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Jürgen, a decade ago you co-authored Give Jesus a Hand! Charismatic Christians: Populist Religion and Politics in the Philippines. A decade later, how has charismatic Christianity evolved in the Philippines?

Statistics about the rise of charismatic and evangelical Christianity in the Philippines are unreliable and vary widely. According to different sources, between 19 and 44 percent of the Philippine population practice charismatic or evangelical Christianity. Data released by the respective religious groups themselves appear inflated. They usually ignore that adherents often join religious groups temporarily and after some time become inactive or indifferent. Yet there is no question that charismatic and evangelical churches remain popular among Filipinos and that their numbers continue to grow. However, setting the country apart from other regions of the world, such as Latin America and Africa, the majority of “born again” Christians in the Philippines are charismatics who remain under the umbrella of the Catholic Church.

While a detailed analysis would reveal that these groups differ in their religious practices, what can generally be said about them is that they share highly conservative worldviews informed by strict Christian morals. While it would be misleading to characterize them a priori as “undemocratic” and supporters of right-wing politicians and movements, our survey suggested that many charismatic Christian groups’ members display a preference for “strong leaders,” hierarchical social relationships, and paternalistic orientations. Some of these groups practice bloc voting—that is, voting for the candidate their leader votes for—while in other cases the leader only endorses favored candidates. Eddie Villanueva, the leader of the “Jesus is Lord” church, even ran for the presidency, but lost twice. Nevertheless, charismatic Christians are a force to be reckoned with in Filipino politics, a fact that paid off favorably for the country’s current president, Rodrigo Duterte.

Can we say that Duterte’s election and way of doing politics resulted from this charismatic Christian culture? Are charismatic Christians his main supporters?

It would be reductionist to primarily link Duterte’s rise to power and his style of doing politics to charismatic Christian culture. Yet there are substantial overlaps between the worldviews of charismatic and evangelical Christians and Duterte’s political script that account for his popularity among these religious groups. Both take a decidedly populist approach to addressing social problems. Key elements of this populism are anti-elitism, aversion to complexity and unconventional mobilization methods, including demagoguery.

It would be reductionist to primarily link Duterte’s rise to power and his style of doing politics to charismatic Christian culture. Yet there are substantial overlaps between the worldviews of charismatic and evangelical Christians and Duterte’s political script that account for his popularity among these religious groups.

While religious populism opposes the perceived elitism of the Catholic Church hierarchy, Duterte relates the usually sluggish (except for the most recent years) and highly inequitable development of the Philippines to the decades-long domination of the country by a deeply entrenched crooked and hypocritical oligarchical elite. This elite is held responsible for unlawfully appropriating the lion’s share of the country’s wealth through criminal, fraudulent, and corrupt practices. With his foul-mouthed insults against the Pope and bishops, Duterte explicitly includes the Catholic hierarchy in this elite.

Both protagonists greatly simplify complex social realities. While for charismatics and evangelicals elite-driven moral decay and decadence corrupts society, for Duterte narcotics trafficking (in which elite elements are allegedly involved) and drug addiction are pivotal to the country’s stagnation. Agreeing with Duterte that the eradication of social evils is a prerequisite for a better life and socioeconomic progress, many charismatic and evangelical Christians support Duterte’s signature policy—his war on drugs—despite thousands of extrajudicial killings. Although killing people is definitely not sanctioned by Christian morals, many charismatics and evangelicals are convinced that for those unwilling to repent and change, severe punishment—including death—is “deserved” and thus legitimate. They regard Duterte, the self-styled “punisher,” as a tool in the hands of a punishing God who is ridding the Philippines of its social ills.

Both populist religious groups and Duterte mobilize their followers by highly unconventional and demagogic means. While leaders of the former attract followers by their seeming power to elicit miracles, an emotional atmosphere during religious gatherings, a thorough spiritual renewal, and the prospect of prosperity, Duterte’s political populism seeks to promise a brighter future with the help of drastic measures that instantly effect tangible change. The shrill and often vulgar language that Duterte uses to communicate his political agenda is as close to the everyday experience of ordinary Filipinos as the strongly worded messages with which charismatic leaders and evangelical pastors denounce worldly evils. Populist religious groups and Duterte also coincide in the effective spread of their message, which they disseminate through the skillful use of social media.

Agreeing with Duterte that the eradication of social evils is a prerequisite for a better life and socioeconomic progress, many charismatic and evangelical Christians support Duterte’s signature policy—his war on drugs—despite thousands of extrajudicial killings.

However, while some religious groups—such as the Kingdom of Jesus Christ group of the “Anointed Son of God,” Pastor Apollo Quiboloy, and Brother Mike Velarde’s El Shaddai—continued to support candidates close to Duterte in the 2019 midterm elections, others, such as Eddie Villanueva, the leader of the “Jesus is Lord” church, and the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, distanced themselves from Duterte. The latter are increasingly disgusted by the unending extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s “war on drugs” and his blasphemous outbursts.

