Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has effective control of Congress, a strong majority in the Senate, and a growing number of appointees in the Supreme Court. (Photo courtesy of the Presidential Communications Office)
This article was first published on July 22, 2019
As he delivers his fourth State of the Nation address, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte almost fits a dictionary definition of a "demagogue."Cambridge defines a "demagogue" as "a person, especially a political leader, who wins support by exciting the emotions of ordinary people rather than by having good or morally right ideas." staying power rests not on ordinary people. To understand Duterte, one must go back to his 2016 victory when he garnered 16,601,997 votes. Although he won by a mere plurality of 39.01 percent, Duterte’s lead over the then-ruling party candidate was huge, convincing and fraud-resistant. It took only a matter of hours for most of Duterte’s rivals to congratulate him and concede defeat. An exit poll by pollster Social Weather Stations (SWS) and a local television network on Election Day allowed us a closer glimpse of Duterte’s victory. The survey revealed, among others, big wins for Duterte in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao and in the capital Manila Duterte’s lead over then-administration candidate Mar Roxas was a massive 48 points in Mindanao, and 22 points in Manila. Duterte’s lead over Roxas was 26 points in urban areas, but only two points in rural districts. The higher the social class — the higher the appeal of Duterte. His lead over Roxas was 26 points in class ABC, compared to 17 points in class D, and only seven points in class E. The more schooling — the more appealing Duterte was. His lead over Roxas was 28 points among college graduates, 19 points among those with some college education, eight points with those with some high schooling, and seven points among others.
Duterte also had a higher appeal among the young. His lead over Roxas was 33 points among those aged 18-24, compared with 4 points among those aged 55 and up.Duterte led massively among non-Catholics. By 53 points among Muslims, 70 points among members of the Iglesia ni Cristo, and by 24 points among other Christian groups. Duterte’s lead was 22 points among men to only 12 points among women. He immediately cemented the support of this coalition. For Class ABC, he appointed economic managers from the ranks of the elite who have since continued the neoliberal project of privatization, liberalization, deregulation and denationalization. He had his allies insert tax cuts for the wealthiest Filipinos in a bill that originally sought tax relief for heavily taxed professionals and middle classes. Bowing to oligarchs and big business, he has also reneged on his promise to end the "contractualization" or labor-only contracting. The president elevated people from Mindanao to political power, but they mostly came from the "usual suspects" — traditional politicians and political dynasties. In yet another hat-tip to the elites, Duterte caused the destruction of the city of Marawi in an all out war against terrorist gunmen. He then subdivided its rehabilitation amongst a consortia of big businesses and foreign partners. It remains to be seen how the new Muslim autonomous government would freely determine the fate of its people, what with the appointment of a presidential overseer who rules above the chief minister. Three years into his presidency, Duterte’s gambit of resuming peace negotiations with the communists and appointing activists to his cabinet was nothing more than an attempt to co-opt and to corrupt. When Duterte used their political capital and prestige to give his regime the appearance of being reformist, the appointees — from Vice President Leni Robredo to social welfare secretary Judy Taguiwalo, environment secretary Gina Lopez to agrarian reform chief Rafael Mariano — were either shown the door or rejected by the gatekeepers of the status quo that dominate the powerful Commission on Appointments in Congress. Borrowing from former dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ playbook, Duterte captured the imagination of the urban-based and educated middle class with his so-called "war on drugs" and the massive infrastructure spending funded by taxpayers and expensive loans from China. "Finally, something is being done to enforce peace and order," said some middle-class defenders of the president. That the death toll of more than 20,000 already matches the capacity of some sports stadiums does not matter. Of late, the same tactics of "extrajudicial killings" have been unleashed against activists and suspected communists. Dozens have been assassinated on Negros Island in the central Philippines alone. The so-called "narco list" of suspected drug lords among local government executives was used to obtain loyalty and obedience. Duterte also "wowed" supporters by ordering or causing the removal of the chief justice through "unconstitutional" means. It was an act of strong political will, they claimed. The same Class ABC that supported him in the elections, continue to stand behind Duterte despite all the controversies, especially the massive bloodshed. After a profitable three years, they helped finance Duterte’s candidates in the midterm elections. The demagogue Duterte continues to lay claim to the mantle of change, and he is succeeding because he is taking advantage of the legitimate grievances of Filipinos that were left unaddressed or made worse by post-Marcos regimes. He pillories the political opposition as incompetent, corrupt, chicken-hearted, and sissy. He embraced the Marcoses and Arroyo, and justified it by saying that what they did worked. Fascism, neoliberal economics, and corruption work, he preaches. Today, Duterte appears to be strong and secure in the palace. He has effective control of Congress, a strong majority in the Senate, and a growing number of appointees in the Supreme Court. One may hate his ruling coalition and the prominent plunderers, fraudsters, election cheaters and murderers that dominate it. They don’t care about what we feel or think. The more important thing for them is that they return to power or continue to rule alongside Duterte. Duterte’s biggest weakness, however, is his alliance with China. The majority of Filipinos demand that Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights be respected and enforced in the West Philippine Sea. But Duterte is unable or refuses to stand up as a Filipino national leader against incursions into Philippine territory. Worse, there’s a growing sense that Duterte is selling or mortgaging the country’s future in Chinese loans and other agreements. Duterte is historically peerless in his blatant and unapologetic surrender to China. He has been called names: traitor, China governor, China mayor, sellout. No wonder he has asked soldiers not to stage a coup against him. He knows he is acting against the interests of the Philippines. The China issue could spell the end of Duterte but only if and when the broad opposition begin to understand the nature and ends of Duterte’s ruling coalition. The narrative of blaming voters, especially the poor, for Duterte’s misrule proved catastrophic to the main opposition in the last elections. It was simply inaccurate and wrong. The opposition can regain public confidence and prevent Duterte from further using them as a punch bag only by confronting its own past, by repenting for its mistakes and offenses, and by putting an end to its arrogant posturing as saviors. It doesn’t help a broad united front if the opposition portrays itself as the victim. The people are the victims. The political opposition must do its job to lead and to lead by example. Duterte remains wildly popular, according to surveys. But in issue after issue, more Filipinos are taking a stand against him. There are rays of hope. The workers’ strikes attract growing support. More importantly, Duterte’s reneging on his promise to workers has resulted in unprecedented and historic unity among all major labor groups. There’s resistance to the closure of tribal schools on the orders of Duterte’s national security adviser. A former assistant secretary notorious for spreading "fake news" and hate speech was trounced in last May's elections where the activist coalition Makabayan won six seats despite the odds. Many ask why there’s an alleged lack of outrage against Duterte. Perhaps that’s not the proper thing to ask. Maybe we should ask why Duterte is succeeding and who are mainly benefiting from his successes. Filipinos should throw out old assumptions and conventional wisdom, and heed Sun Tzu’s advice: "Know your enemy."