Will democracy in the Philippines go the way of Thailand?

Will democracy in the Philippines go the way of Thailand? by Michael Vatikiotis, 14/09/2017, The Economist

Rodrigo Duterte bears many similarities to Thaksin Shinawatra

WHEN Filipinos attempt to explain the political success of their tough-guy president, Rodrigo Duterte, they tend to point to local precursors. Joseph Estrada, a former matinée idol who had often played Robin Hood types, rose to the presidency by promising to be hard on bad guys and good to the poor. And then there is Ferdinand Marcos, who cultivated an image as a war hero to win election before assuming dictatorial powers, and whose reputation Mr Duterte is doing his best to restore.

Both these comparisons make Mr Duterte’s knack of casting himself as a friend of the people while giving short shrift to the niceties of democracy seem like a function of Philippine politics, in which populists occasionally attempt to stir up resentment against the hereditary caste of landowners who dominate government and the economy. After all, despite regular elections and much talk of reform, the 40 best-connected families still control about three-quarters of the Philippines’ wealth. Poverty is equally entrenched, as a visit to Manila’s slums or the southern, partly Muslim island of Mindanao makes clear.

But the Philippines is not the only country in South-East Asia with an entrenched establishment presiding over profound inequality. Most are blighted by single-party rule, or by a political churn which does not seem to have much impact on local power structures. Thailand, with a monarchy manipulated by the elites, is a case in point. The purpose of 12 military coups, two in the past 12 years, has been, as Michael Vatikiotis argues in “Blood and Silk”, a perceptive new book on the region, to maintain “an imposing if arcane edifice of power and [cultivate] a conservative mindset that has prevented the devolution of power and autonomy to ordinary people.”

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