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Malcolm Cook -- Estrada redux?

Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines' next president

The successful election campaign and this week's inauguration of Rodrigo "Digong" Duterte as the next president of the Philippines has gained widespread international attention, with the media drawing parallels with controversial politicians elsewhere. Donald Trump, another colorful, anti-establishment figure who seems set to win the U.S. Republican Party's presidential nomination, is easily the most common comparison. More thoughtful and supportive coverage has drawn parallels with the former "simple living" president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica.

Yet, the most persuasive and portentous parallels to help us understand Duterte's pending presidency are much closer to home. The political origins, popularity, and present political position of Duterte have much in common with Joseph "Erap" Estrada's 1998 presidential victory. Hopefully, this parallel will not extend to the ignominious end of that administration. Estrada's six-year term was curtailed in 2001 by the first-ever impeachment vote in the House of Representatives. The move triggered demonstrations reminiscent of People's Power protests in 1986, the withdrawal of support by the head of the Philippine military, and a constitutionally questionable Supreme Court ruling.

Both Duterte and Estrada began their political careers as mayors with the strong support of then-serving presidents. Estrada gained his first political office as an ally of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1969. He became mayor of San Juan City, near Manila, after a successful election protest against the incumbent. Estrada served in this capacity until President Corazon Aquino removed him in 1986. In the same way, Mrs. Aquino, appointed Duterte as vice mayor of Davao City, the largest city on the southern island of Mindanao and the third largest in the country. In 1988, he was elected mayor of Davao, a position he held from then on, apart from two three-year periods when term limits required him to step aside.

Joseph Estrada

Estrada, Duterte, and outgoing Vice President Jejomar Binay are the most successful examples of a new generation of urban-based political dynasties. Estrada's family still controls San Juan, while his two sons have become senators. Likewise, Duterte's family has controlled Davao City for 25 of the last 28 years. His son is the current vice mayor while his daughter is the mayor-elect. The Binays have controlled Makati City, the wealthiest area in Metro Manila as well as the country, for the last three decades, with Binay and his wife, son and daughter rotating as mayor. One daughter, Abigail, is the mayor-elect, replacing her brother who was removed from office last year, while Nancy Binay is a senator.

History repeats itself

Duterte's victory also shares much with that of Estrada's in 1998. Both succeeded presidents who were associated with the "yellow ribbon" coalition of elites at the heart of the 1986 People's Power movement that overthrew Marcos. These elites include the Liberal Party, the Catholic Church, the Makati Business Club, and key national media outlets.  Aquino and her nominated successor and People's Power hero Fidel Ramos preceded Estrada. Duterte will enter the presidential palace after Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who took over from Estrada, and Aquino Jr.

In 1998, Estrada won almost 40% of the vote with a thumping 24%-plus margin of victory over Ramos' chosen candidate, Jose de Venecia. He did so by running an anti-establishment campaign and by reaffirming his fealty to the Marcos family. He successfully presented himself as a champion of the poor who was committed to fighting the entrenched elites that have controlled the Philippines for their own interests, to the country's detriment. This included a public clash with the Catholic Church and declarations by many church leaders from the pulpit to vote against Estrada.

In the recent election, Duterte also won nearly 40% of the vote with a 16%-plus margin of victory over Aquino's chosen candidate, Manuel Roxas. He also ran as an anti-establishment maverick who eschewed suits and barongs, the embroidered formal shirts that are the national attire. Duterte, who won the Marcos stronghold of Ilocos Norte, both praised the dictator's reign and has promised to rebury him in the Cemetery of Heroes in Metro Manila. Duterte also presented himself as a champion of the poor, committed to fighting the entrenched elites. He also has fueled an ongoing and public fight with the disapproving Catholic Church.

These parallels, like any comparison, are far from complete.

Estrada had much more national political experience in 1998, having served as a senator and vice president. Duterte spent one unproductive three-year term as a representative more than a decade ago. Estrada was a big national celebrity based on his acting career. Duterte is a lawyer and former local prosecutor. Estrada is from Metro Manila. Duterte is from southern Mindanao. Duterte's period as mayor of Davao City received much more recognition and praise than Estrada's terms as mayor of San Juan City. Estrada's ties to the Marcos dynasty were his ticket to political power. Duterte is neither a Marcos loyalist nor an Aquino devotee. In 2007, Estrada was convicted for corruption that was at the heart of his 2001 fall. Duterte has a clean record.

Yet, the parallels are powerful in terms of their political salience. Estrada's presidency ended badly -- both for himself and his country. Duterte may avoid that fate if he is shrewd enough. At the very least, however, these parallels provide warning signs of the challenges facing the incoming Duterte administration.    

Malcolm Cook is a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.



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