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Philippines

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World Election Week

They don’t hold world elections, but this is the week when around a third of the planet’s voters get the election results for their country or region. In no case are the results a cause for jubilation.

The headline vote, of course, has to be India’s election, a six-week process in which the country’s 900 million voters went to the polls one region at a time, but all the results were held back until this Thursday. The outcome was a landslide win and a second five-year term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s ‘Trump before Trump’.

India is a far more complicated country than the United States: 22 official languages, more than 2,000 ethnic groups, myriad divisions of caste and religion. But Modi powers through all that with a simple nationalist message, delivered mainly in the single most widely spoken language, Hindi, and focused on the promotion of the majority religion, Hinduism.

Like Trump, he is vociferously anti-Muslim. (200 million Indian citizens are Muslims.) Like Trump, he governs an ostensibly secular republic on which he is trying to impose a specific religious identity (although unlike Trump, his religiosity is genuine). Like Trump, he talks up foreign wars and threats all the time, although so far he has managed to evade a major war.

In other words, he is the very model of a modern populist, and the model works. It worked in the Philippines, too, where mid-term election results, declared this week, gave President Rodrigo Duterte an absolute majority in Congress and the ability to change the constitution at will.

Duterte’s first constitutional change will be to bring back the death penalty, but his death squads are already inflicting unofficial death penalties on hundreds of alleged drug-users each month. Then he will abolish term limits, so that he can stay in power indefinitely, and lower the age of criminal responsibility to 12. All of this is making him wildly popular with Filipino voters.

The news is rather better in Indonesia, where election results announced on Tuesday gave incumbent President Joko Widodo 55% of the vote and a second term in office. But while he has been an honest and effective leader, there is a darker side to the story.

Growing Islamist extremism forced ‘Jokowi’ to prove his religious credentials by choosing an elderly Muslim cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his vice-presidential running mate this time. And when Widodo’s election victory was announced his main opponent, former general Prabowo Subianto, claimed that he had cheated, denounced the result, and unleashed protesters in the streets of Jakarta. Six died in the first day.

And how about the Europeans? 400 million citizens of the European Union are eligible to vote between Thursday and Sunday in elections to the European Parliament, and it looks like ultra-nationalist populist parties will win the most votes in three out of the four biggest EU countries: the Lega in Italy, the National Rally (formerly National Front) in France, and the Brexit Party in the United Kingdom.

Other racist, anti-immigrant nationalist parties will also do well, including Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland, Fidesz and Jobbik in Hungary, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, VOX in Spain, Golden Dawn in Greece, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Alternative for Germany (AfD). If this is what democracy gets you, are you sure it’s a good idea?

Yes, it is. Democracy is not a tool for delivering good political decisions. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Living in a democracy doesn’t automatically free people from all the old divisions of ethnicity and religion and class and caste. It sometimes mutes those conflicts, but it’s not a magic cure. Democracy is about equal rights, and that’s all.

Democracy has spread all around the world in the past two centuries because it acknowledges and embodies the basic human value of equality. All human beings lived in tiny hunter-gatherer societies that were obsessively egalitarian for several hundred thousand years before the rise of civilisation, and that is who we still really are.

Equality disappeared with mass civilisation, because we couldn’t crack the problem of large numbers. Some self-nominated god-king or emperor had to make the decisions for a million people, because there was no way they could get together and do it for themselves in the old way.

But then, a couple of hundred years ago, we got technologies that enabled the millions to re-connect: printing and mass literacy. As soon as we got that, the demand for equality re-emerged, and it proved irresistible. You just had to invent some system for measuring the opinions of those millions (let’s call it elections), and lo! You have a democracy.

You don’t have paradise. Human beings are still made of the same old crooked timber, and their collective decisions can be ignorant and sometimes calamitous. Equal rights do not equate to universal love and brotherhood, but democracy does restore our ancient heritage of equality, and that does imply mutual tolerance.

