OPINION: The growing risks of ‘charismatic strongman politics’

Jose Galang – Your Business

Posted at Jan 22 2018 12:51 PM

When the multi-sectoral World Economic Forum (WEF) holds its annual meeting this week in Davos, Switzerland, the estimated 2,500 participants are expected to turn their attention to, among other topics, the recent rise of “charismatic strongman politics” across the world as one the risks to global political stability and economic growth this year and beyond.

In certain countries that include the Philippines, says a new WEF report released ahead of the annual meeting, “the trend towards increasing personalized power takes place amid rising geopolitical volatility”. The escalation of these risks was one of the most pronounced trends in 2017, particularly in Asia, says the report.

The “intensification of nationalist and strong-state narratives creates risks” both domestically and internationally, says the report, adding that one such domestic danger is that “the interests of non-state actors will suffer”.

“If the protection and projection of state power becomes more central to policy, then the rights of protections enjoyed by individuals, businesses, and civil society groups become more contingent on leaders’ perceptions of the state interests and—sometimes seen as the same thing—consolidation of their own personal power,” says the report which was prepared by a WEF team of economists, academics, finance professionals, environment advocates and other social scientists.

‘Most pressing challenges’

Some of the “most pressing challenges” to international and domestic stability are listed in the report as: biodiversity loss, cybersecurity threats, rising geopolitical tensions, and the risk of another financial crisis erupting.”

The report also identifies potential “future shocks” that underline the “importance of being prepared not just for familiar slow-burn risks, but for dramatic disruptions that can cause rapid and irreversible deterioration in the systems we rely on,” says WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab.

These possible future shocks, or “sudden and dramatic breakdowns”, are not predictions, the report notes. “They are food for thought and action—what are the possible future shocks that could fundamentally disrupt our world, and what can you do to prevent them?”

One such potential future shock that some local analysts are already sensing is the new wave of populism that threatens social order. The report notes that democracy is “already showing signs of strain” in the face of economic, cultural and technological disruption, and warns that “much deeper damage is possible: social and political orders can break down.”

“If an evenly divided country sees polarized positions harden into a winner-takes-all contest, the risk increases of political debate giving way to forms of secession or physical confrontation.”

In such a situation, a tipping point could be reached and subsequent conflict could lead to a government to “impose its will by force, risking long-reverberating consequences: a state of emergency, the curtailment of civil liberties, even the cancellation of elections to protect public order.”

‘Authoritarian playbook’

Even before the release of the WEF report last week, recent developments in the Philippines have been interpreted by certain individuals and concerned groups (which appear to be growing in numbers in recent days) as indicators of an “authoritarian playbook”.

What makes this phenomenon surprising, indeed very difficult to understand, is that this country has been through an authoritarian power before when Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law and the Philippines, under his military-led regime, deteriorated from a “second most prosperous” status in Asia to one of the poorest economies that was characterized all over the world as a “basket case”.

Some have even pointedly charged that these recent moves are designed to pave the way for another dictatorial regime in the country that is struggling from widespread poverty and inequality, uneven access to justice, frequent natural disasters that heighten people’s suffering, and a general weakening of democratic institutions.

The current efforts by state-aligned groups to push through an initiative to change the Constitution by the middle of this year—even without the benefit of a thoughtful discussion and assessment of revisions proposed—is now causing cracks in the political order.

One of the most prominent constitutional revisions being pursued is the switch from the present unitary form of government to a federal system, which will divide the country into partially self-governing regions that will fall under a central federal regime.

While some sectors say that such a system would lead to a more even sharing of the country’s resources, many others argue that a federalized nation could merely strengthen the political and economic control—and perceived abuses—now enjoyed by “dynasties” in the regions.

Attack on institutions

On their way to this federalism goal, the constitutional-change proponents have gone on an attack on key institutions, critics point out. They fear that the moves against the Supreme Court, the Senate, and some segments of media could lead to permanent damage to long-revered democratic systems and process that involve consensus-building and determination of mandates through elections.

Parceling out the Philippines into states governed by political dynasties, analysts argue, could only serve to permanently divide the nation into geographic areas guided more by selfish interests that will destroy the glue that now binds it.

What can people under threat of such potential future shock on democracy do? The WEF report says that “the more that can be done to boost the resilience and responsiveness of democratic institutions, the less likely they will be to buckle under pressure.”

If the WEF annual meeting this week can come up with clearer responses to this complex challenge, our policymakers in the Philippines should be watchful. For now, while the threats to the current order are surging forward, solutions offered sound easier said than done.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.