list of troubled provinces included three from Luzon, including Abra in the far north and Pangasinan, which borders Nueva Ecija. The others were Masbate, Negros Oriental, and Samar in the Visayas, and Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, and Lanao del Norte in Mindanao.[15]

Finally, Duterte must beware the military and civilian components of People Power. If Central Luzon   deteriorates,   then   overt   confrontations between COIN and the NPA will likely increase. It is therefore important to point out that shortly after his election, Duterte stated he might invite NPA leaders into his government.[16] If Duterte runs afoul of military preferences against the NPA, then he risks a backlash similar to the rebellions and withdraws of support that befell Marcos, Aquino, Estrada, and Macapagal-Arroyo. If he runs afoul of cosmopolitans nonplussed by abuses of human rights and the national image, then he should assume that civilian and church leaders are also  searching  for  opportunities  to  depose  him.

[1] Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN) Web Service, A Glossary of Terms Related to the Conflict, “’Acceptable Level of Violence’” (United Kingdom: Ulster University) <http://> accessed 15 June 2016.

[2] John Linantud, “China, Rebalance, and the ‘Silent War,’” International Social Science Review 91, 2, article 4 (Winter 2016) 31 pages

[3] Jeff Fischer et al. (Creative Solutions) Philippines

[4]  Linantud, “Whither Guns, Goons, and Gold?

[5] Ibid.

[6] on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue where protestors shielded defecting soldiers from units loyal to Marcos in 1986. Today the site includes a statue of the Virgin Mary on the roof of a chapel.

[7] Samuel P.  Huntington,  The  Third  Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993, pp. 266-268.

[8] Linantud, “The 2004 Philippine Elections: Political Change in an Illiberal Democracy,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 27, 1 (April 2005), p. 89

[9]Linantud, “The 2004 Philippine Elections: Political Change in an Illiberal Democracy,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 27, 1 (April 2005), p. 89

[10]Carlos Conde, “Emergency Rule in Philippines After Failed Coup Is Cited,” New York Times 25 February 2006.

[11] Floyd Whaley, “Rodrigo Duterte’s Talk of Killing Criminals Raises Fears in Philippines,” New York Times 17 May 2016; BBC News, “Philippines election: Maverick Rodrigo Duterte wins presidency,” 10 May 2016, <http://www.>.

[12] Maricar Cinco, “7 killed in Cavite election day massacre,” Daily Inquirer 10 May 2016, <http://m.inquirer. net/newsinfo/784685>.

[13] Carlos Marquez Jr., “Nueva Ecija: ‘Wild, wild west’ no more?” in Democracy at Gunpoint, pp. 152-69.

[14] Ferdinand G. Patinio (Philippines News Agency) “Laguna, Nueva Ecija, Bulacan eyed as possible election hot spots,” 5 April 2016, <http://interaksyon. com/article/126017/laguna-nueva-ecija-bulacan-eyed-as- possible-election-hot-spots>.

[15] Philippine News Agency in Manila Bulletin, “Election hotspots classified into three categories,” 7 May 2016, < to-three-categories/>.

[16] Agence France-Presse in Daily Inquirer, “Duterte says communist leader Joma Sison welcome home,” 16 May 2016 < leader-joma-sison-welcome-home#ixzz4CWq9K6iV>