Politics of Populism and Polarization:

How the Two SONAs Indicate Deep Divisions in Philippine Society

  • Despite COVID-19 spread scare, thousands of protesters trooped to the streets on July 27 for Alternative SONAs opposing populist authoritarianism and its divisive politics.

Performative political spectacles such as yearly State of the Nation Address (SONA) are supposed to unite nation-states and their multiple publics. Governments outline their achievements and policy priorities in their remaining years through SONAs.

Given their nature as state orchestrated, well-crafted events, SONAs are often highly contested. They are a good indicator of a government’s popularity, level of opposition, policy cohesion or division, and success in fulfilling the state’s legitimation function.

The Two SONAs

The President Duterte’s fifth SONA is a good barometer of the above metrics. As was expected, there were two SONAs -- one from the Halls of Parliament; another from the Parliament of the Streets. And in an increasingly polarized society, nev’r the ‘twain shall meet.

There is no better indicator of how divided Philippine society and Filipinos worldwide in our current context than what transpired in these two SONAs.

The Official SONA Against Oligarchy

In the official SONA, people expected to listen to President Duterte, the Father of the Nation, to provide a steady and reassuring voice, an uplift needed amidst difficult economic times during the COVID-19 pandemic. He continued to declare war against drugs, drug users and traffickers. He announced the lockdown and other measures to prevent COVID-19 spread.

He showed once again his classic populist rhetoric with a new twist. This SONA perhaps offered his most crystallized attack on the Philippine oligarchy, which President Duterte considered, along with the illegal drug trade, as the two biggest sources of problems in our society.

He scolded Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and threatened government expropriation of private assets in “enemy” hands.  Duterte was upset that Drilon earlier pointed out that the Dutertes themselves are an oligarchy, given several family members from three generations in public office. Moreover, Drilon sided with the Lopezes during the ABS-CBN controversy and was partner in the law firm working for the Ayalas when it bid on the country’s water utility company undergoing privatization.

Claiming victimization from the media oligarchs during the 2016 presidential campaign, Duterte’s SONA targeted the oligarchy such as the Lopezes and the Ayalas who bet on a different political horse during the last national elections. Duterte also lashed at utility companies, from telecommunications and broadcasting – mentioning Globe and Smart -- to water and electricity, warning of state expropriation if they don’t deliver and improve their services.

The Alternative SONA Against Autocracy

The biggest Alternative SONA held along the University of the Philippines corridor highlighted the country’s increasing foreign debt burden, deepening poverty and socio-economic inequalities. It tackled two issues that President Duterte’s SONA was silent on – the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 a major setback for human rights and Charter Change (Cha-Cha) plans that could pave for federalism in the Philippines.

Wearing face mask and observing social distancing, protesters at the Alternative SONA saw colorful parades, community singing, and heard eloquent rally speakers. These included representatives from lawyers’ groups, multi-sectoral coalitions, farmers, workers, health care workers, teachers, students, families of political detainees, women’s and LGBTQ groups, among others. Recorded messages from Senators Rissa Hontiveros and Kiko Pangilinan, and former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno flashed on the widescreen.

Playing on the SONA acronym, “SONAgkaisa” (So there was unity) became the protesters’ battle cry and banner-streamer design. It became group chant as multi-sectoral speakers criticized the government’s pandemic efforts, its continued anti-drug war devastating poor neighborhoods, its anti-poor and pro-rich taxation policies, rice liberalization laws, increasing unemployment, and growing public indebtedness through huge running loans payable until 2049 and take resources away from basic social service provision.

More instructive than the rally itself were over 5,900 comments on the Altermidya website covering the Alternative SONA. These comments indicated what divides our home country and people, and how forces across the political spectrum capitalize on these divisions.

Removing the chaff – cruel, personal name calling, e.g. Hontivirus, Dutertards, tanga, hangal, baliw, bobo, ulol, and other unspeakable insults -- from the grains of wisdom in comments, I captured four contemporary socio-political and economic fissures in the Philippines today.

Four Fissures in Populist Authoritarian States

These four fissures parallel those happening in other countries ruled by strong men (note: they are almost always men) such as India under Modi, Turkey under Erdogan, Brazil under Bolsonaro, Russia under Putin, China under Xi Jin Ping, the UK under Johnson, the U.S. under Trump.

For or Against Authoritarianism and Populism

First is the support for and opposition to populist authoritarianism, also called neofascism.

What is authoritarian populism or populist authoritarianism? As the recent anthology, Critical Theory and Authoritarian Populism, edited by Jeremiah Morelock, defined the term.

“[A]uthoritarian populism refers to the pitting of ‘the people’ against ‘elites’ in order to have the power to drive out, wipe out, or otherwise dominate Others who are not ‘the people.’”

It is populist because it is anti-elite and purports to speak on behalf of “the people” and their interests.

Populist authoritarian leaders claim that they and their actions are “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” They deny the reality that they are also an elite who represent the interests of the few. As Jeremiah Morelock argues:

  “Generally, [authoritarian populism] involves social movements fuelled by prejudice and led by charismatic leaders that seek to increase governmental force to combat difference. It is commonplace for governments under the direction of authoritarian populists to condense and centralize authority, so that more power rests in the hands of fewer people.”