Although there are significant overlaps between the worldviews of populist religious groups and those of Duterte, his persistently high approval rates—up to 80 percent—demonstrate that his support transcends charismatic and evangelical Christians. As a former local politician speaking street language, he cultivates the aura of an outsider beating the odds, earning him the sympathies of ordinary Filipinos. Duterte’s pro-poor rhetoric has also given him appeal among the political left. Originating from the southern island of Mindanao, his commitment to implementing a peace agreement with the island’s Muslim insurgents secured him many votes in the southern Philippines. However, still more significant for Duterte’s political success is the fact that he embodies what many Filipinos want: a “strong leader” who delivers. This is precisely the role Duterte cultivates. While promoting social and constitutional initiatives that uphold the semblance of a democratic polity, Duterte is in fact transforming the country’s political system into an illiberal democracy.

More recently, you have been working on Southeast Asian regionalism. Do you see democratic backsliding within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)?

What we currently observe is thus not democratic backsliding but a regression from a very limited space for political participation to one that is even more restricted.

Arguably, the concept of “democratic backsliding” is an inadequate description for regional policymaking in Southeast Asia. Although the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has often been celebrated as a model for regional cooperation in the Global South, throughout its existence it has struggled with a reputation for state-centeredness and elitism. In other words, regional policymaking has never met democratic standards. What we currently observe is thus not democratic backsliding but a regression from a very limited space for political participation to one that is even more restricted.

That ASEAN is a regional organization providing few avenues for participation of non-state actors must be attributed in large part to the grouping’s repository of cooperation norms. Known as the ASEAN Way, regional cooperation reflects that the political systems of the grouping’s ten members—Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—are highly diverse. They range from (new) democracies and hybrid political regimes combining electoral democracy with autocratic modes of governance to authoritarian governments of various shades. Democracy clauses elevating democracy to a prerequisite for membership—such as exist in the EU, Mercosur or ECOWAS—would thus be counter-productive for cooperation. Consequently, the ASEAN Way is strongly informed by sovereignty norms that prohibit interference in the internal affairs of other member countries.

Under these conditions, participatory channels for non-state actors have necessarily been narrow and tightly controlled by ASEAN member governments. Although ASEAN recognizes parliamentarians, business representatives, civil society organizations (CSOs), and think tanks as stakeholders in regional decision-making, such “entities associated with ASEAN” are not part of the grouping’s official institutional set-up. Their access to decision-makers and scope of action are circumscribed by the authoritarian state corporatism that member states have transferred from the domestic to the regional level. This means that interest group activity is confined to one (peak) organization endorsed by ASEAN, which is expected to support the grouping, but merely exerts consultative functions and by mobilizing its constituency for regional policies acts as a transmission belt.

In this vein, ASEAN’s parliamentary body, the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Association (AIPA), has neither legislative nor oversight and budgetary functions. It is also not representative, as its delegates (except in the case of Indonesia) are MPs with close relations to the government of their country. AIPA endorses ASEAN policies and seeks to drum up support for these policies in national parliaments. The business sector is organized in the ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ASEAN-BAC), which consists of members handpicked by ASEAN leaders. Representing in their majority large, outward-looking conglomerates, ASEAN-BAC occasionally exerts consultative functions, although its main role is to organize business support for ASEAN’s market-opening policies (in spite of the fact that the latter may seriously hurt small-scale domestic firms). CSOs can seek registration with ASEAN, but such registration is highly conditional. CSO activities are tightly controlled and must be supportive of ASEAN, thus excluding CSOs critical of the grouping. Those currently registered represent only a tiny fraction of the rich panoply of Southeast Asian CSOs; they exclude labor and in their majority are socially irrelevant. Finally, think tanks are organized under the umbrella of the ASEAN Institutes of Strategic and International Studies (ASEAN-ISIS). Many of them, especially those in countries that acceded to ASEAN in the 1990s (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar), are close to governments and rarely represent positions critical of ASEAN.

The Asian Financial Crisis of 1997/1998 caused some rethinking. It triggered a reformist agenda, as the crisis also discredited the ASEAN Way. One of the reform’s major objectives was to transform ASEAN into a “people-oriented” regional organization with democracy, respect for human rights, good governance, and rule of law, as new norms added to the traditional set of sovereignty-based cooperation norms. Yet people-orientedness, wholeheartedly supported only by Indonesia and to some extent the Philippines, Malaysia, and (until the 2006 military coup) Thailand, never transcended lip service.

