It is no longer a secret that a climate of fear reigned in the Philippines from the time Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency on June 30, 2016.

Even before he took his oath as president, Duterte unleashed “shock and awe” tactics to sow fear among the people in the name of his signature war on drugs, as blood flowed like a river in the capital’s slum communities and bodies piled up in funeral parlors, some with packaging tape wrapped around their heads, and placards with signs that read “addict ako, huwag tularan” hanging around their necks.

Then, he went after the political opposition and his critics who were against his war on drugs, throwing behind bars a sitting senator on trumped-up illegal drug charges, unseating a Supreme Court chief justice on a quo warranto petition and sacking his vice president from her Cabinet position.

The maverick leader then targeted the dissenters and the nosy and noisy media that called out wrongdoings and irregularities in his administration, weaponizing social media to discredit public trust on journalists and government regulations to silence critical news organizations, like the crusading newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer, online platform Rappler, the country’s largest broadcast network ABS-CBN and syndicated investigative journalism web sites Vera Files and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

Elected into office with less than 40 percent of the votes in May 2016, Duterte has managed to expand his small PDP-Laban political party in the House of Representatives and in the local government units through a “carrot-and-stick” approach in coalition-building and co-opting other smaller political parties to support his policies and legislative agenda.

He has completed his power consolidation. In the May 2019 mid-term elections, he completely wiped out the political opposition, although he succeeded in helping only three of his trusted allies in winning seats among the 12 vacant positions at the Senate.

Duterte does not need to declare martial law to rule like Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s. His words alone are obeyed as national policies and carried out by the national police and other agencies even before a written directive is issued or even before consultations are made with his Cabinet members.

In most cases, his national security team would be surprised by his policy announcements that ignored their policy recommendations based on intelligent and well-researched studies.

Such was the case when Duterte impulsively threatened to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, a two-decade security arrangement allowing US troop presence in the country for exercises and training.

At a public inquiry at the Senate, foreign affairs and defense department executives argued for the need to keep the agreement in the interest of the country’s national security as the military was in the midst of building up its capability to pivot from an internal security force into a modest external defense force.

But Duterte did not pay attention to his foreign affairs and defense secretaries who are supposed to hold bilateral consultations with their American counterparts this month, if it will push through. Washington has canceled a scheduled summit in Las Vegas on March 14 between US leader Donald J. Trump and 10 Southeast Asian leaders due to the fast-spreading corona virus disease (COViD), which has killed nearly 3,000 people and infected more than 80,000 globally.

On Feb. 11, he asked the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to serve the 180-day notice to terminate the VFA to the US embassy in Manila. The agreement will be officially terminated on Aug. 11 unless both sides agreed to re-negotiate the status of forces agreement before the expiration date.

Salvador Panelo, the president’s official spokesman and chief presidential legal counsel, has said all members of the president’s Cabinet agreed with his decision, including the military, which vowed to carry out his orders, assuring the public it could address both internal and external threats even without US support and presence

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But a senator revealed that several members of the official family did not share the leader’s decision to scrap the VFA. They expressed apprehension the Philippines could not fully handle the external defense situation, citing the Chinese occupation of a half-submerged shoal in the South China Sea three years after the American pullout from its two largest overseas military bases in Subic and Clark.

It was among events that forced the Philippines to invite back the American military forces in 2000. It negotiated and signed the VFA in 1998, helping Washington counter Beijing’s effective area access and area denial (A2AD) tactics in the disputed waters in Southeast Asia.

The revelation from Sen.ator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson was huge. It was the first time some Cabinet members have privately opposed the president’s position but were afraid to publicly expressed dissension. There were some members of Cabinet who resigned their positions due to policy differences with other officials in the government.

“Many are just afraid the President. While they are expressing their views, they are also being careful about how to dissuade him from proceeding with the abrogation,” Lacson, who headed the Senate’s panel on national security, said. “Those who have talked to us are unanimous. I have not spoken with anyone who was all-out in supporting in abrogating.”

Another senator, Richard Gordon, confirmed Lacson’s revelations about dissenting views within the Cabinet.

What Lacson and Gordon revealed confirmed what political commentators and Duterte watchers have been saying for some time: the president has mastered the politics of fear. It has been the only successful tool by which authoritarian leaders around the world have continued to stay in power.

That would also explain why these authoritarian leaders remain popular and continue win elections. Survey after survey since he won the presidential election in 2016, Duterte has remained very popular, with more than 70 percent satisfaction and approval ratings.

It was normal for past leaders to have high approval and satisfaction ratings at the start of their terms, like Fidel V. Ramos, Joseph Ejercito Estrada and Benigno Simeon Aquino. Their ratings suffered and declined toward the end of their term, but not Duterte. The only former president with a low rating but survived coup attempts and impeachment motions in Congress was Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

If it’s true that fear was sustaining the president’s high ratings, then this is bad news. A popular leader should not be feared, but respected and loved. Love and respect endure even after the end of their rule, but fear could wear off and be replaced by hatred until such time courage would be found to overcome it.

There will be a tipping point when people will have the courage to stand up against oppression, like what happened 34 years ago at EDSA when there was a spontaneous combustion of emotions against dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was weakened by his health conditions as some of his own Cabinet members began plotting to seize political power.

EDSA was partly fueled by dissension from within the government. The people just took a cue from fractures within and dissenters emboldened by a sick leader. Luckily, there are no more ambitious military officers with messianic tendencies, who will risk intervening in purely political matters even if they have no right to do so.

There are some signs dissension could grow as the president nears the end of his six-year term.

History has a bad habit of repeating itself. Let’s hope there is no repeat, for the second time could be more bloody and violent. Blood started flowing in the streets from Day 1 of this administration. Let’s hope the end will not be soaked in more blood.

Photo: President Rodrigo Duterte prepares to board a helicopter after gracing the inauguration of the Sangley Airport Development Project in Cavite City on Feb. 15, 2020. ALBERT ALCAIN/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO