The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China is current debating proposals that could change a long held status quo in respect of the Chinese leadership. According to current regulations, the position of President of China, which in reality is a ceremonial post which is typically attached to the more meaningful post of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, is limited to two consecutive terms. Today, proposals to eliminate the term limit statute are being discussed with the clear implication being that there is a movement to support an extension of Xi Jinping’s current term with expires in 2023.
In 1982, the position of General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, was introduced to replace the similar role of Party Chairman which had previously been the most important political role in China. The most well known Party Chairman was Mao Zedong, who held his position from 1945 until his death in 1976.
From the late 1970s until the early 1990s, the most influential man in China and de-facto head of state was the great reformer Deng Xiaoping. Deng held a variety of positions during his time as Paramount Leader, but this did not include General Secretary. While Deng formally retired from politics in 1992, he remained the most influential political thinker in China, not least because Deng Xiaoping Theory had become accepted as the next building block of Chinese Communist thought since that of Mao Zedong.
Since the 1990s, a system has settled in whereby the General Secretary is the position held by China’s paramount leader, which also corresponds with the ceremonial office of President, the title which General Secretaries are generally referred to with the most frequency abroad as well as on certain state occasions domestically.
Today however, due to the widespread recognition that along with Mao and Deng, Xi is the most important leader in modern Chinese history, there exists a popular impetus for him to stay on beyond the traditional two terms in order for him to see through the full extent of his wide ranging reforms and geo-economic initiatives, including One Belt–One Road.
Many have been quick to point out similarities between Xi and the legacy of the most famous overseas Chinese leader, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew (LKY). As the leading politician of Singapore, is was LKY’s long held ambition to join what was then the newly independent Federation of Malaya. In 1963 this happened, as Singapore along with Sarawak and North Borneo/Sabah formed Malaysia.
However, the union was not to last long as LKY’s People’s Action Party (PAP) which dominated politics in the Malaysian state of Singapore, was at odds with the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) which maintained support in much the rest of the newly formed federal republic. While the PAP argued for full legal and social equality for all Malaysians, the UMNO favoured special affirmative action rights for ethnic Malays.
Ultimately, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1965 over these disputes, following on from the race riots of 1964. Both post-split multi-cultural countries pursued different systems through which egalitarianism was supposed to flourish. Singapore continued the PAP’s system of full legal equality for all citizens with an understanding that the majority Han Chinese would help invest in Malay and Indian communities, thus creating a population where educational standards and living standards had parity across ethnic groups. Malaysia took the opposite approach and in 1970 introduced the New Economic Policy which favoured affirmative action initiatives as a means of eliminating race based economic inequalities.
Under LKY’s system, which in many ways was a predecessor to Deng Xiaoping’s Market Socialism in the People’s Republic of China, the country was transformed from a small post-colonial backwater into a leader in job creation, wealth creation, high living standards, urban expansion and economic vitality. LKY who wept at having to go it alone outside of Malaysia, ended up having the last laugh as his 31 years in power transformed his nation into the ‘tiny colossus’ it is today. Today Singapore is the envy of the world, with clean streets, social harmony and an economy that has rightly been called an ‘Asian Tiger’.
When President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in The Philippines in 2016, many were quick to draw hopeful comparisons between himself and LKY. The reasons for the comparison were apt in many ways. Both leaders sought to radically change the economic, geopolitical and sociological trajectories of their nations and both prioritised an economic model that favoured both domestic wealth creation and a fair distribution of that wealth among citizens.
While Duterte’s detractors who could nevertheless, not ignore the objective successes of LKY in Singapore, were quick to defame Duterte’s reform initiatives, many Filipinos sympathetic to Duterte were quick to point out that the US modelled ‘democratic’ system in The Philippines was incompatible with the kind of flexibility that LKY was able to achieve in his country, a land with elections but without the kind of endless US style political intrigue and infighting that has become commonplace in The Philippines since the ouster of former President Marcos in 1986.
In reality, Duterte could become like LKY, but it would mean that either he or in all likelihood, he and then a younger successor with similar ideas, would need to remain in power for longer than the single 6 year term allotted to Philippine Presidents under the Constitution. While LKY started with a comparatively clean slate in a newly independent nation and while Xi came into a system that was already not only functional but highly productive, Duterte has the doubly difficult challenge of remaking an old failed system combined with the challenge of then implementing reforms that will ideally shape the next century of Philippine history.
