Populism in the Philippines and its Impact on Social Media and Civil Society Responses

Posted on September 13, 2018

By Marj Ibanez

September 13, Pasig City – Key stakeholders from civil society organizations, the academe, media, political formations, and the basic sectors gathered today to generate insights on the concept and practice of populism in the country. The forum analyzed the key challenges posed by populism and identified action points for protecting and defending democracy against the populist push and tendencies towards an authoritarian, strongman rule.

INCITEGov convened the forum in partnership with the Jessie Robredo Institute of Governance (JRIG) with support from the Asian Democratic Research Network (ADRN). The forum is part of a regional initiative by ADRN to come up annually with State of Democracy Reports from various countries in Asia.

Dr. Ador Torneo, Director of De La Salle University-Jesse M. Robredo Institute of Governance (JRIG) welcomed the participants and explained the objectives of the forum. He observed that the country is living in interesting times, marked by risks and uncertainties as well as by opportunities for creative and innovative energies of citizens. He noted how it is important to learn the lessons of history to ensure that they will never be repeated and forgotten.

The forum consisted of three sections. The first session, Understanding Populism in the Philippines, consisted of the following panelists: Dr. Ronald Mendoza, Dean of the Ateneo School of Government; Dr. Jean Encinas-Franco of the UP-Diliman Department of Political Science, and Ms. Cleve Arguelles, Assistant Professor and Chair of Political Science Department of UP-Manila. The second session was anchored by JRIG and focused on the theme, Populism in the Age of Social Media. The study was presented by JRIG Director Dr. Francisco Magno. Reactors included Mr. Louie Montemar, Associate Professor at the PUP College of Social Sciences Department; Ms. Carmina Untalan, PhD candidate for International Relations and Politics at Osaka University; and Dr. Cheryll Ruth R. Soriano, Associate Professor at the DLSU Department of Communications. The third section was a presentation by Ms. Teresita Quintos-Deles of the study by INCITEGov on Civil Society Responses to Populist Leadership. Reactors in this session included Mr. Manuel L. Quezon III, columnist at the Philippine Daily Inquiter and editor-at-large of SPOT.ph; Mr. Sixdon Donato Macasaet,  Executive Director of CODE-NGOl and Ms. Samira Gutoc-Tomawis, former member of the Bangsamoro Transition Committee. Overall emcee for the event was Ms. Mardi Mapa-Suplido, former board member of INCITEGov. Mr. Edilberto de Jesus, a current member of the INCITEGov Board, moderated the first session.

Dr. Ronald Mendoza, Dean of ASOG, presented definition of populism and the various concepts related to it from an international perspective. He focused on populism using the economic lens, characterized by debt-driven growth followed by rising inflation, and redistribution without really changing the structural causes of inequality. He expounded on the observation that populism is observed as an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. He related his thoughts about how populism stops. He notes that populist tendencies are always present in countries with high inequalities. He further observed that strong divisions within a society enable a populist to rise into power – it’s not that populists are a majority, but that people are so divided they are weakened against the alternative offered by populist leaders.

Mr. Cleve Arguelles, Assistant Professor and Chair of the Political Science Program of the University of the Philippines, Manila characterized the Philippine populist public based on the findings of a research he conducted since January 2016 in the urban poor areas in Caloocan, Manila, and Quezon City. He relates that people only blame the cops for the killings in the war on drugs, not the President. While they hold human life to be valuable, they seek immediate albeit temporary relief from their needs and fears. 

Dr. Jean Encinas-Franco of the Department of Political Science of the Universtiy of the Philippines discussed the links between gender and populism, and how populism as a political style deployed gender symbolically and performatively. Her study concluded that populism thrives because of gendered discourses. Gendered discourses are “familiar” to most people-- they are non-threatening and do not disrupt gendered hierarchies. She ended her presentation by noting that the challenge will be in finding non-gendered forms of resistance, in unpacking the rhetoric and the familiar and challenging them, and in finding alternative forms of resistance.

The participants in the open forum raised several questions which the panel of speakers took turns in responding to. Is the Philippine culture is patriarchal and misogynists? If so, how the Filipinos may go beyond it?  Can populism provide a sustainable, structural response to expectations, unmet needs, and frustrations of a society? Can there be a more disaggregated data about the difference in responses between the organized and the unorganized groups? How much of populism is about reason and how much of it is about emotion? How can empowerment proceed against a tendency for simplification by populist leaders and their followers?