The process of civilising ‘civilisation’ will not be completed in this century, but we have come a long way already.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 6. (“India…Hinduism”; and “In other…voters”)

Duterte and the ICC

Here’s the good news. Last February the International Criminal Court at The Hague opened an inquiry into alleged crimes against humanity committed by President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines as part of his ‘war on drugs’.

Now for the bad news. True to form, Duterte replied that the Treaty of Rome which created the ICC was “all bullshit” and that the court was only backed by “white idiots”. He then announced that the Philippines was withdrawing from the ICC “effective immediately”.

Actually, he may not be able to do that unilaterally, because the Rome Treaty was ratified by the Senate of the Philippines and probably has to be abrogated by the same body. (Legal opinions vary.) But Duterte does control the Senate and could do it eventually, if he cared about legality.

He’d still have legal problems, because the Philippines was subject to the treaty when he ordered many of his murders. Even if the Senate did cancel the treaty, the country would stay subject to it for another year. But nobody is going to arrest Duterte now, and he doesn’t seem worried about the future either.

Duterte later warned that any UN investigator arriving in the country would be arrested. Having settled the matter to his own entire satisfaction, he then went back to killing people. Death threats and death squads are his favourite political instruments, and his weird political charisma would evaporate if he wasn’t killing people.

He is not too picky about who does the work for him, either. Ten months ago he pulled the national police from his ‘war on drugs’ because they were “corrupt to the core”. (True.) But the number of killings dropped because the specialised anti-narcotics force, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, lacked the manpower to keep the killing rate up.

By May, therefore, Duterte was letting the national police take part in the drug raids again. His sole concession to reality was to gather a hundred police who were facing complaints of rape, kidnapping and robbery and tell them last week, on national television, that they too would face summary execution if they didn’t straighten up. “If you’ll stay like this, son of a bitch, I will really kill you,” he said.

So Duterte is undeterred by ICC’s interest in his case and the slaughter continues unabated. Official statistics say that 4,000 small-time drug dealers (and cases of mistaken identity) have been killed; the 77-page report submitted to the ICC by Filipino lawyer Jude Sabio says more than 8,000. Yet public approval of his actions is not far down from the landslide support he got in the 2016 election.

Everybody knows that in these circumstances, there is zero probability of Duterte having to answer for his actions before a court. Even later, when circumstances may have changed, the chances of bringing him to justice are slim. So what is the point of bringing an ICC case against him?

One reason is that this is the first major ICC investigation that targets a non-African regime. There were good reasons why all previous ones involved African regimes: the continent is home to one-third of the world’s countries, most of its dictatorships, and most of its wars. Nevertheless, even competent, law-abiding African governments were starting to feel victimised, and it helps to have an Asian country on the list.

But more importantly, this is part of a much broader initiative to bring the rule of law to a domain where legal justice was previously unavailable. Where can individual citizens turn to get protection of their own rights (including the right to life) against the government of a sovereign state that does not obey its own laws? Like that of Rodrigo Duterte.

Obviously, this enterprise is not doing very well at the moment. The governments of the great powers refuse to let any higher court have jurisdiction over their treatment of their own citizens, and even lesser powers cannot be forced to accept the jurisdiction of the ICC, which has neither an army nor a police force. Duterte will probably never have to answer for his crimes.

No surprise here. Most crimes go unpunished everywhere, and there will never be universal justice. Nevertheless, the effort to create an international legal order is worthwhile, and not foredoomed.

The ICC was not created to overthrow people like Rodrigo Duterte, who was, after all, elected by the Filipino voting public. Its real function is provide a legal pathway for punishing the members of a criminal regime AFTER it has collapsed – and if possible to make that eventual legal reckoning so certain that it is even deters those criminals who are still in power.

So it is doing what it should, and it’s far too early to say that its actions are futile.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“He is…he said”)

South-East Asian Fall?