Because of this, I have compared Duterte’s task to the one which Turkey’s President Erdgoan has had to deal with, not least because both leaders are working to remove their countries from the US geopolitical orbit. This is not to say that Erdogan and Duterte are similar men, they most certainly are not. Erdogan is a shrewd political mover and shaker, while Duterte exhibits the long term leadership qualities of men like President Xi and LKY. However, because Duterte has a large mess to clean up, the Erodgan model is instructive for the reasons I recently laid out:
“Ever since 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been the leading figure in Turkish politics, first as Prime Minister and after 2014, as a powerful President. Erdogan and Duterte are very different men as the Turkish leader is an incredibly shrewd political and geopolitical mover who has been able to solidify his power more thoroughly than any Turkish leader since Ataturk. Duterte, by contrast, is a leader who strives not for power or glory but instead, labours to achieve the best possible life for his people. That being said, there are areas where Erdogan has done much to improve the lives of Turks, while inversely, Duterte’s own proposals could stand a better chance of being turned into a new reality for The Philippines if Duterte took a page out of Erdogan’s own reformist playbook.
Erdogan’s most lasting legacy to the Turkish republic has been a wholesale reform of governance, combined with a clearing out of old political, judicial, civil service and military elites. Both have been equally necessary in respect of Erdogan achieving his goals. For Duterte, corrupt Senators, party leaders, corporate oligarchs, judicial oligarchs and to a degree some military leadership have proved themselves to be far too close to foreign interests, particularly the United States. How are Duterte’s opponents a “democratic opposition” when they get their money, orders, speeches and agendas from a foreign superpower? By contrast, while Duterte has worked to achieve better relations with Russia and China, he remains very much his own man – true to his humble roots in Davao, in spite of his national leadership position.
Duterte must open up investigations into every politician, judge, corporate oligarch and military officer whose ties to the US stand in the way of the will of the Filipino people. Those whose foreign ties are too deep should be forced to resign from their positions. In cases of extreme corruption, prison should also be considered as a means of rectifying a gross injustice against the Filipino nation.
Some of Duterte’s most loyal supporters, as is the case with Erdogan, have been young activists who previously had no inclination towards politics. In the case of Duterte, his inspiring message of reform, equality, federal realism, clean and safe streets and progressive geopolitical relations have made Duterte appear as a political saviour in a sea of previous leaders who have consistently failed in their duty to the people.
It is this generation of Duterte supporters who hold the key to the future of The Philippines and it is they whose hard work should be rewarded with positions in government and the civil service that had previously been reserved for a small cosmopolitan elite who have served only themselves or in the worst cases, a foreign power.
Finally, Dutete should make a use of referenda in order to secure genuine democratic support for his proposals. In respect of federalism for example, there is no reason that a region-by-region vote shouldn’t take place in order to determine how Filipinos themselves want to be governed. Federalism is too important an issue to be left to politicians who stand much to gain by preserving an ineffective status quo.
Duterte has consistently stated that he does not seek to amend existing laws limiting a Filipino President to a single six year term. While these reforms could require more than six years to get through, he should nevertheless begin such initiatives as soon as possible. Furthermore, while some have openly suggested that Duterte revive Proclamation No. 3, a legal device used by Corazon Aquino in 1986 to create a Revolutionary Government, Duterte could use people power to achieve something more long lasting, just as the Turkish President has done.
If the Filipino people want to amend the law so that a President can stand for more than one term, they should have the opportunity to say so through a referendum. If the people want to lift existing term limits, Duterte can simply run in a new Presidential election after his current term is over. If the people would prefer to keep the law on term limits as it is, then things can stay as they are.
President Duterte retains incredibly high approval ratings, thus making him de-facto far more democratic than his opponents who chant about democracy but who ironically have little meaningful support among the people. The best way for Duterte to expand his democratic base would be to tackle the corruption holding the country back while giving the people a direct opportunity to express their feelings about their country’s future through referenda on key issues. This is the way forward for Duterte and for future generations of Filipinos who look to the future Duterte seeks rather than the past which Duterte has already departed from.
While Turkey and The Philippines are two very different countries, with different histories and different political systems, both countries were long time US “allies” who under reformist leaders find themselves increasingly at odds with a hegemonic Washington. Erdogan has made Turkey far more independent than it was previously due to his uniquely bold leadership. Duterte could do something similar with his nation, not least because Duterte’s reformist agenda is vastly less controversial than the one Erdogan has pursued in Turkey.
If Duterte’s will is the people’s will, which most Filipinos believe it is, the people should not only speak but vote in favour of Duterte’s messages, thus silencing his abrasive critics forever”.
Were Duterte to take these steps, there is no reason why he could not achieve what LKY did for Singapore or what Xi Jinping is currently achieving for China. While a leader who cannot be easily removed has obvious problems, when such a longterm leader is genuinely popular and has a proven record for success both domestically and internationally, it is actually anti-democratic to remove such a leader via artificial term limits. Duterte has claimed he does not seek to stay on beyond six years, but for the sake of his country he should consider changing his mind, so long as Filipinos continue to support him as they do now.