The ASEAN Charter, enacted in 2008 as the grouping’s quasi-constitutional document and the climax of the reform process, was only a diluted form of a much bolder blueprint submitted to ASEAN member governments by an Eminent Persons Group. The Charter neither provided for a full-fledged regional parliament nor created institutionalized channels for meaningful CSO participation. Organizing leader-CSO interfaces was left to the discretion of the government holding the ASEAN chair. When they took place, they were symbolic at best. They were short, often openly acrimonious exercises, with CSOs repeatedly boycotting meetings in protest against the practice of (some) government leaders selecting CSO participants. No additional leader-CSO interface has taken place since 2015. The more recent annual meetings with the Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR) composed of the member countries’ ambassadors accredited to ASEAN remain a window-dressing exercise. The emergency legislation imposed by member governments—including Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines—to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic further narrowed the political space for regional civil society, markedly impeding its ability to communicate, mobilize, and organize protests.

Yet people-orientedness, wholeheartedly supported only by Indonesia and to some extent the Philippines, Malaysia, and (until the 2006 military coup) Thailand, never transcended lip service.

ASEAN thus successfully stifled the emergence of a “regionalism from below” driven by CSOs and other non-state actors. This raises the question why ASEAN established token participatory channels in the first place. One answer provided by comparative regionalism scholars is the desire to strengthen the grouping’s international recognition by formally appropriating the participatory mechanisms established by advanced regional cooperation schemes such as the EU. By fusing imported participatory norms with extant local norms, the latter are modernized and the former made compatible with political elite interests.

In Southeast Asia, where government legitimacy is strongly dependent on economic growth, international recognition is expected to translate into the attraction of foreign investment badly needed for development. That an increasing portion of investment and aid comes from China, a country that does not link cooperation to normative conditionalities, markedly relaxes the pressures on ASEAN members to implement a credible system of stakeholder participation. Yet these pressures do not completely disappear: economic cooperation with the West is still considered a counterbalance against excessive dependence on China.

In Southeast Asia, where government legitimacy is strongly dependent on economic growth, international recognition is expected to translate into the attraction of foreign investment badly needed for development.

In another Agora discussion, Filippo Costa Buranelli analyzed how an “illiberal solidarism” has emerged as a driver of regional cooperation in Central Asia. Do you notice the same trend in the case of ASEAN or has the association maintained greater ideational/ideological diversity?

Irrespective of the fact that the ASEAN Charter added democracy, respect for human rights, good governance, and rule of law to ASEAN’s existing set of cooperation norms, in political practice, liberal democratic norms continue to play a subordinate role in Southeast Asian regionalism. Although during the reform process after the Asian Financial Crisis, the Indonesian government, media editorials, CSOs, and scholars pleaded for a recalibration of the non-interference norm, member governments still adhere to it, as the muted reactions to the military coups in Thailand in 2006 and 2014 and in Myanmar in 2021 illustrate.

This means that ASEAN governments continue to regard regional cooperation primarily as a mechanism for strengthening national sovereignty and regime resilience. Yet it would be going too far to suggest that ASEAN has the “regime-boosting” functions ascribed to regional organizations in Central Asia, the Eurasian space or parts of Africa. ASEAN’s polities are too diverse to allow for such a level of autocratic solidarity. Despite the continued prevalence of the non-interference norm in interactions among ASEAN members, there have also been repeated incidents where member governments have deviated from it and criticized developments in member states. Examples are the violent excesses of Myanmar’s military in the suppression of dissent, the handling of disasters such as Typhoon Nargis, and the expulsion of the Muslim-minority Rohingyas. Yet while “regime-boosting” is not a key property of ASEAN regionalism, nor does ASEAN promote the democratization of its member countries.

This means that ASEAN governments continue to regard regional cooperation primarily as a mechanism for strengthening national sovereignty and regime resilience. Yet it would be going too far to suggest that ASEAN has the “regime-boosting” functions ascribed to regional organizations in Central Asia, the Eurasian space or parts of Africa.

Indonesia has also been experiencing democratic backsliding, even if not at the level of the Philippines. How would you compare Indonesia’s and the Philippines’ foreign policies?

In his two terms, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-2014) made democracy the hallmark of Indonesian foreign policy. However, even in the Indonesian context, democracy cannot necessarily be equated with liberal democracy. Nor is democracy promotion an intrinsic value of the country’s foreign policy, which follows much more strategic objectives. Democracy promotion has been instrumentalized to support Indonesia’s regional leadership ambitions. Democracy provided Indonesian leadership aspirations with a normative high ground. No longer did it have to base its leadership claims only on physical qualities such as population or geographical size. Moreover, despite widespread backsliding, democracy continues to be a globally powerful norm. Indonesia’s democratic foreign policy has thus also served to enhance the country’s international standing, especially among the industrialized nations of the West.

