Tough-guy leaders usher in controversy and questions across global politics
published : 5 Sep 2016 at 04:30
newspaper section: Asia focus
A handful of unabashedly macho politicians have begun to redefine global politics through their partiality for blunt pragmatism over political correctness. From Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Prayut Chan-o-cha in Thailand to Donald Trump in the United States and Vladimir Putin in Russia, the modus operandi of these tell-it-like-it-is tough guys more closely resembles the threats of a high school bully than the smooth textbook patter of a diplomat.
For some people these macho men may have entertainment value, but their interminable parade of gaffes and insults -- subsequently dismissed as "jokes" -- can also put the boot to business confidence and investment in the countries they represent.
In the Philippines, President Duterte, who came to power promising a tough stance on corruption and crime, has stuck to his guns -- literally. His "war on drugs" has claimed at least 2,000 lives since he took office on June 30; many in the international community ask whether or not a pogrom built on extrajudicial killings is getting out of control.
Far from hearing out his critics, Mr Duterte has ridiculed any person or organisation that has stood up to his bluster, from the United Nations to indispensable allies including the United States and Australia.
Mr Duterte's clarion call to extinguish drug pushers is "effectively a licence to kill", said Agnes Callamard, the new UN special rapporteur on summary executions, in a release from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Yet, Mr Duterte's approval rating could hardly be higher at home. A whopping 91% of Filipinos rate the foul-mouthed former Davao mayor as trustworthy, according to Pulse Asia Research, a domestic polling group.
In Thailand, meanwhile, a recent poll found that Gen Prayut still enjoyed the confidence of 70% of the Thai public, more than two years after toppling the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in a military coup.
Gen Prayut's popularity reflects public satisfaction with his administration's efforts to fight corruption and its success in restoring a sense of stability. Survey respondents also admire his sincerity and ability to get things done -- albeit with the help of dictatorial powers under a military-drafted interim constitution. But critics point to his inability to control his impulse to lash out, and say scrutiny of his government is nearly impossible.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, says the yearning for strongman-style leadership is now a global phenomenon.
"It is not entirely new but it is in a new phase. It can be seen manifesting in countries like the Philippines, Thailand and even the United States. As established state institutions are held captive by vested interests and unable to respond effectively to popular demands and grievances, there will be calls for outsider and 'anti-establishment' figures to ride to the rescue," he told Asia Focus.
The Philippines has been ruled for years by an oligarchy but Mr Duterte has come in completely from outside to capture the political system. Similarly, Mr Trump and Gen Prayut are blustery personalities who are responding to popular frustration with status-quo, business-as-usual leaders in corrupt political systems.
These "strongman" leaders naturally violate conventional liberties and freedoms. This goes against international rules and norms but can be accepted at home as long as it works.
"If it delivers the goods in terms of economic expansion and law and order, business might actually prefer authoritarian leadership. Business is good when there is political stability and positive growth prospects, irrespective of domestic politics on the ground," Dr Thitinan added.
Strongman leadership is nothing new in Southeast Asia, of course. It was the rule rather than the exception in most countries during the Cold War. Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia with an iron fist for three decades, was once an outsider himself but his machine is so firmly entrenched that he is now an insider. His Cambodian People's Party won a greatly reduced majority in the 2013 election, which has led to a stepped-up campaign of bullying and intimidation against the opposition ahead of the 2018 vote.
"This is the case that when the 'anti-establishment' insiders have been in power for so long, people will get sick of them anyway and they will look for a decisive strongman outsider," Dr Thitinan noted, referring to the Cambodian PM.
The Philippine president has also capitalised on the failings of his predecessor, Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III. Despite his promises of reforms, crime worsened amid growth in drug trafficking, while smuggling surged. On other fronts, public-private partnership projects languished despite promises to improve infrastructure, with traffic gridlocked in Metro Manila and other major cities as public transport was neglected.
"This helps explain why Duterte's promise to resort to violence to solve the country's drug problem, rebuild crumbling infrastructure and end corruption proved so effective during his presidential campaign," Mark Thomson, a professor of politics at City University of Hong Kong, wrote in a commentary for the Nikkei Asian Review.
Mr Duterte, 71, won the May elections in a landslide on a vow to kill tens of thousands of suspected criminals in an unprecedented blitz that would eliminate illegal drugs in six months. The US government has since expressed concerns about "reports of extrajudicial killings". Local media have also reported a growing number of children who have been killed in the crossfire.
US President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet the firebrand leader on the sidelines of the Asean summit in Laos this week, and to raise concerns about the bloodshed and Mr Duterte's abusive remarks. The latter's response has been to say that Mr Obama had better listen to him first before he opens his mouth.
Surin Pitsuwan, former secretary-general of Asean, said Mr Duterte's decisive strategic approach is a form of "populism in law enforcement".
