A year ago, few believed that Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of the city of Davao on the island of Mindanao would be the next president of the Philippines. Duterte had achieved a reputation as a Filipino “Dirty Harry,” one who boasted that he got rid of criminals and drug pushers by wiping them off the face of the earth. When questioned about the 1000 plus extra-judicial executions that were alleged to have taken place under his watch, he simply growled that criminals had no human rights and were not entitled to due process.
He was the outlier in Philippine politics, the one who did not buy into liberal values and liberal democratic discourse, who seemed to take perverse delight in peppering his talks with cuss words, like “putang ina” or “son of a bitch,” and calling people who irritated him as “bakla” (gay) or “cono” (cunt), his special term for people coming from elite families.
Not surprisingly, many have likened him to another political outlier: Donald Trump.
Demolition: the administration’s road to the elections
A year ago, the contest seemed to be between Vice President Jejomar Binay and Manuel (“Mar”) Roxas II, the secretary of the interior and local government who was President Benigno Aquino’s anointed successor. Binay became the object of a demolition job that exposed the various ways his family has siphoned off billions of pesos from their bailiwick, the city of Makati. It was all true, but, as Tony La Vina, a prominent political analyst, pointed out, it was also a demolition job engineered by the administration.
Next to suffer from the ruling Liberal Party’s obsessive effort to make Roxas president was Senator Grace Poe. A neophyte senator, Poe was thrust into the presidential race by people who thought her name would translate into political gold. Poe’s father was Fernando Poe, Jr., a beloved action star who was widely believed to have been cheated of the presidency during the elections of 2004 by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Aquino’s predecessor. In the Liberal Party’s calculation, a Roxas-Poe tandem would be unbeatable.
When Poe refused to run as Roxas’ vice president, her candidacy became the object of legal challenges. One disputed her being a natural-born Filipino—a qualification to run for the presidency--owing to her being a foundling. Another asserted that Poe, who returned to the Philippines after living in the US, did not meet the necessary period of residency in the country. The cases against Poe went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which did not disqualify her from running for the presidency after a bitter struggle among the justices. But the damage had been done, and again, La Vina, a Poe backer, pointed out, the fingerprints of Malacanang, the presidential palace, were all over the place.
Meanwhile, Duterte’s star was on the rise, with him placing second or third in the surveys. He was, however, going ballistic. To his boasting about killing criminals without due process, he now added killing workers if they went against his development plans, which alarmed the labor unions. With his mouth seemingly running ahead of his mind, there were many partisans of the administration slate who thought he was on the road to self-destruction
A Difficult Sell
But if the ruling Liberal Party could demolish two of its leading opponents, it found out that it could not sell its chosen candidate.
To a great extent this was Aquino’s doing since he had convinced Roxas to make his campaign theme the continuation of his “Straight Path” or Daang Matuwid. Aquino wanted Roxas to be seen in the public eye as the inheritor of his anti-corruption campaigns. Instead, Roxas was burdened with two millstones.
One was the scandal surrounding the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), a secret multibillion peso slush fund concocted by the administration that involved the arbitrary, illegal, and unconstitutional management of public funds. The other was the disastrous anti-terrorist initiative known as the “Mamasapano raid, where 44 members of the National Police’s Special Action Force, along with 17 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front were killed. It was a bungled raid, done mainly to serve Washington’s interests rather than Manila’s and for which Aquino refused to accept command responsibility; and it hang like a specter over his administration long that refused to go away.
But Roxas had his own share of problems. Though regarded as personally clean, he was widely seen as inept, if not a klutz. Put in charge of the recovery of the central Philippines from the catastrophic Typhoon Hainan (or Yolanda), he was blamed for the massive mismanagement that attended the effort. Having served as head of the Department of Transportation and Communication, he was seen as responsible for the administration’s failure to untangle Metropolitan Manila’s mass transit and traffic mess. “Analysis paralysis” became the scornful description of his management approach.
Meanwhile, Duterte’s trash talk, his seemingly deliberate provocative comments, were not leading, as the Liberal Party hoped, to self-destruction. While there were five candidates, the media largely structured the contest as being one between Roxas and Duterte. Duterte found Roxas’ number: a tendency to react quickly and hotly to real or perceived slights. Thus he needled Roxas on the latter’s claiming to be a Wharton graduate in his official biography. Technically, Roxas was right, that he had undergraduate degree from the Unversity of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. But Duterte was also right that Roxas was guilty of misrepresentation because the common assumption is that a “Wharton graduate” is one who has an MBA from the school. No amount of explanation from Roxas could deter Duterte from continually bringing up the issue of misrepresentation, and the more angry and exasperated Roxas got, the more he lost points with Filipinos, who think that the one who loses his cool in a debate (“pikun”) loses the argument.
Chronicling an Electoral Insurgency
While Roxas, a man with a lily-white upper class background, stumbled, Duterte found himself becoming the medium of an electoral revolt.
This first became evident on the internet. Seemingly out of nowhere, an army of Duterte netizens emerged when it became known he was considering a run for the presidency. Eurphoric and aggressive by turns, they waged war on those who expressed reservations or criticisms of their idol. While some engaged in spirited debate, others resorted to threats, with one female environmentalist, for instance, threatened online with rape. Anti-Duterte netizens retaliated by calling the Duterte camp “Dutertards.” There had never been a cyberwar this fierce previously.
Surveys showed that Duterte was drawing support from all classes. The anti-crime message obviously resonated with the upper class and middle class, but it also found fertile ground in poor neighborhoods infested with drug addicts and drug-pushers, whose residents did not think he was exaggerating when he said the drug problem in the Philippines was worse than in Mexico.
