Manuel Quezon III is a columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper and the host of the political affairs show “The Explainer” on the ABS-CBN TV news channel.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte wants one thing from his main meeting with President Trump in Manila on Monday: a Ferdinand Marcos moment. Back in 1981, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush toasted the dictator’s third inauguration by cooing, “We love your adherence to democratic principle and to the democratic processes.”
Bush’s support confounded Marcos’s critics and burnished his strongman image. Today, compliments from Trump are likely to have the same benefits for Duterte. The Philippine president will almost certainly find an opportunity to point out that a Pew Research Center poll published in June placed Filipino confidence in Trump at 69 percent. (Of course, their subordinates won’t be reminding the two men that President Barack Obama enjoyed 94 percent confidence among Filipinos in 2015.)
Duterte’s infatuation with China and Russia will be of little use to him while he plays host to his fellow Southeast Asian leaders at a regional summit meeting. Neither Xi Jinping nor Vladimir Putin is going to Manila. In the Philippines, which remains one of the most pro-American countries in the world, the public still measure their leaders by the Washington yardstick.
By that standard, Duterte has a lot to be happy about. Trump’s advisers originally envisioned an overnight visit to the Philippines, but that has now been extended to two days. A simple pull-aside on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit has been elevated to a bilateral meeting. Notably, Duterte managed to get through the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit without making any major gaffes. Because by now everyone knows Duterte is only uncouth when politically expedient, it’s well worth asking why he has been on his best behavior with his global peers. The reason is domestic: As Tip O’Neill famously observed, all politics is local.
Duterte’s illiberal political agenda is running out of steam. He has been meeting strong resistance in the form of criticism from human rights advocates at home and abroad, cautious but increasingly public concern on the part of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and growing alarm among civil society groups and the media. All this has been accompanied by a sharp drop in public support for the president and his methods. Even more ominously, the business community has been expressing quiet but steady concern over the economy losing steam.
The president has had to beat a strategic retreat on two fronts. First, and most painfully, was in the case of his war on drugs. In October, Duterte had to publicly — though grudgingly — relieve the police of responsibility for conducting operations, giving the job to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency while announcing he fully expected the effort to fail. The previous head of the agency had been fired for contesting Duterte’s claim of 4 million drug addicts, and the agency’s supervisor, retired Gen. Dionisio Santiago, was fired last week for daring to suggest that an immense rehab facility funded by a Chinese billionaire was a white elephant. This, despite Santiago having provided Duterte with dossiers that provided the intelligence basis for the drug war itself. It may be that the cosmetic changes (such as rolling out the harmless but unsatisfyingly unbloody slogan “Love Life. Fight Drugs”) Santiago proposed to the drug war had already riled up the president.
Second, Duterte has had to temporarily shelve an idea proposed by some of his supporters, who have suggested that he simply scrap the 1987 Philippine constitution and proclaim a revolutionary government with himself at its head — effectively an old-fashioned Latin American-style self-coup. Duterte’s official agenda is extraordinarily ambitious. It encompasses tax reform, reorganizing the executive branch, shifting the form of government from presidential to parliamentary and the adoption of federalism.
The start of impeachment proceedings against the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the widely expected impeachment of the ombudsman (who has stirred Duterte’s ire by investigating killings in the war on drugs and allegations of malfeasance by administration officials, including Duterte’s own son), has caused additional delays. As a result, there is almost no chance that Duterte will be able to push his plans through before the 2019 midterms, as he had originally planned. Hence the temptation to leapfrog constitutional and procedural obstacles by proclaiming a revolutionary government.
But such a high-risk move requires three things. Public opinion would have to embrace it. The military would have to allow it. And foreign governments would have to turn a blind eye to it. The first two requirements have foundered on embarrassing realities. First, Duterte supporters have been notably lax about attending pro-government rallies, in stark contrast to the days when they reliably turned out in huge numbers. Second, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and the armed forces chief of staff were both reported to have told the vice president that they would not support a revolutionary government. So Duterte has been forced to shelve the proposal for now.
In short, the chance to burnish his standing by playing host to Trump and his Southeast Asian peers couldn’t come at a better time. At the very least, it gives him an occasion to remind friends and foe alike that he is still the man who matters in Manila.