"The Duterte phenomenon in the Philippines rose out of the frustration of the people about the inefficacy of the authorities to deal with the pervasive crimes and drugs which have plagued Philippine society for a long time now," Dr Surin told Asia Focus.
"Just like any form of 'populism', it has its own limits and it has a tendency of being excessive. It is prone to being abused and difficult to control."
Human Rights Watch earlier released a statement condemning the death of a five-year-old girl who was shot last week when unknown gunmen reportedly entered her home and tried to kill her grandfather, an alleged drug user, who was wounded.
"Duterte's aggressive rhetoric advocating violent, extrajudicial solutions to crime in the Philippines has found willing takers," the US-based group's Asia deputy director, Phelim Kine, said in a statement.
Dr Surin said "extralegal killings" of drug traffickers also took place in Thailand in the early 2000s under Thaksin and have tarnished the country's image for rule of law ever since. "The case is still being referred to as a dark period of Thailand's human rights record."
"Asean is committed to the respect of human rights and the principles of democracy as enshrined it the Asean Charter of 2007. Any digression or deviation from that will undermine the confidence in everything else Asean does or wants to do," he said.
The UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1947) binds all member states to respect human rights and due process of law.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in June also strongly criticised Mr Duterte, saying his apparent endorsement of extrajudicial killings should be condemned. In response, Mr Duterte threatened to withdraw the Philippines from the UN but he later sought to backtrack, saying he only meant to express his frustration.
The threat to withdraw from the UN by the Philippines was not taken seriously, noted Dr Surin, who is also a former foreign minister of Thailand.
"The country has benefited from the UN membership on many occasions. And it has resorted to UN procedures or UN-sanctioned procedures in the recent past."
While the excesses of the war on drugs have justifiably made most of the headlines, Mr Duterte is winning plaudits for decisiveness in less controversial areas. Having inherited the fastest growing economy in the Far East, he is determined to keep the momentum going and so far he is succeeding.
He has wasted no time tackling one of the country's largest issues -- Manila's nightmarish traffic. Five long-overdue infrastructure projects have been earmarked for funding, including a bus rapid transit system. Filipino observers say that this move practically guarantees long-term economic growth by addressing the systemic bottlenecks of modernisation.
Indeed, the World Bank forecasts the Philippine economy will have yet another banner year, growing 6.4% in 2016 on top of higher domestic consumption.
Investment sentiment in the initial months of Mr Duterte has matched public approval. "Investors continue to be bullish," Ceferino Rodolfo, Trade Undersecretary and head of the Board of Investments, told Asia Focus.
In fact, the board is doubling its growth target for this year from the original 5% to 10%, which would bring investments to at least 400 billion pesos (US$8.57 billion), he said.
Perhaps the biggest ripple would be a plan floated by the president to overhaul the investment law to remove the 49% cap on foreign holdings.
"In line with the president's directive to all government agencies to reduce requirements, cut processing time and remove redundancies, we will continue to look for ways to further streamline its process and requirements," said Mr Rodolfo.
Veteran emerging markets investor Mark Mobius is among those keeping a close watch on the Philippines, and at the moment he doesn't like what he's seeing.
"It's unclear how the new president is going to behave going forward," said Mr Mobius, executive chairman of Templeton Emerging Markets Group. "If there is a feeling that the rule of law is going out the window in the Philippines, then this would not be good news. But the jury is still out."
If the Duterte administration can establish more solid economic fundamentals and make meaningful progress in the fight against poverty in the Philippines, there could be a decline in drug use as well.
In any case, said Dr Surin, extrajudicial killings can only be "a temporary populist measure" and will not be sustainable. "Otherwise it will erode the confidence in the entire judicial system of the country, affecting other international engagement, including trade and foreign investment."
Dr Surin also takes issue with the tendency of tough-talking politicians, such as Mr Trump and Mr Putin, to whip up nationalist sentiment as part of their populist platforms.
Nationalism has long been an instrument of state building or consolidation of state power, he said. "But it tends to lead countries onto a path of self-deception and self-illusion that eventually would not be proven realistic. Patriotism based on pragmatism and the realistic analysis of national problems with rational options for people would be healthier and more effective political leaders should adopt."
Pessimism and an alarmist approach -- as favoured by Donald Trump -- engender fear, and fear requires an enemy, exaggerated or real, which leads to irrational responses. Countries in the past got into conflicts and wars as a consequence of their own "imagined enemies", said Dr Surin.
"And in countries where there are sizable minorities in their population mix, communal tensions could rise and violent conflicts could ensue. The very balanced fabric of the society could be upset. The cost of that shift in the communal balance as a result of crude and rude pseudo-nationalism will be formidable," he said.
"Any leader raising the flag of undue nationalism will live to regret it eventually."