Gaddafi And Marcos Jr., When A Dictator’s Son Runs For President

Over the past few weeks, the offspring of two of the 20th centuries most ruthless strongmen have announced they'd like to become the (democratically elected) leaders of Libya and the Philippines.


PARIS — The son of the brutal Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi announced this week he is running for president, which follows a similar headline last month from Ferdinand Marcos Jr. What does this say about the state of democracy?

It was about a half-century ago that two of the most brutal dictatorships of the modern era began.

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Modi Bows To Farmers, Belarus Camps Cleared, Extra-Long Eclipse

👋 Dia dhuit!*

Welcome to Friday, where Indian farmers win a major victory against the Modi government after a year of protests, Austria announces a full lockdown and mandatory vaccines and the world is treated to the longest lunar eclipse in nearly 600 years. We also have a feature story from Jeune Afrique magazine that traces the international origins of twerking.


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The Pandemic Was Also Bad News For The World's Autocrats

For strongman leaders like Putin and Bolsonaro, the health crisis looked like a natural opening for greater top-down control — at least on paper.


PARIS — "Shoot "em dead." That was Rodrigo Duterte's startling take on how to deal with people who might be tempted to resist his country's lockdown orders.

For the Philippine president, the pandemic was an opening to tighten his grip on power and terrorize his people even more. And he wasn't alone. For Erdogan, Putin, Orban, Bolsonaro and other "strong men" in power, the crisis seemed like a bright opportunity to expand their authoritarian and megalomaniacal excesses.

Increased population controls? The suspension of basic freedoms, including free movement? With COVID-19, it's all justified.

And yet, as it turns out, the health crisis hasn't actually been that favorable to those who dream of unfettered power and the submission of society to their will. Instead, this unprecedented crisis has rightly shown the internal weaknesses of authoritarian regimes, almost all of which have struggled to meet the basic demands of their citizens and avoid sinking into international isolation.

It's a complex equation, in other words. But ultimately, the power gained during the pandemic was minimal — even for President "Digong," as Duterte is sometimes called.

Putin has never looked so weak.

Take, for example, the case of China, where the virus first appeared. President Xi Jinping is widely seen as the country's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. But his rise predates the pandemic by a number of years, and if anything, the health crisis has actually hurt him by tarnishing the image of China, which is accused of covering up the scale of the epidemic in its early stages and not being transparent about the numbers of confirmed cases and fatalities.

The pandemic has been an even bigger blow for the regime of Russia's Vladimir Putin, who has never looked so weak. "He looks like a sick old wolf," political scientist Alexander Kynev writes in the Moscow Times. Tatiana Stanovaya, an expert at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, says that "things did not go as planned" for the Russian president. Indeed, Putin's grand plan to organize a referendum allowing him to remain in power until 2036 had to be suspended under the double shock of the collapse of oil prices and the health crisis.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is struggling as well. The Turkish president has already been in office for 17 years, and his gradual accumulation of extensive powers began long before the health crisis. Last year, however, he experienced a major setback when his Justice and Development Party lost control of the municipalities of Ankara and Istanbul. The country is hurting financially as well, and the COVID-19 crisis is only adding to those woes. As a result, the country's central bank has had to triple its exchange agreement with Qatar, expanding from $5 billion in 2018 to $15 billion in order to cope with the collapse of its foreign exchange reserves.

For Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who invented the concept of "illiberal democracy," the health crisis was the perfect pretext: On March 30, just as the pandemic was exploding in Europe, he granted himself special powers to govern by decree. Later, however, pressure from the European Union forced Orban to take a cautious step backwards by putting a time limit on those special powers.


Drivers protest the first day of nationwide coronavirus quarantine measures in Manila Photo: Joseph Dacalanio

Across the ocean, another strong-man leader, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, is faring far worse. His management of the coronavirus outbreak proved catastrophic and created a governmental crisis marked by the resignation of his health minister after just four weeks in office. The previous minister of health was fired by Bolsonaro following a dispute over the severity of the virus.

Looking toward the post-pandemic period, it's clear that none of today's authoritarian leaders — hampered as they may be the situation — will let go of their power. On the contrary, there will be a strong temptation for them to strengthen the surveillance of their population by monitoring displacement or by further tightening their control over the media and the judiciary.

Will the leaders of today's democracies be up to the task, and not fall into the trap of authoritarian regimes.

