Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines in May 2016. Arguably Duterte’s electoral success was down to his straight talking approach and “authoritarian nostalgia”. This article reviews the highs and lows of his campaign and the challenges before him.
On 30 May 2016 the Congress of the Philippines duly declared Rodrigo Duterte, former Mayor of Davao City in Mindanao, the winner of the 2016 presidential elections. Duterte won the presidential race with over 38% of votes cast. More than 16 million Filipinos voted for the man dubbed “The Punisher” by a Time magazine article in 2002. Runner up, Mar Roxas, the nominated standard-bearer of the previously incumbent Liberal party under President Benigno Aquino III, trailed Duterte by more than six million votes. Meanwhile in the vice presidential campaign Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. was narrowly beaten into second place by Mar Roxas’ running mate, Leni Robredo. In the Philippines the presidential and vice presidential elections are separate. The winners do not have to be elected from the same party.
Philippine politics is dynastic and dominated by a narrow group of ruling elite. At all levels it is common procedure for government posts to be passed around between family members. Philippine society is characterised by severe inequality. The top ten percent of the population in the Philippines control 76% of the country’s wealth. 2015 Philippine Statistics Authority figures show that 26.3% of the population is living in poverty. Self-rated poverty in the same year is recorded as 51%. Under the 2010-2016 Aquino administration the Philippines enjoyed an average GDP growth rate of 6.3%. Clearly economic growth is not translating into an improvement of the lives of a significant percentage of the Philippine population.
There are not enough jobs in the Philippines. Over 10 million Philippine Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) are employed abroad, at any one time. Whilst some OFWs are highly skilled, others work long hours for poor wages as housemaids or in the construction industry. OFWs collectively sent US$25.8 home in remittances in 2015.
90% of Philippine voters are categorised in the C, D and E socioeconomic classes. The remaining 10% belong to the A and B classes. Politicians clearly have to target the poorer sectors of the electorate during their campaigns.
Duterte campaigned on a slogan of “change is coming”. This tapped into the hopes and aspirations of the poor. The C, D and E classes were sick of struggling to find decent work, sick of corruption, sick of crumbling infrastructure and sick of having no other option than to choose one or other of the scions that dominated Philippine political life. Duterte, from the badlands of Mindano in the Southern Philippines, offered an alternative to the Manila based elite. He openly embraced the left and engaged in a public conversation with the leaders of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), currently living in self-exile in the Netherlands. There is now optimist talk of the exiled leaders, including Jose Maria Sison, returning home to the Philippines and of the long running peace talks between the NDFP and the government of the Philippines finally reaching a satisfactory conclusion. Duterte has also met Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leaders and is a known supporter of federalism. He has condemned the Aquino administration for failing to make progress on the creation of a Bangsamoro territory, literally a “homeland for the moros”. At his miting de avance on the eve of the elections in Luneta Park in Manila, attended by an estimated 1.3 million people Duterte promised Filipinos “a comfortable life”. He also promised to stamp down of corruption and criminality, a message that also hit home with the A and B voters.
Duterte is credited with making Davao City one of the safest cities in Asia during his tenure as Mayor. However his critics argue that his tactics are questionable to say the least. Urban legend has it that he made a hapless tourist eat a cigarette butt when he flouted the city wide smoking ban. Duterte has publicly admitted links to the notorious Davao Death Squads. During the campaign he stated publicly that he would have wanted to be at the front of the queue when an Australian missionary was gang raped and killed in 1989 during a Davao City prison riot in 1989, as she was beautiful. When the Australian and United States’ embassies publicly voiced their distaste at his comments he simply told them to go away and mind their own business.
Duterte pledged to kill criminals and throw their bodies in Manila Bay. Since his election victory he has also stated that it is acceptable for citizens to kill drug dealers if they resist arrest and that he will reward those that take matters into their own hands.
He went on record to say that journalists were not |exempted from assassination if you are a son of a bitch”. Between 1992 and 2016 the Philippines was the third most deadly place in the world to be a journalist. Only Iraq and Syria were most dangerous. The group Reporters Without Borders, a leading defender of freedom of information and the freedom of the press, met Duterte’s comments with outrage. Duterte’s supporters claimed that his comments were taken out of context and he stopped holding news conferences. He initially refused to apologise, calling journalists vultures, but he subsequently released a statement stating that he does not condone the killing of journalists.
The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country. Duterte has called Catholic bishops and the pope “sons of whores”. In Duterte’s opinion, the church asking him for money is no different from corruption. He accused the church of being a hypocritical institutional. Pope Francis was condemned because his visit to Manila resulted in Duterte being stuck in traffic. Duterte has now apologised to the Pope. However it is a significant departure from usual practice for a Philippine politician to criticise the church, especially in the run up to an election.