But it was his railing against corruption and poverty, his obvious disdain for the rich—the conos as he called them—and above all, his coming across as “one of you guys” that acted as a magnet to workers, urban poor, peasants, and the lower middle class. From mid-March on, he had the momentum, climbing to the top of all the surveys and not yielding the lead once he got there. In city after city, thousands attended his rallies, waiting patiently in sweltering temperatures to hear the man despite six to seven hour delays before he showed up.
Traveling throughout the country during this period in my own campaign for the Senate, the excitement was palpable to me. I encountered the same story everywhere, and it was not apocryphal: as one campaigner put it, “People are making their own posters and tarpaulins.. Dirt-poor tricycle drivers are paying for Duterte stickers. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
I registered this observation on my Facebook post: “Spontaneity and improvisation and grassroots momentum have been the hallmarks of the Duterte campaign. Believe me, I saw this bubbling up from below as I traveled the length of the archipelago in my own campaign for the Senate. Duterte, more by instinct rather than plan, simply set fire to emotions that were already just below the surface. I think we should avoid accounts that promote the understanding of this movement as one created by manipulation from above. I am disturbed by the Duterte movement and fear a Duterte presidency, but we risk gross misunderstanding of its dynamics and direction if we attribute its emergence to mass manipulation. It is, simply put, a largely spontaneous electoral insurgency."
Duterte had tapped into a rich vein of anger and resentment. I wrote in another Facebook post: “People are really, really angry, and the Liberal Party machinery better not try to steal the elections or there will be hell to pay. Whatever the outcome, the Philippines is entering a period of instability and intensified social conflict…What is going on is the flaring up of the social warfare, of which class is a key --though not the only--dimension…[R]esentments bottled up [for years have] now burst onto the surface.”
As the campaign moved to a climax, Duterte seemed to make a fatal mistake when he joked about the gang rape of an Australian missionary during a prison uprising in Davao in 1989, saying “the mayor should have been first in line.” This triggered fury in many quarters, especially among women’s groups, and censure from the Australian and US ambassadors. But the incident barely dented his numbers. Then Roxas brought out the heavy artillery: administration ally Senator Antonio Trillanes, the same man who had spearheaded the demolition job on Vice President Binay, again came onstage, this time, claiming that Duterte had stashed billions of pesos in multiple accounts that he had not declared in this SALN, the mandatory declaration of net worth from government officials. The polls simply shrugged off the expose.
It became clear to me that what Duterte actually stood for was drowned out by what people wished him to be: the bearer of their fears and hopes and the sword that would bring about the radical measures they felt were necessary to contain the rot of the system.
In panic mode three days before the election, President Aquino staked all the moral authority he thought he had built up over six years on publicly branding Duterte a “dictator” and calling on Filipinos to reject him. This backfired, as I noted in my Facebook post: “The president appeals to the people to save democracy by voting for his fellow blueblood two days before the election. I don't think this fellow gets it. For some reason, he doesn't realize that people see him not as part of the solution but as part of the problem, and that the more he exhorts the people to behave in a certain way, the more they will go in the opposite direction. It's like the Daang Matuwid slogan: the more the LP cries "ipagpatuloy ang Daang Matuwid," (“Continue on the Straight Path”), the more people take it ironically as a call for more of the same misgovernment. Or the more Roxas rallies the ‘decent people,’ the more people are proud to identify with the ‘indecent’ crowd.”
The disconnect between the upper-class president and the electorate was deafening.
On May 7, the last day of the campaign period, while his rivals struggled to bring several hundred people to their final rallies or miting de avance, close to one million people jammed Manila’s Luneta Park to hear their idol. He was in fine form, peppering his speech as usual with curses, but also burnishing his populist appeal. As one observer, social critic John Silva, wrote:
“Now I get it. The media's relentless attacks, besmirching Digong Duterte for his looks, his vulgarity, his shameless sexuality, his death threats for criminals who prey on children and the poor, actually all this has a lot to do with the threat he poses for the forty richest families who control most of the country’s gross national product AND the media. It’s the scary threat of spreading the wealth threatened by a candidate whose house in Davao is about the size of a Forbes Park [an exclusive residential area for the super-rich]pool cabana…So, it’s class war, at least for now, in print, on the airwaves and in cyberspace.”
The Coming Fury?
So, in the aftermath of a smashing victory, where he gained over 38 per cent of the vote, what is in store for the country?
When it comes to foreign policy, no one really knows. During one of the presidential debates, he said that his solution to the conflict in the South China Sea with China would be his going alone to one of the reefs claimed by the Philippines but occupied by China to plant the Philippine flag, then leaving it up to the Chinese to deal with him, even kill him. Many thought he was not joking.
And economic policy? He said he would be content with copying the blueprints of his rival candidates since “I’ve been copying from my seatmates since I was in Grade Three.” And again, many did not see this as a joke.
What is not in doubt is that the country is in for draconian policies when it comes to drugs and crime. And there is also no doubt that, with all the expectations he has aroused, there will be populist measures promoting income distribution and less talk about promoting economic growth since the electorate is visibly tired of the situation of rapid growth without poverty reduction.
With anger, frustrations, and resentments that accumulated under a succession of corrupt or inept administrations dominated by competing dynasties now bursting into the open, the Philippines is headed for stormy seas. Social warfare is on the agenda, and the country is likely experience something akin to the Yellowshirt versus Redshirt conflict in Thailand in the years leading up to the military coup of 2014.
This realization was brought home to me shortly before the election, when I ran into a former student who was a Roxas partisan. “I hope that migrating will not be the only option for people like me,” he said. Lower-level staff at the international agency he worked at had gone for Duterte “because they want to get up there right now. I can’t tell them that it took two generations for my family to reach white-collar status because they won’t listen to me. They want it right now.”