People Are Likening the Next Philippine President to Donald Trump. Here’s Why.

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People Are Likening the Next Philippine President to Donald Trump. Here’s Why.

A hapless elite, an angry electorate, and a brash front-runner with little regard for democratic norms: The latest Philippine election sounds a lot like America's.

Newly-elected Rodrigo Duterte achieved a reputation as a Filipino “Dirty Harry,” a strongman who boasted that he got rid of criminals and drug pushers by wiping them off the face of the earth. (Photo: AP)

International reports about the recent election in the Philippines invariably refer to its result as a “political earthquake.” The metaphor is accurate.

A year ago, few believed that Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao, would be the next president of the Philippines. Duterte had achieved a reputation as a Filipino “Dirty Harry,” a strongman who boasted that he got rid of criminals and drug pushers by wiping them off the face of the earth. When questioned about the 1,000-plus extrajudicial executions 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 didn’t buy into liberal values and liberal democratic discourse. He seemed to take perverse delight in peppering his talks with curses like putang ina (“son of a bitch”) and calling people who irritated him 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.

Underestimating Duterte

A year ago, the contest seemed to be between Vice President Jejomar Binay and Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, the secretary of the interior who was outgoing President Benigno Aquino’s anointed successor.

Aquino’s Liberal Party machine felled Binay by exposing the various ways Binay’s family had siphoned off billions of pesos from their bailiwick, the city of Makati. It may have been a political demolition job, but it was all true.

Next to suffer the ruling Liberal Party’s wrath was 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 widely believed to have been cheated out of the presidency during the 2004 elections. 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 United States, 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 — after a bitter struggle — refused to disqualify her. But the damage had been done, and the fingerprints of the presidential palace were all over the place.

Meanwhile, Duterte’s star was on the rise.

He was, however, going ballistic. To his boasting about killing criminals without due process, he now added threats about killing workers if they went against his development plans, which alarmed the labor unions. With his mouth seemingly running ahead of his mind, many partisans of the administration thought Duterte was on the road to self-destruction.

They were wrong.

A Difficult Sell

Yet if the ruling Liberal Party could demolish two of its leading opponents, it had a harder time selling its chosen candidate.

To a great extent this was Aquino’s doing, since he’d convinced Roxas to make his campaign theme the continuation of the administration’s “Straight Path” initiative. Aquino wanted Roxas to be seen in the public eye as the inheritor of his anti-corruption campaigns. Instead, the administration burdened Roxas with two major millstones.

One was the scandal surrounding 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 Mamasapano raid, where 44 members of the National Police’s Special Action Force were killed, along with 17 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. It was a bungled counterterrorist raid, done mainly to serve Washington’s interests rather than Manila’s — and for which Aquino refused to accept command responsibility. It hung like a specter over his administration.

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 effort following 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 also 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 wasn’t leading, as the Liberal Party hoped, to self-destruction.

While there were five candidates, the media largely structured the contest as being between Roxas and Duterte. And, in a style befitting Donald Trump, Duterte found his rival’s number: a tendency to react quickly and hotly to real or perceived slights.

Thus Duterte needled Roxas on the latter’s claim to be a Wharton graduate in his official biography. Technically, Roxas was right — he had an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. But Duterte was also right that Roxas was guilty of misrepresentation, since 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.

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 apparent that he was considering a run for the presidency. Euphoric 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. One female environmentalist and Duterte critic, for instance, was threatened online with rape.

The response was often similarly base. Some anti-Duterte netizens retaliated against attacks, for example, by calling the Duterte camp “Dutertards.” Philippine politics had never before seen a cyberwar this fierce.

Surveys showed Duterte drawing support from all classes. His anti-crime message obviously resonated with the upper and middle classes, but it also found fertile ground in poorer, drug-ravaged neighborhoods, whose residents didn’t think Duterte was exaggerating when he said the drug problem in the Philippines was worse than in Mexico.

But it was the candidate’s 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, the 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, often waiting six or seven hours in sweltering temperatures to hear the man.

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.”

“Spontaneity and improvisation and grassroots momentum have been the hallmarks of the Duterte campaign,” I observed in a Facebook post during the campaign. “Duterte, more by instinct rather than plan, simply set fire to emotions that were already just below the surface. … 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.”

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. Instead of condemning the violence, Davao quipped that “the mayor should have been first in line” to violate the woman. This triggered fury in many quarters, especially among women’s groups, and censure from the Australian and U.S. ambassadors. But the incident barely dented his numbers.

Then Roxas brought out the heavy artillery: Senator Antonio Trillanes, the same administration ally who’d spearheaded the demolition job on Vice President Binay. He claimed that Duterte had stashed billions of pesos in multiple accounts that he hadn’t disclosed. Yet the polls simply shrugged that revelation off.

A Class Disconnect

It became clear to me then 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’d built up over six years on publicly branding Duterte a “dictator” and calling on Filipinos to reject him. “For some reason,” I wrote at the time, Aquino “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.”

The disconnect between the upper-class president and the electorate, in short, was deafening.

On May 7, the last day of the campaign, while his rivals struggled to bring mere hundreds to their final rallies, close to one million people jammed Manila’s Luneta Park to hear their idol Duterte. 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 Duterte’s smashing victory, where he gained over 38 percent of the vote, what’s in store for the Philippines?

When it comes to foreign policy, no one really knows. During one of the presidential debates, he said that his solution to the Philippines’ territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea would be for him to go — alone! — to one of the reefs claimed by the Philippines but occupied by China. He’d plant the Philippine flag, he promised, and then leave it up to the Chinese to deal with him, even kill him. Many thought he wasn’t joking. (One thing is certain, though: Influenced by an anti-imperialist outlook since his student days, Duterte trusts the Americans even less than the Chinese.)

And economic policy? He said he’d 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’s not in doubt is that the country is in for draconian policies when it comes to drugs and crime. There’s also no doubt that, with all the expectations he’s aroused, there will be populist measures promoting income distribution and less talk about promoting economic growth, since the electorate is visibly tired of rapid growth without poverty reduction. His announcement that he would appoint people connected with the Communist Party to head up the departments of agrarian reform, the environment, labor, and social welfare, for example, was received by many to be an opening salvo in a move to the left.

With the anger, frustration, and resentment 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 to 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.”

Walden Bello

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Walden Bello is senior analyst of the Bangkok-based institute Focus on the Global South and representative of Akbayan (Citizens’ Action Party) in the House of Representatives of the Philippines. He can be reached at waldenbello@yahoo.com.

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