However, despite Indonesia’s pro-democracy rhetoric, its contributions to democratizing international relations have remained ambiguous. While Indonesia supported the democratization of ASEAN, its proposals for the reform of the United Nations and other international organizations do not transcend demands for greater influence by Southern countries. While this can be regarded as democratizing “executive multilateralism,” more ambitious reforms—such as the parliamentarization of international organizations or strengthening non-state participation—have been absent.

Even in the Indonesian context, democracy cannot necessarily be equated with liberal democracy. Nor is democracy promotion an intrinsic value of the country’s foreign policy, which follows much more strategic objectives.

Under Yudhoyono’s successor, Jokowi, democracy continues to be a pillar of Indonesian foreign policy, albeit a less prominent one than under Yudhoyono. Democracy is still a theme in foreign policy speeches and declarations. The Bali Democracy Forum (BDF), Yudhoyono’s flagship for democracy promotion, still convenes—though it has lost its status as a high-profile international event. Indonesia has also criticized the worldwide trend of democratic regression and in ASEAN it was at the forefront of seeking a face-saving exit to the dilemma created by the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar.

In the Philippines, democracy promotion has played a much smaller role and has persistently been subordinated to security concerns and realpolitik. In 1998, the Philippine government supported Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan’s overtures to relax the non-interference norm and in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) it repeatedly highlighted the country’s democratic identity and commitment to human rights. Yet it pursued democracy promotion much less than Indonesia, both at the operative and discursive levels. Only occasional statements by the foreign minister of the Aquino administration (2010-2016), Albert del Rosario, came close to what could be interpreted as commitment to a pro-democratic foreign policy.

The foreign policy of President Duterte has deviated sharply from the foreign policy of the preceding administration. It is totally devoid of normative objectives and confined to realpolitik characterized by a rapprochement with China in exchange for economic benefits. More than any other administration since the end of the authoritarian Marcos regime (1972-1986), the Duterte government has curtailed the space for CSOs in foreign policymaking. His main targets include critics of his deadly war on drugs, which has seen between 6,000 and 30,000 extrajudicial killings. Human rights advocates have been accused of weaponizing human rights and subjected to “red-tagging” (i.e., accusations of communist subversion). Duterte has also broken with the Philippines’ long-time partners, including the United States and the European Union, which criticized his administration’s deplorable human rights record. Unsurprisingly, the Duterte administration is not on record as endorsing the democratization of ASEAN and global multilateral organizations beyond strengthening executive multilateralism.

Our program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program. How do you interpret that term for the Southeast Asian context globally and the Philippines more specifically? Can we see a backlash against some forms of liberalism(s), and if so, which ones?

The Third Wave of democratization starting in the mid-1970s has had only limited impact in Southeast Asia. Democratization has been periodic and characterized by repeated setbacks such as in Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Myanmar, and even Indonesia. At the regional level, participatory channels have been narrow and lately—in line with COVID-19 emergency legislation—political space for non-state actors has been further curtailed. Moreover, even where democratization has advanced in recent decades, democracy should not be equated with liberal democracy without qualification. In several of the region’s countries, including Indonesia, (Western) liberal variants of democracy meet with considerable skepticism from parts of the public and among political leaders.

Democracy in Southeast Asian countries is strongly informed by notions of organic state theory, an amalgam of highly conservative political thought influential in Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and constructed indigenous political ideas. Organic state theory as embodied in authoritarian state corporatism is inherently anti-liberal and anti-pluralist and prioritizes unity, social harmony, and hierarchy.

Due to the enormous normative attraction democracy still enjoys worldwide, political elites frame collectivist political systems informed by organic state theory in liberal parlance, suggesting that they represent a homegrown version of democracy shaped by local traditions and culture. In reality, however, they contribute to the plethora of “democracies with adjectives,” a discursive gimmick to conceal the essentially autocratic nature of the respective political systems. The Illiberal Studies Program thus helps to sharpen our analytical capacity to distinguish varieties of democracy that provide space for the peaceful contestation of policies from polities that abuse democratic terminology to depoliticize society.


Jürgen Rüland is professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Freiburg, Germany. From 2009 until his retirement in 2019 he was the chairperson of the University of Freiburg’s Southeast Asia research group. His more recent book publications include Religious Actors and Conflict Transformation in Southeast Asia. Indonesia and the Philippines, London: Routledge (2019) (with C. von Lübke and M.M. Baumann), The Indonesian Way. ASEAN, Europeanization and Foreign Policy Debates in a New Democracy, Stanford: Stanford University Press (2017) and ASEAN and its Cohesion as an Actor in International Forums – Reality, Potential and Constraints, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2015) (with P. Nguitragool).

illiberalism.org

illiberalism.org

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.

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