Duterte’s Victory Is Cry for Help From Those Left Behind in Philippines

Rodrigo Duterte prepares to vote inside a polling precinct on 9 May 2016 in Davao. Photo by Getty Images
Rodrigo Duterte prepares to vote inside a polling precinct on 9 May 2016 in Davao. Photo by Getty Images.

The victory of political outsider Rodrigo Duterte in the 2016 Philippines’ elections is proof that a significant minority of the country’s population feels left behind by its recent economic success and estranged from its political elite. However the results of the elections as a whole suggest that most voters opted for a continuation of the current government’s policies.

Duterte looks almost certain to be inaugurated as the next president of the Philippines on 30 June. The country’s presidential voting system – a single round, first-past-the-post election – delivered victory to a populist outsider with 39 per cent support. Two candidates advocating a continuation of the current government’s policies − the Liberal Party’s Mar Roxas and independent Grace Poe − polled a combined 45 per cent. The long-standing factionalism within Philippines elite politics split the ‘anti-Duterte’ vote.

Changing the conversation

The contrast between Duterte and Roxas could hardly be greater. Mar Roxas is the grandson of the first president of an independent Philippines, a graduate of Wharton Business School and a former investment banker in the US.  Rodrigo Duterte is a political outsider with an electoral base geographically almost as far from Manila as is possible to get in the Philippines: the city of Davao on the island of Mindanao.

The story of Duterte’s victory is the story of how ‘Duterte managed to change the national conversation from poverty towards crime and corruption,’ says Marites Vitug, editor-at-large of one of the Philippines’ most popular online news sites, Rappler. In January, Duterte was running fourth in opinion polls but a strategy that positioned him as the only opponent to the Manila elite gave him victory. This is the first time a provincial official has made it to the top job.

The headline figures tell us that the Philippines’ economy has done very well under President Benigno Aquino. Between 2010 and 2014, growth averaged 6.3 per cent per year. That fell to a still-impressive 5.8 per cent last year but is expected to pick up this year and next, according to the Asian Development Bank. Growth in agriculture, however, is significantly slower and rural areas feel left behind. While economic growth is benefiting the majority, inequality is worsening and resentment rising in poor villages. The contrast between the metropolitan sophistication of the Makati district in Manila and life in faraway provinces such as Duterte’s Mindanao is widening.

Ironically the Philippines’ economic success is a part of the explanation for the defeat of the ‘mainstream’ presidential candidates. Crime and corruption may have become more important issues simply because more voters have become better off and therefore more likely to be concerned about crime and corruption than before. It’s also undeniable that Duterte has a record for getting things done. Human rights groups rightly criticize his (at best) tolerance of the extra-judicial killing of alleged criminals but his repeated re-election as mayor demonstrates that many citizens are prepared to accept that in exchange for improved personal security. A surprising number of Manila residents have actually moved to Davao because of its better quality of life.

Traditional power bases

However, the results as a whole suggest a narrow majority in favour of current policies. In the vice-presidential race, the Liberal Party candidate Leni Robredo is narrowly ahead of Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos, the son of the eponymous former president. Like Duterte she is regarded as a successful mayor of a well-run city, Albay. Duterte’s running mate Alan Cayetano received just 14 per cent of the vote.

In the senate election, Liberals won five of the 12 seats being contested, with a party- backed independent winning a sixth. The opposition, even with boxing champion and national idol Manny Pacquiao running for the United Nationalist Alliance, won four.

Taken as a whole, the results show the enduring nature of traditional Philippines power bases. The country’s many islands and distinct linguistic and cultural regions are virtual fiefs in which families and big bosses can wield almost total power through control of local authorities, businesses, the courts and security forces.

Threat to democracy?

It’s easy to forget that the election of Ferdinand Marcos in 1965 was originally welcomed as a challenge to the traditional elites of Philippine politics. The same accolades are currently greeting Duterte. Could they presage a return to the Philippines’ bad old days?

This seems less likely. Philippine democracy has matured considerably since Marcos declared martial law in 1972. There is a substantial, and vocal, middle class with experience of mobilizing against ‘bad’ presidents. There will also be pressures from international investors and the Philippines’ treaty ally, the United States, for better governance.

The Philippines will chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year. That will put Duterte in the international spotlight as host of several international meetings – including the East Asia Summit attended by, among others, the presidents of China, Russia and the US. Since his victory Duterte has promised to act with decorum in office and declared that his election campaign antics were just a ploy to attract attention. Some leaders in Southeast Asia will use his victory to buttress their arguments against allowing their people to freely vote. It’s up to Duterte to decide whether he wants to be an advertisement for – or an argument against – democracy.

Bill Hayton was appointed an associate fellow in 2015. He is the author of ‘The South China Sea: the struggle for power in Asia’ published by Yale University Press and named as one of The Economist's books of the year in 2014. His previous book, ‘Vietnam: rising dragon’, was published in 2010, also by Yale.

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