MANILA–After months of a frighteningly polarizing election campaign, which raised fears of post-elections violence, Filipino voters elected a new set of leaders. To the surprise of many, the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), which has consistently been accused of incompetence and partisanship, managed to pull off one of the most peaceful, transparent and credible elections in Philippine history.
Exit polls show that Rodrigo Dutetre, Davao City’s tough-talking mayor who has been likened to Donald Trump, edged out his closest rival, the seasoned technocrat Manuel “Mar” Roxas, by a whopping five million votes to become the 16th president of the Republic of the Philippines. Duterte, the first Mindanaoan president-elect in history and a self-described “socialist”, garnered a large plurality (38.5%) of votes.
Meanwhile, the vice-presidential race, which is contested separately, was a nail-biting contest between Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr., the sole son of the former dictator, and Leni Robredo, a social-democratic legislator who ran on the ticket of the ruling Liberal Party (LP). Experts project Robredo to emerge as winner, although Marcos has raised the possibility of lodging election complaint.
By and large, however, all major candidates have accepted the results with grace and sportsmanship. No less than Mar Roxas, who just days earlier warned about impending dictatorship under Duterte, amiably wished his fiercest rival success. Duterte’s staunch critics such as Senator Antonio Trillanes, who accused the mayor of concealing his true wealth, also extended an olive branch.
Encouraged by the smooth conduct and unequivocal outcome of the elections, the Philippine stocks hit a nine-month-high, with investors and businesses heaving a sigh of relief, at least for now. To maintain domestic and international confidence in the Philippines, which has emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, Duterte will have to make a decisive transition from a “loose canon” and highly polarizing candidate into a more predictable and pragmatic leader. The fate of hundred million souls hangs in the balance.
Just few days before the elections, markets were jittery and there were fears of coup, capital flight and chaos, whether Duterte wins or loses (controversially). Ramon del Rosario, head of the influential Makati Business Club, which counts leading businessmen among its members, raised alarm bells vis-à-vis the prospect of a Duterte presidency.
Taking note of Duterte’s flabbergasting promise to end crime in three-to-six months, and in light of the mayor’s allegedly checkered human rights record, Del Rosario warned how “[w]ithout the rule of law, there will be chaos and anarchy, and no confidence in our country. Without confidence, there will be no investments, and without investments, there will be no jobs.” In short, they claimed Duterte was bad for business.
But once he was assured of his position at the helm of the Philippines’ bureaucracy, Duterte immediately began to discard his earlier controversial statements, singing to the tune of pragmatism and inclusiveness. He has vowed to watch his mouth, shun cussing, and act more statesmanlike leader, especially now that he is the head of the Philippine state. He quickly proceeded with assembling a cabinet filled with experienced technocrats and established figures, some from the Arroyo and Ramos administrations, which have been largely praised for their technocratic acumen and foreign policy pragmatism.
To the delight of the civil society, Duterte has also promised to follow the pattern of Canadian leader Justin Trudeau by creating an inclusive, gender-sensitive executive cabinet. In response, the world has gradually begun to give the tough-talking mayor, who gained global notoriety for his controversial statements, more benefit of the doubt.
Affectionately known as “Mayor Digong,” Duterte, contrary to the western media’s coverage, is no Donald Trump. He isn’t simply a fictitious construct of some “reality show” series. In contrast to the American real estate mogul, Duterte, who is known for his simple lifestyle, actually boasts more than two decades of experience in local government, having overseen the transformation of crime-ridden Davao City into a relatively safe and prosperous place.
Duterte’s supporters claim that Davao is nothing less than the “Singapore of the Philippines” — a safe, business-friendly metropolitan center. His rise to power is emblematic of a deeper transformation in the Philippine society, and an outburst in public anger at the ruling establishment.
The “Digong” Mania
Though often criticized based on human rights concerns, Duterte is also praised for his long record in advocating the rights of gender minorities, including the LGBT community, and adopting various kinds of progressive local government programs. No wonder then, Duterte has claimed to be a left-leading leader.
But how did a provincial mayor, with supposedly limited resources, manage to become the Philippines’ president? How did he defeat the gargantuan machinery of mainstream candidates and the charisma of celebrity-like newcomers? In fact, as Filipino sociologist Randy David succinctly puts it, Duterte was “until very recently an outsider to national politics whom very few thoughtful Filipinos took seriously.”
Yet, his “outsider” status turned out to become his greatest weapon. Duterte’s success marked the convergence of three distinct factors. First, it was a matter of timing. He jumped into the race amid a new zeitgeist of “grievance politics,” with the majority of the electorate demanding radical and immediate changes in the country. After three decades of elite-dominated democracy, most Filipinos live in abject poverty, with chronic corruption and crime rendering the “rule of law” an elusive aspiration.
Fed up with broken promises, the Filipino electorate yearned for a new breed of leaders, especially “strongman” candidates who promised swift and decisive action. Duterte, along with Marcos, were in a great position to tap into this wellspring of “autocratic nostalgia.”
Secondly, Duterte benefited from his opponents’ pitfalls. Vice President Jejomar Binay — a former mayor of the financial powerhouse Makati city, who just a year ago was considered as a runaway winner — struggled with corruption scandals, which eroded his appeal among the electorate. Former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, a topnotch Wharton-trained economist, made the crucial mistake of presenting himself as a de facto referendum on the incumbent administration, which has been hobbled by accusations of incompetence and insensitivity, especially in the National Capital Region (NCR).
As for the neophyte Senator Grace Poe, who constantly faced legal challenges to her eligibility, her association with reviled oligarchs and former president Joseph Estrada, a convicted plunderer, alienated her “middle class” base. Seizing on opportunity, the Duterte camp portrayed all his rivals as crook, incompetent or/and puppets of the ruling oligarchy.
Finally, Duterte launched a sleek and systematic campaign, with a lot of emphasis on social media, which glorified him as an “authentic” leader, a man of independence and political will. To the upper- and middle classes, he offered safety and jobs. To the peripheral regions, he offered more political autonomy and fiscal resources. As a result, Duterte managed to dominate the race in “solid south” Mindanao, parts of Visayas, and the NCR. Duterte’s surprising success was the product of serendipity and skill.
But Duterte doesn’t have a political carte blanche. Out of 18 regions in the Philippines, he won only in 3, underlying the limits of his nationwide appeal. Less than 4 out 10 voters chose Duterte. He was lucky that the reformist votes were split between Roxas and Poe, who collectively boasted more votes than Duterte. If there were runoff elections, it is doubtful whether Dutetre could have garnered the majority of votes.
This means that Duterte has to rally the majority of Filipinos behind him by displaying pragmatism and moderation, shunning radical moves in both domestic and foreign policy realms, which could provoke his legions of critics, including the outgoing president Benigno Aquino, into all-out confrontation. Without a doubt, the Philippines has nervously entered a new period of hope and uncertainty.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a political science professor at De La Salle University, Philippines, and the author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific” (Zed, London).
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.