A quarter-century before the Arab Spring of 2011, there was a democratic spring in South-East Asia: the Philippines in 1986, Burma in 1988, Thailand in 1992 and Indonesia in 1998. The Arab Spring was largely drowned in blood (Syria, Egypt, Libya), but democracy really seemed to be taking root in South-east Asia – for a while.

But look at it now. The army is back in power in Thailand, and it never really left in Burma. The Philippines still has the forms of democracy, but President Rodrigo Duterte is a homicidal clown. And last week saw the demolition of the facade of democracy in Cambodia. What went wrong?

In Cambodia’s case democracy never was much more than a facade. Hun Sen, who was just ‘re-elected’ president with 80% of the vote, has been in power for 33 years, first as the leader of a Communist puppet government put in place after the Vietnamese invasion of 1971, later as the ruler of an independent country where opponents sometimes disappeared and his party unaccountably always won the elections.

But there was a relatively free press and a real opposition party, so Cambodia was loosely counted as a democracy – until the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party did surprisingly well in the 2013 election. After that the free media were shut down one after another, and in late 2016 the CNRP was dissolved by the supreme court. No wonder Hun Sen won again.

So nothing much lost there, you might say – but actually the facade of democracy, shabby though it was, did provide some protection for civil and human rights in Cambodia. Now it’s gone. “Whatever Mr Hun Sen wants, he gets. People are so fearful,” said deputy CNRP leader Mu Sochua, who fled to Germany last month. (The CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, is in jail on treason charges.)

Thailand went a lot further into the business of building a real democracy. A populist party that attracted peasants and the urban poor actually got power and started moving resources their way. But the reaction was ferocious: military-backed conservatives, including much of the urban middle class, fought that party in the courts and in the street.

The populist party was forced to change its name and its leader several times, but it was still in business until the military coup of 2014 shut all political activity down. Each year the generals promise a free election for the following year, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Next door in Burma the army never lost power at all. The attempted non-violent revolution of 1988 was thwarted by a massacre of students worse than the one carried out by the Chinese Communist Party on Tienanmen Square the following year.

It’s only in the past few years that the military were forced to hand some power over to civilians through free elections. But the generals then struck back with a pogrom against the Muslim minority in Rakhine state, the Rohingya, whom they falsely accused of being illegal immigrants.

700,000 Rohingyas were driven across the border into Bangladesh, Buddhist Burmese nationalists cheered the army on – and Aung San Suu Kyi, the long-standing leader and hero of the democratic movement, did not dare to condemn the crime. The army is basically back in the saddle.

And then there’s the Philippines, where the elections really are free. The trouble is that in 2016 the Filipinos elected Rodrigo Duterte, a self-proclaimed murderer, by a landslide. At least 3,000 death-squad killings of alleged drug-dealers later, he still has the highest popularity rating of any Filipino president since the ‘people power’ revolution of 1986.

Vietnam and Laos, of course, are still Communist-ruled autocracies. Only two of the eight countries in the region, Indonesia and Malaysia, are real democracies. It falls far short of the high hopes of the late 20th century, but it’s a good deal more than nothing.

Despite local scandals like the jailing of a non-Muslim mayor of Jakarta on spurious blasphemy charges, Indonesian democracy works, and is less corrupt than the regional norm. Malaysia has just voted out the most corrupt prime minister of its history, who is now in jail. And these two countries alone account for almost half the region’s population.

As for the rest, it’s the old game of glass-half-full vs. glass-half-empty. The setbacks are clustering at the moment, creating the impression that the democratic experiment has failed in South-East Asia, but every retrograde regime still faces far stronger democratic resistance than existed in any of these countries a generation ago.

In the century after the French revolution there were two emperors, one ‘directorate’, two monarchies and three republics, and most of the transitions were violent. The general direction of travel, in South-East Asia and elsewhere, is still towards democracy, but it’s a longer journey than it looks.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“So…charges”)

Duterte: Mass Murderer in Power

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte once said that Ferdinand Marcos, who was overthrown by the first non-violent revolution (‘People Power’) in 1986, would have been the Philippines’ best president “if he did not become a dictator.” Just as Duterte himself had the potential to be the Philippines’ best president if he had not become a mass murderer.

