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Populism can win elections, but can Duterte run the country?

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Philippine President-elect Rodrigo Duterte won over voters with promises to tackle crime, drugs and corruption.   © Reuters

MANILA   The election of controversial nationalist Rodrigo Duterte as the Philippines' next president could hobble Asia's rising star on the international stage, highlighting the danger posed by harnessing populist sentiment.

To the Philippines' economic elite and political establishment, the prospect of a Duterte presidency is one of the greatest threats in recent memory. Many have voiced deep misgivings about handing over the reins of a complex national bureaucracy to a provincial politician from the southern island of Mindanao. Duterte's reputation as an unpredictable outsider has only intensified fears of economic and diplomatic disaster.

The Philippines in recent years has climbed to the top of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations in terms of economic growth, thanks in part to reforms and an influx of foreign investment under President Benigno Aquino. Deftly riding the waves of globalization has helped the country build up service industries such as call centers for information technology companies, while workers abroad have helped bring wealth home. Yet Philippine voters are now lining up behind the candidate putting the most distance between himself and the outside world.

"What we are seeing today is a middle-class revolution," said the Philippine leader of an ethnic Chinese conglomerate involved in a variety of businesses, including retailing, hotel management and electronics component manufacturing. The source likened the populist groundswell behind Duterte's success to the "People Power" revolution of the 1980s.

Economic development has lifted many in the country out of poverty, creating the large middle class from which Duterte draws support. Relief from acute economic need has thrown quality-of-life issues such as crime, urban congestion and corruption into sharp relief. Less visible issues, such as maritime security in the South China Sea or trade and investment policies, have largely disappeared into the background in the current election cycle.

BITING THE HAND THAT FEEDS   In disregarding the rest of the world, including criticism from the U.S. and Australia, and railing against politics-as-usual in Manila, Duterte has positioned himself as an anti-establishment populist hero in the vein of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican Party nominee in this year's U.S. presidential election. Both candidates ignore the fact that global economic stability is the source of their nations' prosperity, instead drawing in voters with the force of their personalities.

The emergence into the mainstream of fast-talking nativist politicians is an unfortunate side effect of globalization itself, resulting from flawed solutions to contemporary economic challenges. Politicians have a duty to distribute gains from economic growth equitably, in a way that helps those not directly benefiting from a globalized economy and avoids deepening income inequality. Candidates who instead stir up nationalist sentiment and hostility to the world at large are hardly worthy leaders in a global era.

There is certainly more to Duterte than the pugnacious figure dominating the Philippine airwaves. As the campaign entered its final stages, he invited five or six of the country's top businesspeople to a Manila hotel room and asked them what economic policies the Philippines needs most. "He's not an idiot," said one of the attendees. "He is actually very smart," they added, citing Duterte's reputation as a "capable prosecutor and lawyer."

In that light, it is possible that every unsavory aspect of the candidate's campaign, from disparaging remarks toward a rape victim to pledges to execute criminals, is a piece of political theater. Reports of Duterte's antipathy toward the U.S. and closeness with China, in any case, appear to be products of media misapprehension, as the candidate is unlikely to have significant connections to Beijing. At his core, Duterte appears to be a nationalist whose appeals to patriotism conceal a serious lack of substantive economic or foreign policy ideas.

DANGEROUS DEFICIENCIES   The prospect of a leader with few true convictions is worrying for one of the most geopolitically exposed countries in the world. The Philippines' military is hardly prepared to stand on its own, with neither a single battle-ready fighter plane nor a ship capable of defending its territorial seas. Yet the country sits next to the South China Sea, the front line of a squabble between China and the U.S., as well as a critical shipping corridor. Whether Manila gravitates toward Beijing or strengthens its military alliance with Washington could shape the future of East Asia. Though the presidential race is foremost a chance for Philippine citizens to make themselves heard, it is also a watershed moment for the region.

One of the first challenges the Duterte administration will face will be handling a Permanent Court of Arbitration case over conflicting maritime claims with China. Hearings on the case are ongoing, though Beijing has so far refused to engage with the arbitration process. A ruling is expected as soon as the first half of this year. President Aquino, who has taken a notably adversarial stance toward Beijing, will remain in office until the end of June.

Any ruling will cover primarily technical matters, such as whether formations at the heart of the countries' dispute are considered reefs or islands. Even if the Philippines emerges victorious, the broader dispute will be far from over. A failure to explain the intricacies of the situation could anger all parties involved. Unfortunately, as with Trump in the U.S., presenting issues of foreign relations and international disputes to the public carefully is unlikely to be part of Duterte's skill set. More conceivably, the heart of the issue will be obscured, and the details twisted to construct an imaginary enemy, boosting nationalist sentiment and the new president's own popularity.

Needless to say, Duterte's showmanship will be of little use on the international stage, where acumen and rationality are prized over bluster and emotion. Unless he can face global realities, learn the rules of the game and steer foreign policy with a steady hand, the star of ASEAN will undoubtedly lose its shine. Duterte has managed to harness the passion of his countrymen, but the fever could soon cool to despair.

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