A carnival-like atmosphere has descended on this country ahead of the presidential election on Monday: dancing showgirls at campaign events, candidates inviting one another to “slap me,” and reports of cash distributed in exchange for cheers. The Philippine system of government, inherited from our American colonizers, is unique, with its raucous collection of political parties based not on ideology but on personality.
Five candidates are running for president and six more for vice president, who is elected separately. But real choice is scarce. Most politicians come from among a few dozen familiar dynasties that have ruled the country for the last two generations. The economy is booming, but corruption and cronyism, inequality and poverty remain chronic.
Many Filipinos are fed up. That’s why they are turning to candidates who promise an iron fist or a return to the glory days of a dictatorial past.
The front-runner for the presidency is Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-talking mayor of Davao, the Philippines’ third-largest city. He threatens to dissolve Congress and impose a “revolutionary government” if his reforms meet resistance. “I am a dictator? Yes, it is true.” he said. He also vows that if he is elected he will end crime in six months. “If I fail, kill me,” he said.
Meanwhile, many voters have been misled by nostalgic tales of the dictatorship of Ferdinand E. Marcos, who ruled from 1965 to 1986. His son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., known as Bongbong, a senator, is leading the race for vice president and taking advantage of the short memory in a country where the median age is 23. “I am a beneficiary of the good work that was done in my father’s time,” said Mr. Marcos, who praises his father, the ousted strongman, as the country’s best president.
The years after Philippine democracy was restored in 1986 were a time of festive optimism. My family, like many others, returned from exile abroad, excited by a new elected government and a new Constitution. But since then, the hope has faded thanks to a succession of discredited presidents and, moreover, the incompetence of a resurgent oligarchy.
Of this year’s five presidential candidates, three are backed by the wealthy Cojuangco family, which has influenced politics for the last four decades. One candidate is the grandson of a president, another a former mayor who established a dynasty that is accused of being grossly corrupt, while the third is a neophyte senator allied with a president who was ousted for plunder.
Some economists estimate that 40 of the Philippines’ richest families control 76 percent of gross domestic product. Senator Miriam Santiago, who promoted an unsuccessful anti-dynasty bill, said 178 dynasties ran the country’s politics, with 73 of the nation’s 80 provinces ruled by clans. The Center for People Empowerment in Governance, a think tank, found that roughly 80 percent of the 229 congressional seats were controlled by dynastic politicians.
It’s little wonder that many Filipinos now question the value of democracy.
Mr. Duterte is polling 11 points ahead of his closest rival and has the support of one in three Filipinos. He presents himself as a simple man fed up with the system, vowing to fix the nation at all costs. He has been linked to more than 1,000 extra-legal executions of petty criminals during his time as mayor. Not only has he admitted to supporting the killings, he has promised that as president he will “turn the 1,000 into 100,000” and dump their bodies in Manila Bay and “fatten all the fish there.”
Mr. Duterte’s campaign symbol is a fist — intended for lawbreakers, but seemingly also aimed at the oligarchy. “He is the only man who offers radical change,” said one of the many petitions urging him last year to run for president. The message resonates with the frustrated poor who feel let down by the government, but his fans span all classes. Mock elections at universities consistently pick him as the winner, while a chamber of commerce of wealthy Filipino-Chinese business leaders lauded him as “the man who gets things done.”
This image as a brash, no-nonsense leader explains why nothing he says is able to damage him. He repeatedly described a rival using a homophobic slur. He called Pope Francis “a son of a whore.” He told human-rights groups to “go to hell.” He joked that he should have been first in the gang rape of an Australian missionary. “That’s how men speak,” Mr. Duterte explained. “I am not a son of the privileged class.” His supporters, who often threaten his critics on social media with death and rape threats, defended him with an offensive, but telling, rhetorical question: How can people get so upset at a rape joke when politicians have been raping the country for so long?
Mr. Duterte has energized Filipinos in a historic way. One of his slogans is “change is coming.” It’s the exactly right message from the completely wrong messenger. His and Mr. Marcos’s campaigns are fueled by frustration, but other candidates offer reason and hope: Leni Robredo, a vice-presidential candidate who recently overtook Mr. Marcos, has surged thanks to her advocacy for gender equality. Walden Bello, a former student radical who is now a respected academic, has been lauded locally and internationally for his integrity and democratic activism in the Legislature.
Filipinos should look to such politicians for inspiration. But they should also look to themselves. As Jose Rizal, our hero of national independence, once wrote, “There are no tyrants where there are no slaves.”
For my whole life I’ve witnessed a tendency among Filipinos to elect people who pose as saviors. We long for a disciplinarian, but meanwhile we squabble among ourselves, willingly pay bribes and flout rules. We choose candidates based on regional ties or entertaining personalities. All of us recognize that our government, dominated by an oligarchy, is severely broken — but we need to select leaders who will educate and empower us to fix it ourselves. More, real, democracy is necessary, not less.
Outside the headquarters of the Philippine National Police, a sign declares: “This is your police. We serve and protect.” Continued, in red spray paint, is scrawled: “… the ruling class.” Whoever wrote it voices what so many feel. Only the people themselves can change that.
Miguel Syjuco is the author of the novel Ilustrado.