Paradoxically, however, democracies have become more resilient. In France, as well as in Italy and Spain, the management of the health crisis has been chaotic. And yet, it aso triggered a strong demand for a more protective state. This is a movement without precedent since the 1980s, when the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan ushered in the era of neoliberalism.

After World War II, democratic powers were able to implement genuine social protections, including health care. The question is whether the leaders of today's democracies will be up to the task and will not fall into the trap of authoritarian regimes, as appears to be the case in the United States, where President Donald Trump has engaged in dangerous boasting and renewed threats to justice and the media.

There, the health crisis has only deepened divisions between supporters the president and his opponents. This is an example for European countries not to follow. Democracy remains the worst of all systems, Winston Churchill was quoted as saying. It remains a fragile political system.

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Watch: OneShot — UNICEF Immunization, Philippines Vaccine

Unicef France marks World Immunization Week with this OneShot from the Philippines

Every year, immunization saves millions of lives worldwide. By providing this basic health care to children and mothers, UNICEF has been helping reduce drastically the number of preventable deaths for 70 years. Vaccines may hurt, but they work!

2019 World Immunization Week — ©Unknown/UNICEF/OneShot

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Lynzy Billing

Call Centers, An Unlikely Refuge For Transgender Filipina Women

BPOs (business process outsourcing) companies are booming in the Philippines, and providing safe workplaces for transgender women to present themselves in their authentic gender identity.

MANILA The Philippines is the undisputed call-center capital of the world. Home to the customer service operations of such multinational companies as IBM, eBay and Capital One, the industry employs half a million people in more than 400 centers across the country, and in 2016 contributed $25 billion to the national economy.

But the call-center business has also had another, perhaps unexpected effect: It has provided transgender women with a safe space to express their gender identities at work. Since the call-center boom kicked off in the mid-2000s, thousands of transgender agents have entered the industry, often because of the lack of job opportunities in their chosen fields.

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Madonna Virola

ISIS In Philippines, City Decimated By Five-Month Siege

The southern city of Marawi was liberated last week after months of fighting which left some 1,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.

ILIGAN — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared the liberation of the southern city of Marawi last week, bringing an end to a five-month deadly siege by the Islamic State (ISIS) that claimed more than 1,000 lives.

The siege ended after Philippine forces killed two leading Islamic militants, Isinilon Hapilon and Omar Maute, along with 50 other militants and hostages. Nearly 400,000 residents, 90% of the city's population, had been displaced by the fighting, many fleeing to neighboring cities. The refugees have been living in cramped makeshift camps, sleeping on cement floors covered in cardboard boxes, sheltered only by donated plastic sheets.

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Clovis Rossi

State-Sponsored Barbarism, From The Philippines To Brazil


SAO PAULO — Barbarism has actually become popular in the Philippines. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 78% of Filipinos support the "license to kill" President Rodrigo Duterte has given the police against those accused, or even just suspected, of dealing or consuming drugs.

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Renaud Girard

Philippines To Indonesia, Wahhabism Is Spreading In Asia


PARIS — The Islamic State (ISIS) is like the Hydra, the multi-headed monster of mythology that Hercules alone was able to slay. Whenever he managed to cut off one its heads, two new ones grew back instantly. Likewise, the jihadists — having recently lost Mosul, in Iraq — are already making headlines again, this time far away from the Arab world and Mesopotamia.

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Michel De Grandi

Philippines, Underestimate Rodrigo Duterte At Your Peril

The controversial new Filippino president, who arrives in China today, has mostly garnered attention for his brutal crackdown on drug dealers. But his ambitions go far beyond.


Rodrigo Duterte has all the airs of the Sheriff of Nottingham. But more surprisingly, there may also be some similarities between the Philippines controversial new president and Robin Hood.

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Jason Strother

In Philippines, Seeking Environmental Justice 20 Years After Mining Disaster

MARINDUQUE Elisa Hernandez dips her yellow blouse into the Boac River's rushing water and then slaps it up against the shoreline's gray stones.

The 73-year-old used to earn a living washing her whole community's laundry this way. "We felt at home in this river ... It was so clean, we played in it and we used to catch a lot of fish here too," she says.

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From Obama To Duterte, Breaking The Mold

In many ways, Barack Obama's election eight years ago as America's first black president broke the mold. But in other ways it has not. Both at home and abroad, there are certain codes and behaviors and best practices that the preternaturally moderate Obama has abided by for the past eight years to ensure a kind of business-as-usual guidance in a complicated world.

