Imelda is a Fellow at the School of Regulation and Global Governance and the Project Director of the Philippines Project, a policy-engaged research initiative between ANU and DFAT on Philippine economy, trade, politics and governance.
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This blog was produced as part of our seminar series: Governance and the power of fear, which runs until 5 December 2017.
The Philippines looms towards authoritarian rule unless the middle class withdraws its support for President Rodrigo Duterte’s illiberal policies. The poor and low-income groups pledged their support for Duterte’s policies at the start of his administration until they became the target of his violent war on drugs. The Filipino middle class’ support for Duterte is rising and so is their approval for policies that undermine constitutional democracy, the principle of checks and balance, and the rule of law.
Why would the middle class support a shift towards an illiberal regime? Particularly so since their prosperity has been facilitated under a liberal rule? The emergence of authoritarian regimes has come alongside the escalation of the politics of fear that creates an object of insecurity, hatred or deep distrust in the population. The adoption of extreme measures to bring a state of security becomes a necessary consequence in dealing with insecurity. Authoritarians emerge not because they are dreadful by themselves. They rise because they are good at identifying and exploiting insecurities of the citizenry. They present themselves through a paternalistic image of a Saviour, Hero, or Father who can do what is required to bring about security and order.
The Filipino middle class does not fear Duterte but they have been so insecure that they are willing to take a chance at his draconian measures. Targeting the drug addicts and the ‘yellows’ or those who oppose administration policies as ‘enemies of the state’ has become the object through which insecurity is being magnified. The middle class are insecure because they are frustrated and disempowered to affect policies and decisions that will fulfil their aspirations to a higher level. They are angry because despite their increasing prosperity, the Filipino middle class suffer from the high cost of living, poor delivery of basic services, and the everyday struggle of to stay safe and secure within their homes and properties.
With many of the middle class in the lower income stream, they are at risk of being poor. The elites in the Philippines who comprise barely 1% of the population can take care of themselves with their gated houses and private security. Many of those who live in extreme poverty, about 20% of the population, can only aspire to survive with the little that they have.
With a long history of political and economic downturns, the Filipino middle class who comprise more than 30% of the population, are in a fragile state and feel a deep sense of instability. Previous liberal governments have fallen short of their expectations in solving perennial governance issues, poor delivery of services, continuing conflict in the South, and the persistence of wide inequality. The Filipino middle class is expanding with an increase in business outsourcing and foreign remittances. The emerging middle class in the Philippines are young, cannot live without their mobile phones and computers, and want to be rich. It is widely believed that the middle class is an engine for social change. But they can also be the driving force for no change or regression.