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The Philippines: former sick man of Asia suffers relapse

Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

Just when you might have thought the Philippines was on the mend, morbid symptoms of untreated problems re-emerge. It really shouldn’t be this way.

It may seem hard to believe in retrospect, but in the aftermath of the second world war, many commentators – especially in the US – thought the Philippines would be Asia’s star economic and political performer. How wrong can you be?

The pundits can be forgiven for their optimism. The Philippines had the distinction of being the US’s only formal imperial possession, and – unlike some of its competitors in the region – it was eventually bequeathed a democratic system of sorts. When combined with a population with high levels of English competence compared to its neighbours, the omens looked positive.

Unlike some of its authoritarian neighbours in the rest of Asia, however, the Philippines suffered from a number of critical flaws that would see its economy languish while much of the rest of the region took off economically. The Philippine state may have been democratic, but it was hopelessly ineffective, and captured by the nation’s powerful and unreformed landed aristocracy.

Corruption, “rent-seeking” and predation are not unknown in other parts of the world, but they reached epic proportions in the Philippines – most notoriously under former strongman Ferdinand Marcos. The state became a vehicle for looting both the wealth of the country and the material support provided by the Philippines’ pivotal Cold War ally, the US.

Alarmingly, many voters in the Philippines now remember the political oppression, corruption and brutality of the Marcos era with fondness. This tells you all you need to know about the current state of the country.

Not only has the Marcos clan been rehabilitated politically – his son, the unfortunately nicknamed “Bongbong”, is currently running for the vice presidency – but other prospective leaders have taken a leaf out of the Marcos playbook.

No student of Philippine politics has been more assiduous in this regard than Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao City. Duterte has made his name and secured political support by brutally cracking down on crime – not least by tolerating flagrant violations of the law, including extra-judicial killings of drug dealers and political opponents.

Nicknamed “The Punisher”, these policies have proved popular with people who are tired of lawlessness and insecurity. Duterte says he will take the same approach on the national stage, promising to kill 100,000 criminals and feed their bodies to the fish.

Such rhetoric, along with advocating rape, criticising the pope and threatening conflict with China, is par for the Duterean course. He makes Donald Trump look measured and statesman-like by comparison.

All of this might be mildly titillating, perhaps, if it wasn’t so important and symptomatic of a more widespread malaise that’s affecting the region and the world. Democracy is in serious trouble just about everywhere, and the Phillipine exemplar isn’t going to help matters – if it survives at all, given Duterte’s threat to abolish congress and install a revolutionary government.

In reality this is unlikely to happen. The military in the Philippines has launched numerous coups against democratically elected governments over the years, and there are already rumblings about yet another one if a Dutertean regime takes power. While the military has little difficulty supporting despots, Duterte’s pragmatic attitude toward communist insurgents is likely to prove too much for the leadership of the armed forces.

As in Thailand, the military has never quite come to terms with the principles that are supposed to underpin civil-military relations in a democracy. Consequently, democracy remains fragile – and not terribly effective.

At least some of the Philippines’ neighbours enjoyed the benefits of rapid state-led economic development while they put up with authoritarianism. The Philippines has suffered the worst of all possible worlds.

But, there has been a noteworthy uptick in the economic performance of the Philippines during the presidency of the outgoing Benigno Aquino. Even this needs to be put in context, however. More than 10% of the Philippines’ GDP is generated by remittances from the estimated ten million Filipinos who work overseas. If a country’s principal export is its own people, it rather suggests that all is not well.

People are the one thing that the Philippines is not short of, though. Since Marcos was kicked out in 1986, the population in this very Catholic country has doubled to more than 100 million. The impact on the natural environment and the rapidly disintegrating infrastructure of cities like Manilla is depressingly easy to see.

Optimists (and economists) will no doubt argue that the Philippines is poised to reap a demographic dividend from its youthful population. If it does, it’s likely to come in the form of increased remittances from overseas. The incentives to leave might be even greater under a Dutertean presidency.

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