Walden Bello. Credit: Marcello Casal Jr. / Agência Brasil (CC-BY-3.0-BR)

The erosion of democratic institutions in the Philippines: An Interview with Walden Bello

In 2003, Walden Bello received the Right Livelihood Award for his efforts in raising awareness about the detrimental effects of the current model of economic globalisation and for advocating a different way forward. Last year, he ran along labour leader Leody de Guzman for the vice-presidency of the Philippines but was ultimately defeated by the team of President Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos, Jr, son of the late Philippine dictator, and Vice President Sara Duterte, daughter of former President Rodrigo Duterte.

In early August, Walden Bello was arrested on cyber-libel charges[1], thus becoming one of the latest victims of the increasingly authoritarian Philippine government. On the occasion of the International Day of Democracy, we reflected with him on the deterioration of the democratic institutions in the Philippines and what he sees as the future of democratic values in the country.

Q: After 6 years under Duterte, Mr Marcos Jr. was elected to replace him as President of the Philippines. Before Duterte, the country was regarded by many as a bastion of democracy in the region, with a vibrant and vocal civil society, can we still say the same today?

It’s going to be very hard to describe the Philippines as a bastion of democracy at this point. At the same time, I think that people outside the Philippines are wondering why Duterte was so popular. It was obvious that Duterte was engaged in widespread human rights violations, yet had popularity ratings.  There were about 27,000 victims of extrajudicial executions in his war on drugs. Now after Duterte, there is another surprise: Bongbong Marcos, the son of the late dictator, is elected to power!

What people must realise is that our democratic republic, which came into being with the ouster of the dictator Marcos in 1986, promised real people’s participation, economic empowerment, and redistribution of income. 36 years later, we can state that the republic did not deliver on these promises.  About 25% of the population lives below the poverty line, inequality is one of the worst in Asia, and agriculture and industry have been severely damaged by neoliberal measures, forcing people to look for jobs overseas. I think what people on the outside need to realise is that the vote for Duterte in 2016 and the vote for Marcos in 2022 were in many ways protest votes on the part of a large part of the electorate that was resentful of the fact that liberal democracy did not deliver on its promises.

Q: This protest vote comes with dangerous consequences though…We have seen what happened with you. You ran for the position of Vice President against Sara Duterte and were later issued an arrest warrant for a crime of cyber libel against one of her staff. Would you say this is a deliberate attempt at repressing dissent from opposition and civil society activists?

Yes, definitely. This is a continuation of the threats to free speech, and against democratic rights that started with former President Duterte. What is worrisome is that this is tolerated by a significant part of society. Even if those who elected Marcos are told that there are violations of democratic rights, many seem not to care because they feel that for over 30 years, they didn’t get anything except promises. Many people are falling for the line that it’s time for the iron hand and that democratic activists, me included, are destabilising the country.  Of course, paid trolls play a role, but without a base that is already receptive to their fake facts, these internet manipulators would not be that effective.

However, we need to persevere, to continue explaining how important human rights are, and that freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and the right to due process are very important victories that have been gained by people over centuries throughout the world. We have to convince people that restrictions on these rights can’t be tolerated. Nevertheless, we cannot be purely defensive, we also have to understand where those people are coming from. We also have to offer a better future for our people, and that cannot be satisfied by protecting freedom of expression alone; we have to satisfy their demands for ending poverty and unemployment.

For the time being, many people feel like they had to choose between the maintenance of democratic values and the possibility of a better life economically under Marcos.  My point is that unless you deliver substantive democracy, backed by egalitarian policies and less inequality, you face the prospect of a reversion to authoritarianism. Democracy can sometimes end up subverting itself if pro-democratic forces don’t deliver on their promises of a better life for people.

It is ironic: one danger of democracy is that you can democratically elect people who are threats to democratic power.

Q: Strong democratic institutions are fundamental to prevent an overturn into a more authoritarian regime, including a strong judiciary. What can we say right now about the current state of the Philippines’ justice system? How is it handling cyber libel cases, such as the one against you?

One of the things that Duterte did is that he weakened the separation of powers. He weakened the independence of Congress and the independence of the judiciary. He was able to weaponise the law and use the judicial process to bring false drug charges against Senator Lila de Lima, among others, who was the former Justice Secretary. He also pushed for cyber libel charges against the digital media company Rappler, which is headed by the Nobel Prize winner Maria Ressa. Finally, his daughter brought cyber libel charges against me, using one of her subordinates.

One sees a consistent weakening of the law and of the judiciary in the Philippines and the strengthening of the authoritarian thrust of executive power. The judiciary is corrupted but not in the literal sense of the word. In order to get what he wants, the President uses his ability to dispense privileges or make or influence appointments. If the judges had ruled against Duterte, their careers would be on the line. I think the threat that one’s career can be placed at a dead end is even more effective than outright coercion or bribery.

Authoritarianism has become much more sophisticated than before. Leaders use the laws, they use cyber libel laws, to quiet the opposition. This is something you observe in countries with well-developed legal systems but weak checks on executive power.

Q: You said that the process of weakening democratic institutions began with Duterte and Marcos has inherited it… what future developments do you see for democratic values in the Philippines? Is there still hope?

We always have hope because, otherwise, what is there to look forward to?!  In my view, there is still a significant sector of society that values democracy, human rights, due process, and the separation of powers. Many of these are young people. They may be a minority at this point, but a lot of them feel very strongly that somebody who has not paid his taxes, somebody who belongs to a family that has robbed the country of $10 billion should not be in power. In fact, they consider him illegitimate. These people will not give up.

They know that this regime has many weaknesses and that it is based mainly on an alliance of dynastic families. They also realise that this regime has really no programme for the economy and that it’s going to be a recycling of old policies. It has now been only two months since Marcos took power; I am sure that the contradictions will develop pretty soon.

When it comes to my arrest, for instance, I did not expect such widespread national and international support. I think it’s because people know that this is not just about me. This is about them. This is about free speech, and I think this is a pretty positive development.

Q: What role can the international community play in ensuring the safeguarding of democratic values and civic space in the Philippines? How can we support this?

I think it’s very important for the international community to keep being vigilant. Whenever human rights violations take place, they should exert pressure on the Philippine government to stop these violations. It would also be very important at this point to push the government to rejoin the International Criminal Court and to urge an investigation of the 27,000 extrajudicial executions under Duterte. Of course, the Marcos-Duterte camp opposes that, claiming that we have our own legal system and don’t need an international process. However, I think that the UN Human Rights Council should be the first to be calling for accountability.

Internationally, the Philippines must be seen as a front of the struggle against authoritarianism. As such, the international community is going to be very central to our struggle to be able to regain, promote and expand democratic rights. It will be much more difficult to do this without international support.

[1] On August 9, 2022, Walden Bello was arrested on charges of cyber libel after he questioned Jefry Tupas, a former information officer for Vice President Sara Duterte, for attending a party that was interrupted due to a drug raid. He was later released on bail. The cyber-libel law, which was adopted in 2012, criminalises online forms of dissent and has been used against journalists, columnists and opposition activists, as well as ordinary social media users.