He doesn’t react well to criticism, either. Last month the International Criminal Court began to investigate a complaint by a Filipino lawyer that the extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s anti-drug war (now 8,000 and counting) amount to ‘crimes against humanity’. He responded by declaring that the Philippines would not longer accept the authority of the world tribunal.

On Sunday he went further, urging other countries to withdraw from ICC too: “Get out, get out, it’s rude.” Rude? That’s a bit rich coming from a man who has called former US president Barack Obama, former US ambassador Philip Goldberg, and even the Pope “a son of a whore”, but Duterte does not suffer from an excess of self-awareness.

Less than two years into a six-year term, he has already threatened to pull out of the United Nations too. His main mode of speech is stream-of-consciousness, so he doesn’t necessarily mean what he says, but you can never be sure. He is not unintelligent, but the one constant that shapes everything he says and does is his tough-guy persona.

That’s what Filipinos love him for (last year he had a 91 percent approval rating), but the problem is that he really is a tough guy – and not in a good sense. He graduated from law school and became a prosecutor in his home city of Davao, the biggest city in the southern island of Mindanao. It was then the most violent city in the country, and he set out to tame it.

It is not clear when Duterte decided that a death squad was needed to accomplish that task, but he makes no secret of its existence. In fact, he boasts about it, and sometimes hints that he did some of the killing himself. He became the mayor of Davao in 1988, and claims that 1,700 suspected criminals were killed on his watch.

Most of them were street kids – petty thieves and small-time drug dealers – but it did work, after a fashion: Davao is now reputed to be the safest city in the country. And it was his promise to do the same thing country-wide that won him the presidency in 2016 with 39 percent of the vote, almost twice as many votes as the nearest runner-up among the five candidates.

It would have made more sense if the Philippines was an ultra-violent country overrun by crime and drugs, but it isn’t. It is a profoundly unequal country whose politics has been dominated by a privileged and largely hereditary elite, but neither the crime rate nor drug usage is significantly higher than in other southeast Asian countries.

The murder rate is around the same level as the United States: four per 100,000 people in 2015 (but up to six per 100,000 people in 2016 due to Duterte’s killing spree).

In less than two years in office, Duterte has presided over the ‘extrajudicial’ murders of some 8,000 people, most of them drug-users who do little harm except to themselves. It is a classic displacement activity: the real problems are corrupt politicians and police and income disparities so huge that a quarter of the population lives in absolute poverty, but it’s much easier to wage a war on drugs and crime.

Displacement tactics are quite common in politics (like Donald Trump promising to bring back millions of lost American jobs from foreign countries when most of them were really destroyed by automation). But the pity of it is that Rodrigo Duterte, for all his bombast and vainglory, had other qualities that would have been very useful in the presidency.

He is an honest man, as Filipino politicians go, and he has a real empathy with the poor. During the Marcos dictatorship he protected opposition protesters in Davao, and he is gay- and Muslim-friendly in a country that has little tolerance for either. He calls himself a ‘socialist’, but the city of Davao achieved the highest economic growth rate in the country under his mayorship.

Alas, Duterte is also a mass murderer (he has said he will sign a pardon for himself “for the crime of multiple murder” before he leaves office.) He has become addicted to the cheap popularity he gets from saying and doing shocking things, and lacks the discipline to work on the country’s real problems.

He is a disaster for the Philippines, but that’s probably where the damage ends. And although he occasionally talks about abolishing the Congress and leading a self-appointed “revolutionary government”, he is unlikely to be able to carry it off, because by then he won’t be popular any more. The Philippines will not prosper under his rule.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“On Sunday…self-awareness”; and (“Amphetamine…people”)