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Is the 'Trump of the Philippines' a force for good or evil?

12 May 2016

Time will tell if President-elect Rodrigo Duterte will be a change for the better or worse, writes doctoral researcher Adele Webb.

With his already large supporter base Rodrigo Duterte successfully courted the country's 50 million registered voters. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Duterte successfully courted the country's 50 million registered voters. Image: Wikimedia Commons

"People Power" strikes again in the Philippines. This time it's not hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians barricading the streets to expel their president, but the sweeping election to the top job of controversial candidate Rodrigo Duterte in Monday's automated national election.

Once again the international media has eyes on Manila, but no doubt many observers are unsure just what to make of the foulmouthed, tactless, and brazen candidate who has secured what looks to be 39 per cent of the vote.

Throughout the campaign he has cursed the Pope in this overwhelmingly Catholic nation, made flippant remarks about rape, responded dismissively to the concerns of the Australian, US, Indian and Mexican ambassadors, and told drug dealers he will kill them (unless they kill him first).

Yet this mayor from Davao, on the southern island of Mindanao, has shed the scandals like Teflon. In fact, the more he came under scrutiny from national and international media, the more his standing in the polls seemed to rise. 

From the very beginning, Duterte's candidacy for president has been cleverly played. He is wildly popular among many in his home town thanks to his eradication of crime and drugs, and his transformation of Davao City (the Philippines' third most populous city) into one of the safest and cleanest places in the country to live.

The local mayor seemed to feign humility, declaring to his supporters he was too old to run for the top job. The passionate pleas for him to run caught nationwide attention, and after much media speculation, at the eleventh hour he announced he would relent to the "will of the people" by putting himself in the race.

With his already large supporter base (including thousands of passionately charged Facebook advocates who were quick to reply in kind to any and all criticism of the mayor online) Duterte successfully courted the country's 50 million registered voters.

Rude - yes. Flirting with absolute power - most certainly. But Duterte presents a contrast to the country's traditional political establishment, whose pledges of "clean, honest government" have become hollow rhetoric.

Difficult as it may seem, look past the incendiary remarks and "Trump-like" characteristics and Duterte shines some much-needed light on the stark contradictions in this once proud American "showcase democracy in the East".

Rude - yes. Flirting with absolute power - most certainly. But he presents a contrast to the country's traditional political establishment, whose pledges of "clean, honest government" have become hollow rhetoric - a dressed up version of business of usual, which in the Philippines means the election to office of family dynasties who, by and large, have little appetite for the job of governing when it comes to providing basic services and enacting substantive policy changes to help the majority of citizens with the daily grind.

Nothing captures the contrast better than the stories told by community members in an area of Tacloban literally flattened in 2013 by super typhoon Yolanda (locally known as Haiyan), and half of its residents killed.

Still waiting for government assistance two-and-a-half years on, survivors recently told my colleague on the ground their memories of the days immediately following the disaster. Current president Benigno Aquino, accompanied by the then minister for local government and the interior, Manuel Roxas, visited the site. Though told the residents needed food, the politicians handed out cheap yellow candy. In contrast, they told stories of Duterte, who came with his 55-person taskforce of rescue and medical personnel from Davao, and joined the team to help families caught in the midst of the rubble.

It's not only vulnerable and poor communities who have expressed their wholesale support for Duterte. Voluminous and often fierce contests on social media in the months leading up to the election attest to the storm his candidacy has created within Manila's middle classes.

Sick of paying some of the highest taxes in the region, only for it to be wasted in government corruption; sick of spending six hours in traffic just to cross metro Manila; sick of seeing crowding and worsening levels of urban poverty.

Many in the middle classes believe Duterte is just the cog in the wheel that the country needs. But for others, his offhand remarks about instating martial lawsuspending congress, and "killing" deviants, are all too reminiscent of the dark days of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, when thousands of activists and opponents of the government were tortured, killed, or made to disappear. Didn't they stare down military tanks in 1986 to end the arbitrary power of one man?

So what of the future? Like speculation over a possible Donald Trump victory in the US, I don't think anyone really knows what Duterte will do now. Let vigilante squads administer backyard justice? I wholeheartedly hope not. He has said that once he's president, he will "behave". We will have to wait and see.

The contest for vice-president, unlike like the presidential race, is very close. If Ferdinand Marcos Jr (the former dictator's son) were to get across the line, that would seem a kick in the face to an older generation of Filipinos and the affirmation of a unfortunate revision of history. Currently he is almost tied in the race with Leni Robredo, a moderate pro-poor candidate with less dynastic shine (not to mention 30 times less in declared assets).

At the end of the day, Filipino voters may in fact be reflecting something of a broader trend: it signals a very real dissatisfaction with the version of "democracy" being sold by the political elite in established democracies, which assumes that holding elections every few years is enough.

This week Filipinos have said loud and clear that this is not enough. Not when you live in the most unequal nation in the region, where things for the majority of the population only seem to be getting worse.

Adele Webb is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sydney's Department of Government and International Relations. First published by The Drum