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Bob Herrera-Lim: Presidential hopeful Duterte taps into Philippine frustration

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Rodrigo Duterte, top, second from left, campaigns in Cainta, Rizal, east of Manila, on April 12.   © Reuters

In their frustration at ineffective government in the Philippines, voters have found a champion in Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao, the largest city on the southern island of Mindanao. A late entrant to the presidential race and not even considered a serious contender six months ago, he is leading the polls ahead of the May 9 vote.

     At first glance, Duterte is the type of presidential candidate who offends traditional political sensibilities: He fills his speeches with expletives, has no track record on national economic and foreign policy issues, openly brags that he has two wives and two girlfriends and promises to execute criminals in public. Most recently, a joke on the campaign trail regarding an Australian missionary raped and murdered during a prison hostage-taking incident in his city drew widespread local and international condemnation.

     With little love for the central government, he has threatened to abolish the Congress if it proves to be an impediment to his view of reform. In a country used to outlandish political behavior, Duterte still comes across as larger than life. Unlike traditional politicians, however, he offers no apologies for his rough character, although he did have to make one for cursing the Pope.

     Viewed through the traditional political lens, the Davao mayor comes across as the Philippine version of Donald Trump: an outsider with an unpredictable or unrealistic agenda whose statements and actions make him an easy target for human rights groups and women's organizations. Like Trump, Duterte has confounded pundits with his political rise.

     The comparison is, however, not that simple. Duterte does not stoke the same prejudices that have propelled the U.S. real estate developer to the lead for the Republican Party nomination, particularly with regard to Muslims, who make up at least a fifth of the population in Mindanao. Moreover, there is no large migrant population in the Philippines that threatens jobs or internal security, and the country is largely ethnically homogenous, so race is not a factor in elections.

PRACTICAL APPEAL   Having come from one of the country's poorest islands, Duterte is sympathetic to the concerns of the lower-income classes, claims to have the ability to find common ground with long-running communist and Muslim separatist movements and recognizes that Asian geopolitics is complicated, especially in dealing with China. He has vowed to support federalism and the autonomy of predominantly Muslim areas. It is said in Davao that he pushed through an anti-discrimination ordinance because real estate agents were discriminating against Muslims.

     Instead of a swing to the right, support for Duterte appears to come more from a sense of frustration with the establishment which has little to do with ideology. Duterte's appeal, after all, is the promise of immediate action on high-profile governance issues such as the ineffectiveness of the police, particularly in terms of drug-related crime; corruption; the slow and inefficient judiciary; and the seeming lack of official urgency in addressing the country's debilitating infrastructure problems.

     Duterte's signature achievement is the effective crime reduction seen in Davao, which human rights organizations claim came about through his backing of summary executions by extrajudicial death squads. Businesspeople say getting permits in his city is easier than anywhere in the Philippines and they are not subject to shakedowns. Meanwhile, the mayor lives modestly and by all indications is not corrupt. These are the qualities that now endear him to the electorate and have given him a poll lead.

     Following years of economic growth, the country's newly emergent middle- and upper-income classes are less concerned with the prospect of a Duterte presidency triggering an economic reversal and more with their quality of life. They may have cars, motorcycles and smartphones and can travel abroad, but what use are these, the thinking among voters goes, if people are stuck in hours-long traffic, endure hours in a congested airport, surf the Internet with painfully slow connections or feel their personal safety threatened?

     After all, the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew's warning of democracy being too messy still resonates with many Filipinos, who would arguably trade many of their past presidents for one stint under that iconic leader. Of all the candidates, it is Duterte who has captured the zeitgeist of the election, which is the promise of responsive and effective government.

TRUMPED AS AUTHENTIC   But this frustration has an underlying thread to it. Duterte has avoided directly pinning the blame on the party or administration in power or on the economic elites who often manipulate the system and policies to their own ends.

     However, it is clear that he also appeals to large segments of voters based on their hopes for a leader independent from the traditional elites, who are seen as holding power but care only marginally for the daily trials of the citizenry, whether that be the commuter stuck on an overloaded train, the residents of conflict areas in Mindanao who have now seen two generations of war, or the farmer begging for relief from El Nino. That Duterte is from well outside of Manila and divorced from its politics only bolsters this perception.

     Consequently, Duterte's image, rough as it is and incompatible as it may be with conventional Filipino values, is trumped by perceptions that he is an authentic leader and an outsider, with a concern for the people and their worries, which have been neglected by Manila's inbred elites.

     In a wider sense, the emergence of Duterte on the national stage is a part of growing frustration in Asia at the established elites who have been running governments for decades. His supporters have more in common with the middle-class farmers of northeastern Thailand who backed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra against the establishment in Bangkok or the frustrated Indonesian voters who pushed for the nomination of corruption-free Joko Widodo as the presidential candidate of Megawati Sukarnoputri's party. Malaysia's ruling United Malays National Organisation, with popular frustration growing toward Prime Minister Najib Razak, may be seeing the rumblings of this trend.

     Investors will be uneasy with Duterte should he win. His lack of national economic policymaking experience and unproven ability to manage a larger bureaucracy would make him dependent on economic advisers and managers, whose identities and policy orientation are yet unknown. It is similarly unclear whether his disdain for Manila elites and institutions is real or largely a contrived act to build voter support. After all, as a long-standing politician he knows he would still have to seek the cooperation of the very same elites that he disdains in Manila and Congress, which could deflate his promise of quick action and compromise his image as an outsider. In all these risks are the seeds for a more uncertain outlook for the economy and politics.

     Many Philippine party elites and leaders, based primarily in Manila, find little in common with Duterte and view his rise with horror and derision; but ultimately, they have been the ones who created the conditions for his emergence.

Bob Herrera-Lim is based in Manila as managing director of Teneo Intelligence, a political risk consultancy.

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