Arbitrary rule is the truest expression of power, the early-20th century Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin once argued. For him, what modern Russia needed is the “redemptive excess” of a savior-leader, whose “patriotic arbitrariness” will save his great nation from the onslaught of modern chaos.
The Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt argued along similar lines. For him, executive power is the ability to declare a “state of exception,” whereby a visionary leader suspends normal constitutional procedures in the interest of protecting the republic.
For both Ilyin and Schmitt, due process along liberal democratic lines is not up to the task of protecting the body politic against the “other,” who, in turn, will be arbitrarily identified and neutralized by an enlightened savior-leader.
Largely unpunished for his role as the crown jurist of Nazism, Schmitt would later emerge as one of Germany’s most influential neoconservative thinkers. Ilyin, however, was almost forgotten by the end of the 20th century, until his ideas were resurrected by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who organized a special reburial for the late philosopher in Moscow in 2005.
Putin is universally relevant, of course, because he is essentially the inventor of 21st-century strongman populism, having skillfully established a personalistic regime anchored by muscular charisma, the post-Soviet “deep state,” and an appealing narrative of “Russian greatness” against the threat of Western encroachment.
No wonder, then, that Putin is widely hailed as a role model for a coterie of contemporary populists, ranging from Donald Trump to Viktor Orbán and our very own Rodrigo Duterte, who once described the man in the Kremlin as his “favorite hero.”
For more than a year, Mr. Duterte effectively enjoyed arbitrary rule by declaring a “state of exception” in the Philippines, unleashing a drug war that transcended the normal constitutional procedures. He justified this in a very Schmittean sense, invoking the necessity to protect the republic against the scourge of crime—his ultimate “other.”
Instead of checking the charismatic president, most of the members of the political establishment either chose to join him or avoid standing in his way. The few who struck a different course have paid a steep political cost.
One could argue that “political honeymoons” in democratic societies are essentially the narrow window of almost absolute arbitrary power enjoyed by newly elected charismatic leaders. This is especially true in nascent and fragile democracies.
Drawing on Ilyin’s and Schmitt’s theses, it can be argued that Mr. Duterte has already reached the end of his political honeymoon. Likely, we are witnessing a “Duterte peak.”
In mature democracies, political honeymoons tend to be around six months to one year, or at least that’s how media mogul Rupert Murdoch put it to Trump. In tropical Philippines, however, honeymoons, both in the romantic and political sense, tend to be longer.
In fact, they can extend well into the third year of the presidency, hence the usually strong performance of incumbent parties during midterm elections. Sure, the latest surveys show that Mr. Duterte’s approval ratings remain high. But his numbers are not historically exceptional when one looks at his predecessors in comparable stages.
And this is where the true relevance of Mr. Duterte’s decision to recall a de facto warrantless arrest order against Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV comes in. It reflected the limits of his power to act arbitrarily from the bully pulpit of the presidency.
Amid domestic backlash against his Beijing-friendly diplomacy, Mr. Duterte has also begun to recalibrate his foreign policy by adopting an increasingly critical stance on China’s militarization of the West Philippine Sea.
Moreover, his federalism agenda, facing widespread criticism, seems to be going nowhere. And the uptick in inflation, combined with slowing growth and the falling currency, is undermining his support base among the masses.
Of course, Mr. Duterte’s presidency can persist for years to come, and a revolutionary government is still a possibility. Years from now, however, historians may look at this moment as the beginning of the end of the arbitrary rule and “state of exception” under Dutertismo.
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