Take as the latest example his criticism yesterday of Congress' override of the presidential veto of a bill to give 9/11 victims' families the right to sue the Saudi government. Obama told CNN that "if we eliminate this notion of sovereign immunity, then our men and women in uniform around the world could potentially start seeing ourselves subject to reciprocal laws." It is a precedent that could essentially threaten the longstanding application of international relations and diplomacy that Obama believes keep a dangerous world from slipping toward ever greater dangers.

On the other side of the globe, instead, we now have a case of an unconventional leader who is clearly prepared to break more than just the mold. Since taking office in the Philippines in June, President Rodrigo Duterte is wreaking havoc left and right. He has signaled to Filipino law enforcement and vigilantes that it is OK to kill suspected drug dealers. Meanwhile, a visit today to Vietnam highlights his renegade approach to foreign policy. Not only have his recent harsh words for the U.S. overturned decades of a tight Washington-Manila alliance, but it has unsettled Asian neighbors such as Vietnam that are looking to work with the U.S. to stave off a rising China. Pose these realities to Duterte, and he tends to shrug it off as, well, business as usual.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., in the high-stakes race for the White House, one could pose the voters' choice this way: the Obama mold or the Duterte hammer.

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Kate Lamb

Omerta-Like Silence Shrouds Vigilante Killings In Philippines

Since Rodrigo Duterte was inaugurated two months ago, some 2,000 people have been killed across the country in the past two months in what experts say are extra-judicial vigilante murders. Fear and silence make it all possible.

MANILA — Lea Bascguin, the owner of a funeral home in this city, runs her finger down the page as she counts the names in a file that records the dead. The number has tripled since the start of Rodrigo Duterte's drug war.

Across the country, almost 2,000 people have been killed so far — 712 in police "shootouts" and more than 1,000 by so-called vigilantes.

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Arne Perras

Philippines, Can An Iconic Photograph Stop Duterte And His Vigilantes?

MANILA — Heavy clouds in the sky over Manila, soon it will start to rain. Jennilyn Olayres must hurry up if she wants to whisper a few more words to her fiancé. How she's feeling, what she has been up to all day long. And that she's really mad at him. What a bastard for having abandoned her like that.

Michael would have appreciated that kind of humor. Before, they clowned around all the time. "Then, when he was lying in the coffin, I said to him: I know Michael, we always wanted to be famous. But did it have to be this way?" Olayres smiles, then the 26 year old bursts into tears. It will take a while until she calms down again, here at the Pasay cemetery in the Philippine capital.

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Duterte, Not Lost In Translation

Foreign correspondents, and their editors, have long wrestled with translations of newsworthy words from one language to another — both those quotable quotes from colorful personalities, and the jargony langue de bois of international bureaucrats and businessmen.

We like to think of ourselves at Worldcrunch as experts in the field, and watched with some amusement as our colleagues around the English-speaking world handled the latest doozy from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Responding to U.S. criticism about his heavy-handed crackdown on the drug trade, the 71-year-old leader switched from English to his native Tagalog language to call President Obama "Putang ina" and said he would swear at him in person at an upcoming meeting. Most of the press translated the slur as "son of a bitch," though others went for the more literal "son of a whore." Either way, it led to the swift cancellation of a scheduled Duterte-Obama encounter, and recalled similar jibes that the new Filipino President has aimed at the Pope and head of the United Nations in recent months.

But even more disturbing are the consequences of Duterte's language on the streets of the Philippines, a troubled country of more than 100 million. Speaking to television reporters in June, shortly after his election victory, he sent this message to his citizens, should they witness drug activity: "Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun ... you have my support," he said. "Shoot him the drug dealer and I'll give you a medal." In the months since, more than a thousand extrajudicial killings have been recorded, with scant prosecution of the would-be vigilantes.

Soon after Obama cancelled his bilateral meeting with Duterte, the Philippines government put out a statement in English about the comments, expressing "regret that it came across as a personal attack on the U.S. president." Yes, in Paris that is called langue de bois — literally "wooden language." Obama's plain-speaking vice president would call it malarkey.

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Front Page In Philippines: 'Have Decency' President Duterte

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Philippine Daily Inquirer, Aug. 19

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