'Pandemic allows strongmen to consolidate power but exposes them too'
President Donald Trump applauds as he delivers the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on February 04, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump delivers his third State of the Union to the nation.
AFP/Mario Tama/Getty Images
'Pandemic allows strongmen to consolidate power but exposes them too'
Bella Perez-Rubio (Philstar.com) - August 3, 2020 - 5:51pm

MANILA, Philippines — Populist 'strongmen' have used the COVID-19 pandemic to consolidate power, members of the academe who attended a virtual town hall hosted by think tank Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute on Monday warned.

The think tank's president Dindo Manhit launched the virtual dialogue by diagnosing possible corruption in the government's COVID-19 response as a key risk to democracy in the Philippines. 

"[The] COVID pandemic crisis has provided an opportunity for populists and strongmen all over the world to consolidate power and use that power not really to address the public health crisis but to advance their own interest," Dr. Julio Teehankee, Political Science and International Studies professor at De La Salle University, said.

Among the worrisome developments flagged by the webinar's participants were the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Law, the denial of ABS-CBN's franchise by the president's allies in the House of Representatives, and the possible postponement of elections, which they said has become a global trend due to the pandemic.

COVID-19 crisis exposing the 'incompetence' of strongmen leaders

While the coronavirus crisis is affording strongmen more opportunities to consolidate power, Teehankee said that it is also giving citizens the opportunity to see their shortcomings as leaders and, as a result, "we are also seeing a pushback all over the world."

"[The crisis has] revealed that [these strongmen] are not capable of addressing, they do not have the competence in addressing, [the] crisis, despite all the powers they have accumulated for themselves. So now we are seeing populists from [United States President Donald] Trump, to our very own, grappling [with] this pandemic," he said.

President Rodrigo Duterte is currently presiding over the longest community quarantine in the world, and on Sunday night ceded a tightening of quarantine measures in Metro Manila to medical frontliners who pleaded for relief as COVID-19 infections in the country continued to set record-highs four days in a row.

Meanwhile, global superpower America accounts for the most coronavirus cases in the world by far at 4.66 million, according to latest data from Johns Hopkins University.

"A lot more sectors in society are waking up to the reality that this is not how the crisis should be addressed. [That this] is not the kind of post-COVID future that we want for ourselves. The more that these strongmen demonstrate bluster instead of competence, the more citizens would realize this is not how its supposed to be," Teehankee said.

Aside from surging coronavirus cases, the Trump admnistration has also been grappling with protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, who was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota in May. 

Why elections can't wait

Dr. Ronald Mendoza, Ateneo School of Government dean, cited as a cautionary tale what he called the "very troubling" decision to defer elections in Hong Kong, which came on the heels of the enactment of a widely-criticized National Security Law and a violent police crackdown on protesters.

"COVID seems to be giving opportunities to populists and would-be authoritarians to take advantage of the situation, I really think we should not give in to that kind of a narrative because what we need now is not a ceding of more powers, but an increase in accountability," Mendoza said.

Trump has also tweeted about postponing elections scheduled in November "until people can properly, securely and safely vote."

Mendoza further argued that delaying elections is tantamount to delaying "the key accountability mechanism applied by citizens on their leaders."

Without this check on leadership, Mendoza cautioned that the credibility of democratic institutions will come into question as a result.

"So I do think we need to support [the Commission on Elections], immediately raise the issues of preparing for May 2022. There's a lot to do," he said.

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