In the Philippines, populist authoritarian rule is personified in President Duterte who, like other autocrats, creates polarizing politics producing deeper social cracks through identity-related divisive discourses that help rally his political base. 

(Mis)use of Identity Politics

Second, corollary to the above, is the (mis)use of identity politics to fuel fear, hatred and aggression towards others perceived as “enemies of the people.”

Autocrats often use performative political representations to fuel the bigotry and prejudice common to populist leaders worldwide, according to Stephen Bronner in his 2014 book, The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists and Benjamin Moffitt’s 2016 book, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation.

Duterte has exploited politics of identity around nationalism, sexism and misogyny, feminism, and anti-Americanism. He attacked strong women leaders such as Vice-President Leni Robredo (demoted from cabinet and harassed publicly), former Justice Secretary Leila de Lima (sent to prison) and former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Maria Lourdes Sereno (forced to resign).

It was alleged that the government has an army of paid internet trolls who would post messages demonizing the President’s avowed enemies while promoting “in-group” favoritism and disparaging “out groups,” or an “us” versus “them” mentality.

For or Against Neoliberalism

Third is support for and opposition to the continued promotion of neoliberal economic policies, whose failures to address poverty and social inequality help give rise to populist authoritarian rulers. According to John Judis’s 2016 book The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Trans­formed American and European Politics, populist leaders emerge following deep economic crises, as in 1930s Europe during the rise of Nazi Fascism.

There is no facet of modern life today that has been left untouched by neoliberalism, the economic ideology and political philosophy supporting free markets, small government, asset privatization, private enterprise, fiscal austerity, decentralization, among others.

The Philippines embarked on this neoliberal path since the 1970s when it aggressively promoted agricultural and manufactured exports, pursued labor out-migration policies to bring new revenue sources, and contracted structural adjustment programs from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, in exchange for massive foreign loans.

Under Duterte, outstanding debt rose from 6.2 trillion pesos in 2016 by the end of the Aquino administration to 8.2 trillion in 2019, even without a pandemic. It further increased to 8.9 trillion pesos by May 2020, when it borrowed 396.6 billion pesos, or a total of $7.73 billion. This running total is payable from 2023-2049, a huge debt burden for future generations who would be deprived of resources need for basic social services.

Embraced by elite-led liberal democracies around the world, neoliberalism brought down liberal elites’ credibility and enabled the rise of populist authoritarian rule from the left, such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and from the right, Donald Trump in the US and Brazil’s Bolsonaro.

There are initial signs of weakening consensus around neoliberalism, particularly in the industrialized world with social welfare systems still in place that gained resurgence after these countries showed willingness to go into deficit spending to stimulate the economy and provide emergency funds for citizens’ survival during the pandemic. On the whole, however, neoliberalism is more likely to rear its ugly head as countries embark on their post-pandemic recovery programs that would likely maintain regressive taxation policies, where the poor and middle class pay higher taxes than the rich relative to their incomes, and other measures that can widen socio-economic inequality.

For or Against the Critical Opposition

Fourth, the support for and hostility towards anti-Duterte opposition, particularly “the reds” (national democrats and communists), “the yellows” (liberal social democrats) dominating Philippine political landscape since the 1930s, and the alternative progressive political economic development pathways they propose.

Duterte capitalized on people’s political disappointments with elite democracies and underground left movements when cultivating his political base. During his presidential campaign, he called himself a “socialist” and began to distance his government from the United States as it developed a pro-China foreign policy.

Duterte is not and will never be a socialist in its Marxist sense. He was not of course the first populist autocrat who appropriated this term. Remember Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) party was called the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazi Party. It grew into a mass movement, ruled Germany through totalitarian means from 1933 to 1945, and instigated the Second World War.

He was not also the first popular leader who promised “to save the republic and reform society.” In fact, “Duterte resembles Marcos in many ways.” Marcos first used anti-oligarchy rhetoric to sequester radio, television and newspaper networks owned by opposition families and hand them over to his cronies.

Whither Populist Authoritarianism?

President Duterte remains highly popular among Filipinos, despite recent setbacks caused by the government’s response to the pandemic, which has claimed the second highest infection in Southeast Asia, following Indonesia.

In a poll taken before the onset of the pandemic, he received a “net satisfaction rating of +72” in the last quarter of 2019.

Explaining his popularity, a February 2020 Atlantic magazine article, opined that Duterte remains popular because of his charisma, using the judiciary to silence opposition and the press, and effective use of social media to discredit his enemies, among other tools in the “global strongman’s toolbox.”

As the success of populist authoritarianism requires a social movement built on prejudice and fear, it will also take a new stronger global and national social movements to challenge the growth of neofascism worldwide.

The open questions that remain are: Who will lead these anti-fascist national movements? How will they work globally? What forms will they take?  How will the post-pandemic scenarios affect their work? What alternatives to both elite-led democracies and populist authoritarian states will they propose?