Full Q&A with Brice Pedroletti of Le Monde

What follows is the Q&A from Brice Pedroletti, special correspondent of Le Monde. A portion was published in Le Monde on May 20, 2022 as Manolo Quezon : « Il n’y a pas de fatigue démocratique aux Philippines ». I am publishing this full version based on a prior agreement with Mr. Pedroletti.

Q. Bongbong Marcos was elected 36 years after the fall of the dictatorship of his father. What is this a sign of for you as a historian? Is there a democratic fatigue in the Philippines?

A. With an 82.6% turnout rate, and numerous reports of voters insisting on casting their ballots to the extent that they endured hours-long waits, in some instances, long after the polls had closed elsewhere and the results had already been transmitted nation-wide, obviously not. Whether approached from a mercenary (an opportunity to sell one’s vote) or idealistic (an important function of citizenship) point of view, elections are cherished. After the turmoil of the 1980s to early 2000s, regime change only through elections, has actually been strengthened.

Q. Fake news and alternative narratives circulated by social networks and supposedly pushed by those who benefit from them have been blamed for pushing a positive image of Bongbong and his father. Does it mean there’s no awareness of this fake news phenomenon, in spite of Rappler, Vera Files and Facebook’s efforts in toning down fake news ?

A. An integral part of the fake news phenomenon and the modern brand of populism, is a continued attack on the credibility of media, combined with efforts to reduce their reach or freedom to operate. This is combined with an effort to insist on “balance” defined not as journalistic objectivity as journalists (or the public, formerly, at least) might define it, but as populists do: an unquestioning elevation of conspiracy theories and fanciful claims to the level of “facts.” In such a situation, the very insistence of fact-checking media, that there are facts that reveal distortions, is itself proof of media being accomplices in an elite-serving agenda of falsification and distortion. This circular reasoning makes it not only fact-checking-proof, it strengthens itself with every effort to correct it.

Q. Why this skepticism does not seem to apply to those who believe everything that is positive about the Marcos?

A. You might call it Political Gnosticism: the assertion that there is a hidden truth that only the privileged and enlightened can see, and once seen, arms the privileged and enlightened to resist the propaganda and lies of the experts, which includes religious leaders, members of the academe, professionals and experts in general, including the media itself.

Q. In what sense has Duterte paved the way for such a coming back of the Marcos?

A. We must return to why Duterte was plucked from Davao and weaponized into a formidable candidate in 2016. It was, despite the shortcomings of the then-administration of Benigno S. Aquino III, the only way to divert the election into being a referendum on which way was best, to capitalize on the gains achieved by that administration. At stake was the liberty, literally, of an entire coalition of leaders featuring former Presidents (Arroyo, in detention, Estrada and Ramos, on the periphery throughout the Aquino years), durable political figures like Senators Enrile, Estrada and Revilla, etc. Under a “normal” election in which the primary consideration is the economy, this coalition had poor prospects. But change the narrative of the election, and it would render all other candidacies obsolete. Even after the Aquino coalition fractured into three factions: Roxas, Poe, Binay, any one of them could have won; all had to be neutralized. Pushing a political will, law-and-order candidacy, and elevating crime including drugs, from a medium- to low-level concern to top concern, changed the game and capitalized on the shortcomings of the Aquino administration.

This focused attention on Duterte just when Marcos Jr., who’d made it to the Senate in 2010, made a bid for the vice-presidency. It reduced attention on his run and Duterte then legitimized the Marcos candidacy by openly flirting with it. He also paid his political debts to the Marcoses by authorizing a state funeral for the dictator, conferring state legitimacy on the dead dictator. Duterte didn’t go further than that and when his own succession plans were foiled, he found himself sidelined by the coalition between his daughter and the Marcoses brokered by former President (and Speaker) Arroyo. Duterte, a relatively new figure on the national stage, with his own constituency, thus helped legitimize and modernize the Marcoses.

Q. Contrary to the Philippines, in the USA after 4 years of Trump it seems electors have made a more sober choice. And his popularity has not abated…How come the Phils hasn’t learned after Duterte?

It looks like that choice is about to voided by the mid-terms and by the next presidential election!

As Jim Callaghan told his colleagues when Margaret Thatcher came on the scene, once every thirty years or so, something happens that completely changes the political equation. Duterte was such a phenomenon. Earlier (above) I pointed out why his candidacy had to be launched. It is important to understand what helped make him such a phenomenally popular candidate and President, and why it’s led to a change in national perspective that is poised to endure.

The democracy, institutionally-speaking, that emerged after EDSA was one in which the powers of the presidency were checked, and balanced, not just by the traditional other two branches –legislature and the courts—but by a fourth branch, the constitutional commissions operating independent from the executive, but more importantly, by non-state institutions: civil society (including academe), the Catholic Church, the media, with the Aquinos (first Cory Aquino, then her son after she died) as a kind of fulcrum. This served to veto any proposal by presidents, to modify the rules of the game (constitutional change), combined with unintended flaws in the rules of the system itself (just one short example: the provisions for amending the constitution were written with a unicameral legislature in mind; but at the last minute, it became a bicameral Congress but the provisions remained unaltered; ever since then, the ambiguity of the text invites a constitutional crisis to anyone wanting to attempt it). The best that could be managed was to swing between populism and reform; EDSA Dos in 2001 killed People Power because the political class papered over regime change with a Supreme Court decision declaring what happened constitutional after all. EDSA Tres, the urban insurrection that followed, frightened the middle and professional class into refusing to consider change outside the confines of elections.

There is a concept, mission creep, in which one mission evolves and mutates as a response to changing conditions. President Arroyo’s term, which became the second-longest in Philippine history, out of a need to survive, turned into an administration abiding by the rules of the game, into one actively seeking to render them obsolete. Still, it failed and Aquino III was elected. We forget now his popularity for much of his administration, was unprecedented in the post-EDSA era; one event, however, crystallized the shortcomings of Mr. Aquino and it boiled down, as it often does, politically, to a defining moment. When the bodies of police commandos killed in an anti-terrorist operation were brought back in state, he was not there to receive them; on poor advice, he attended a car plant inaugural and what otherwise might have been forgiven became unforgivable. It was a traumatic political moment because for a generation, the Filipino people had built a relationship with the Aquinos on a foundation of shared empathy and sympathy: millions dared defy Marcos by attending Benigno Aquino Jr.’s funeral; they writ finis to the Arroyo era by attending the funeral of Mrs. Aquino in the millions too; when her son, brought to power on the memories of shared experiences, didn’t do what the people did, it severely, even fatally, damaged the moral ascendancy of himself and his family.

It is this trauma, this unprecedented revulsion that on one hand, led the political Center leaderless just when the Right had consolidated support behind Duterte; it also magnified Duterte and his brand of coarse authenticity, as a repudiation of the previous 30 years defined by the Aquino-era consensus. It capitalized on a new middle class, made possible by the economic growth of recent decades, but which achieved relative prosperity without the civic acculturation of the old middle class with its schools, churches, and clubs (an OFW could, literally, jump from being born in serfdom, to being middle class with property, in one generation but without going to the schools and institutions that formed the old traditional middle class). This has created a sense of identity and empowerment validated by constant propaganda in social media.

Duterte for all his popularity in a sense failed like Ramon Magsaysay: he will leave no tangible mark on institutions as he did not organize a movement; in the intramurals within his government he sided with his protégé, Bong Go, for a pragmatic sticking to the status quo, in contrast to another principal lieutenant, Evasco, who’d proposed a national movement with ideology and a corresponding purge of the bureaucracy and change in the system of government.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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