Duterte is notorious for swearing in public. However, he has promised to become more statesmanlike as befits the president of the republic. He is a self confessed womaniser. During his election campaign he regaled the Makati Business Club, who were expecting a talk of his economic plans for the country should he become president, with a discussion of his libido. During election meetings he encouraged women to come greet him, “but not the ugly ones”. He admits to having two wives and two girlfriends. He also publicly stated that he would “open the door to his room” if there were beautiful women outside Malacañang (the presidential palace). He ran into trouble at a press conference in June when he whistled and serenaded a Filipina journalist who was trying to get his attention. This is despite Davao City, Duterte’s home town, boasting the “Women Development Code of Davao City”, or Davao City Ordinance No. 5004, under which whistling at a woman can be considered sexual harassment.
The campaign against a Duterte presidency was also ugly. They accused him of being in cahoots with drug lords and having multiple secret bank accounts. His critics compared him to Hitler and Pol Pot and argued that his leadership would take them back to authoritarian rule. Their mistake was to fail to identify the “authoritarian nostalgia” evident amongst some sections of the electorate.
Criminality, failings in peace and order, crumbling infrastructure and a dilapidated public transport system has led to a revisionist version of the Marcos years. President Ferdinand Marcos was elected president in 1965, however he imposed martial law in 1972 and ruled with an iron fist until 1986. His son and vice presidential candidate, Ferdinand Marcos Jr or “Bongbong”, who lost the vice presidency by a mere 200,000 votes, narrowly failed to capitalise on authoritarian nostalgia. However, Duterte’s straight talking rhetoric, promises actually get things done and to crack down on criminal elements within “three to six months” of being elected worked.
The vice-candidacy of Bongbong led to a campaign, #NeverAgain, to educate millennial voters, who had not lived through the torture, incarceration, forced disappearances and material excess of the Marcos years. The ignorance of young voters was typified by a tweet form @zappybands stating that “the Marcoses are kind, some people don’t just see it because they focus on the Martial Law thingy”. Numerous media outlets picked up on the tweet. “Thingy” became synonymous with ignorance about martial law. It was used to highlight the fading public consciousness of the martial law era but also the lackluster performance of democracy in the Philippines since 1986. The Philippines still runs as an oligarchy and Bongbong saw no need to apologise for the martial law era of his father. In some quarters the election campaign was described as a battle between the warring Aquino and Marcos families. However the voters opted for an outsider, Duterte.
At the moment Duterte is riding high on the back of his landslide victory. Since the election there has been an exodus of Liberal party members to Duterte’s PDP-Laban party. In the Philippines people vote on the basis of personality not political ideology and there is nothing to stop party members defecting to another, usually victorious, party that might serve their own interests better. Unsurprisingly such turncoats are seen as opportunistic.
Duterte has held court his hometown of Davao City since the election and the great and the good have made the two and a half hour flight to congratulate him on his victory. He did not even travel to Manila to hear himself declared president by the Philippine Congress. Duterte has told his friends and family not to seek appointments or favours from him, as he will not oblige.
He has been applauded for including members of the progressive left, such as Judy Taguiwalo (Department Social Welfare and Development) and Leonor Briones (Education) in his cabinet. However other appointments, such as Mark Villar, Chief of the Department of Public Works and Highways, have raised eyebrows. Villar’s family was accused of influencing the route of the government funded C-5 road project so that it serviced their property interests. The scandal derailed the presidential aspirations of the Villar’s father in 2010. Duterte has not appointed vice-president Leni Robredo to a cabinet position. He has said that it never entered his mind to give her one and that he does not want to offend the defeated Bongbong Marcos.
Duterte should exercise caution, if the tide turns against him, remaining Liberal Party loyalists will surely be waiting in the wings to eject him from power via impeachment or the people power of the masses. Leni Robredo could then replace him as president. If this scenario came to pass it would be a case of history repeating itself. Former president Joseph Estrada was ousted from power in January 2001 via EDSA II. His vice president and nemesis, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, replaced him. Change is surely coming in the Philippines. It remains to see what that change will bring.
Featured image courtesy of: NOEL CELIS via Getty Images
About the Author
Dr. Pauline Eadie is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham. She is Deputy Director of the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies (IAPS). Her most recent book is The Evolution of Military Power in the West and Asia published with Routledge’s Global Security Studies series.
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7. 1193 Journalists killed since
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