The second session started with a presentation by Dr. Francisco Magno, Director of JRIG, on “Mobocracy over Democracy: Noise over Voice.” He noted how the intolerance of modern-day populist is magnified by social media. The short soundbites and use of imagery favoured on the medium is used to emphasise some kind of purity. It makes things black and white: strong and weak, purity vs. inclusiveness, he observed.

Ms. Carmina Yu-Untalan, Ph.D. candidate at the Osaka University, discussed how social media transformed populism, its major implications on Philippine nation-building, and how the negative consequences on democracy of populism in social media may be countered.

In the open forum, participants asked about what must be done to counteract the tendency of social media to dumb-down and simplify information and messages. A question was also raised about how the millenials view activism – on whether social media posts without concrete mobilization and action can be viewed as activism. The existence of social media platforms of communication such as chat groups was also raised and the question was asked about their potentials for consciousness-raising and mobilization.

Ms. Teresita Quintos-Deles, Chair of INCITEGov, led the final session. She discussed the effects of populist leadership on civil society organizations and their responses. She presented case studies on the sectors that had been directly affected by Duterte’s policies. These include the NGOs (as illustrated through CODE-NGO), labor, urban poor, women, and the Marawi residents. In the main, the study showed that civil society experienced division and assault from Duterte’s populist promises and strongman pronouncements. Their responses have been varied – from paralysis due to painful division; to unifying formations and overcoming historcial divisions; and to reviving, revisiting, and possibly reinventing sectoral organizing. The study observed a growing organized resistance marked by the return of aging activists and the mobilization fueled by non-conventional formations, youth, and political blocs. She stressed on the imperative to learn lessons from the past and the present, to help put a stop to the cycle of democratic crisis that the country keeps on experiencing.

Mr. Manuel Quezon III noted that in 1992 during the first democratic presidential election, Imelda Marcos and Danding Cojuangco would have won if only they decided to unite. He said that this is significant because this is where their story of learning how to take back power began. Three decades hence, he noted the rise of civil society in the very same halls of power they have chosen to challenge and reform – to the extent that they also became part of the repudiation of democratic reforms in 2016. In 2001, the country actually already faced the question of choosing between populism (represented by former President Estrada) or reform (represented by sections of the People Power coalition of the 1980s). He noted that populism won just as populism would win again in 2016. The real lessons, he observed, from 2016 was that it was much easier to do than anyone thought – just a little drama and excitement – to make a populist President win. What accounts for the repeated return of populism? He said that the answer to this has been realized during the senatorial elections, when  one veteran politician noted, “We have not trained a successor generation.” There was no successor generation in both civil society and mainstream politics. A kind of cleavage occurred that made it easy for a populist leader to take advantage of. All that was needed was for a minority, maybe even just ten percent, to connect with the disenchantment of the rest of the population via social media.

Mr. Sixdon Donato Macasaet shared his reflections about civil society’s role in raising people’s awareness about democratic reforms and change politics. He noted that one of the tasks that must  never be left behind is community organizing, even and especially when the civil society is busy with engaging government in its different venues and programs for citizen participation in democratic reforms. He noted that the strategies held as crucial in the past remains as crucial today, which is to organize and conscienticize. 

The participants raised the following points and questions during the open forum: When will the tipping point be, or will there ever be one? How can we engage in a meaningful dialogue with people whose beliefs oppose ours, in a manner that is respectful, informative, and transformative? How to address the digital divide, and give access to sections of population especially in the rural areas that are left behind in the national dialogues and debates? Leaders of the labor and the urban poor sectors related how they felt about promises of change that they believed at the start, but soon realized were mere empty words and show. They continue to hope for real, structural change to happen – one that will address the root cause of grievances of the majority of the Filipinos.

BOT Chair Deles, at her closing remarks, thanked the participants for their impressive engaged presence and participation in the last five hours of the forum. She observed that everyone seem to have found the exchanges to be thoroughly exciting, productive, insightful. She reiterated the commitment of INCITEGov and JRIG to continue convening a platform for discussion, where researches are presented for thorough consideration for real and dynamic action and not just as documents to be put into shelves, and that the studies and exchanges involve real life dilemmas confronting democracy today.

The forum, held in Magallanes Hall in Discovery Suites, was attended by 58 participants from the academe and think tanks, political parties,  donor agencies, cause-oriented groups, civil society and NGO networks, and leaders from the labor, women, youth, and the urban poor.#