Ren de los Santos, Fellow, Stratbase ADR Institute
In a world that runs on the ideas of neoliberalism and free trade, transnational actors have reshaped how domestic politics work. After the downfall of communism — from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the transition of China into a global powerhouse of trade, and now, Vietnam’s growth — it can easily be said that trade has changed the world from what it was.
Giving power to the people, to consumers, to the market and decentralizing the economic authority from a select few, further democratizing trade and choice fueled the free-market ethos. Unshackling the economic potential of the world was only possible by recalibrating power structures away from the state authority to the market. Global trade has evolved from the early days and has helped push innovation and global development further than it was known and in a short time.
But also, a counter to the prevailing norm is the rise of economic nationalism, protectionism, and populist rhetoric. A common line between these is the re-consolidation of power back to the state apparatus. With populists winning the top political seats in various nations worldwide, it has cast a tall shadow on the growth of trade and industry and has drastically altered the politics of business. One such case is the long dragging trade war between the United States of America and China. With Trump pushing for tariffs for what he personally sees as an action to equalize trade and later China retaliating, nations are now pushed towards the conundrum of having to choose between the two economic powerhouses. Following suit, populists have taken their stand and have dragged their politics into the fold, such as the pivot of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, not only transitioning away from long-established trade partners but also defense policies, angling towards newfound allies China and Russia,
Now, the espoused free flow of industry meets a critical bottleneck all because of the re-centralization of power and authority to key personalities; Trump, Xi, Putin, Johnson, Bolsonaro, and Duterte, among many.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE PHILIPPINES
In the Philippines, the prevalence of populism was sparked by the public’s frustration with past administrations. Battered by the constant barrage of government mismanagement, corruption, and failure to improve social mobilization across the classes, the public was forced to seek a political leader that was a far from the cookie-cutter names known to have maintained dynastic hold of political power through the decades, to a name that was only known in the southern part of the Philippines, and that candidate was the brash, and unpredictable Mayor of Davao, Rodrigo Duterte.
After winning the Presidential race, now President Duterte has carried over many of the traits that endeared and polarized the voting population. From his folksy and working-class demeanor to his complex nature and mercurial temperament, his politics were far different from his predecessors’. Half-way into his term, President Duterte has time and again proven to be a tough puzzle to solve, leaving many to question the administration’s economic and political direction.
STRUGGLES OF POPULISM RED HERRINGS AND THE QUO WARRANTO
Being a populist is a full-time commitment. The only way to reinforce the public’s support for his administration is to constantly be ahead of its perception, which means his policies are dominated and highly influenced by both public satisfaction and opinions. Treading carefully to pursue public interest while balancing it with personal clout pushes populists to their limits, to a point of overextending and losing the long game. To protect against this, populists often consolidate power and authority by creating an external foe that the public can rally against and deflect all blame, much like a Red Herring fallacy. From communists, to the war on drugs, and now, big businesses; this formula has been used by the administration over the last few years and is again being utilized in the case of Solicitor General Calida against ABS-CBN. It’s use comes at a very opportune time when several issues remain unresolved such as the VFA issue, illegal POGO businesses, ballooning debt, and the lackluster infrastructure drive of the government.
POPULISM: BAD FOR BUSINESS
As manifested in the last senate hearing, the media institution did not commit offenses that can justify the non-renewal of its franchise. Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go stated that the President’s feelings were hurt by ABS-CBN, which only points to the impression that hurt feelings was the motivation for the case, despite Solicitor General Calida’s claims that the President is keeping his hands off the case.
The hearing leaves businesses with the impression of the government abusing its power and authority by using its mechanisms for personal vendettas — a primary example of the pitfalls of populism and why decentralization of power matters, because centralizing authority in one man can poison a whole nation with his politics.
This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.