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Politics

Meet new boss Duterte, same as the old boss

Philippine president shares similarities with his predecessors

President Rodrigo Duterte has been nicknamed Asia's "Trump of the East" and his administration portrayed as a harbinger of what could happen in the United States after Donald Trump's inauguration as U.S. president on Jan. 20.

Both alpha males burst onto the political scene at the same time and are seen as riding the global wave of populist, post-truth politics. But many who fear the stormy new dawn in American politics may find some solace, with all of its post-colonial ironies, in the Philippines.

Several factors have helped create the impression of a new and unique Duterte presidency. For one, he is the first president from Mindanao, the first to jump directly from a local government post to the presidency, and the first to celebrate a militant left-wing lineage.

Duterte has presented himself as a new-style politician, in step with the people in terms of dress and demeanor -- in contrast to the sheltered and etiquette-bound national political elite that previously ruled the country.

He also presents himself as the principled opposite of the transactional "traditional politician" (trapo), widely criticized for placing top priority on paying off political debts and putting a premium on loyalty to his supporters. During the campaign, Duterte, former mayor of the southern city of Davao, claimed he was the "last card" to save the country from drugs, crime and corruption after all his predecessors had failed.

His administration's deadly war on drugs - which has so far led to an estimated 6,000 deaths over Duterte's six months in power, and its sharp pivot away from the U.S. toward China and Russia, have dominated media headlines. Both initiatives are seen as radical departures from the previous administration of Benigno Aquino III and Philippine policy orthodoxy.

Duterte's sky-high popularity continues to defy political gravity despite much criticism from the West. According to a Pulse Asia survey in December, 83% approved of the president, just a slight drop from 86% in September. Social Weather Stations (SWS), the country's leading independent polling group, produced similar results, with an 81% trust rating in December against 83% in September.

Historical parallels

But the survey results also point to continuity. Duterte's vote tally and winning margin in the May 9 presidential election and his subsequent stellar popularity ratings are normal by the standards of post-Marcos politics. According to SWS data, four of his recent democratic predecessors ended their first year in power with "net satisfaction" ratings of 61%-63%, while Duterte finished 2016 with a 64% rating, while his "gross satisfaction" rating was 77%.

Duterte's presidency also has other historical parallels. The new political movement being organized to promote the president goes by the name Kilusang Pagbabago (Movement for Change), which bears a similarity to the name given in 1978 to the political party of Ferdinand Marcos: Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (New Society Movement).

But Duterte's two signature policies are less exceptional than they might appear. The motto "war on drugs" has been a common platform for urban mayors. Alfredo Lim, who shares the "Dirty Harry" moniker with Duterte, was elected mayor of Manila in 1992 with the catchphrase: "I don't shoot good men, only bad men."

Duterte has brought a similar campaign he established as mayor of Davao to the national level for the first time. But his brutal conduct of the national anti-drugs war has strong echoes of the Marcos years, blurring the lines between the army and police as he has publicly pondered utilizing martial law provisions to prosecute this war.

Duterte's pivot toward America's regional rivals in an effort to establish more autonomy while seeking economic benefits is also not new. In 1967, the Marcos administration officially sought closer relations with the Soviet Union and China. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo also pivoted toward Beijing, leading to the first visit by a Chinese naval vessel to Manila in 1997.

Duterte's growing aptitude for playing Japan and China off each other is new -- and in the eyes of many, good for the president and the country. In his eagerness to score points off China's push into the Philippines, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe brought a five-year, $8.7 billion aid and investment package with him on his just completed visit to Manila and Duterte's stomping ground of Davao City.

Finally, Duterte has appointed a large number of supporters and friends to various positions, including congressman Mark Villar as secretary of Public Works and Highways. Mark Villar is the son of Manny Villar, the former Senate president and owner of the country's largest home construction company. Villar's Vista Land stock price spiked by more than 50% after his son's surprise appointment.

Political debts and loyalties weigh as heavily, if not more so, on the Duterte administration than any previous post-Marcos administration. In an interview soon after his inauguration, Duterte admitted he owed a debt of gratitude toward Imee Marcos, daughter of the late dictator, in his decision to rebury the former president in the Cemetery of Heroes in Manila.

Six months into his single six-year term, Duterte appears to be the Philippine political equivalent of old wine in a new and distinctly garish bottle. While the bottle -- in the form of his political persona - appears new and disturbing, the content of his presidency is less so. One hopes the same is true of the Trump presidential wine that soon will be served to the U.S. and the world.

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

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