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Thompson and Teehankee -- Duterte victory a repudiation of Aquino

Electoral campaign materials are displayed in front of a school polling precinct during the national elections in the Philippine's capital Manila May 9.(Photo by Yumi Kotani)

Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte's apparent victory in the May 9 Philippine presidential elections has been widely portrayed in the international media as an "own goal" by Filipino voters. Unofficial results as of May 12 had him winning nearly 40% of the vote, a solid plurality in a five-way race in which most of his major competitors had conceded.

     Duterte's election follows six years of high growth and political stability under the administration of President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino. The outgoing president endorsed Mar Roxas, who appears to have finished a distant second. Instead, voters choose Duterte, a proudly foul-mouthed maverick promising to end a crime wave in three to six months by killing thousands of criminals, abolishing Congress and taming the courts if they dare to stand in his way. His campaign rhetoric has domestic and foreign business leaders worried, while the country's fragile democratic institutions face their greatest test since the dictatorial President Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown in a largely peaceful "people power" uprising 30 years ago.

     But Duterte's surprise victory has to be understood in the context of the failures of the Aquino administration, not its successes. Although personally popular due to the striking lack of political scandals involving his family or close allies (aided by a largely favorable local press), Aquino never managed to institutionalize his "straight path" reformism.

     Instead of systematic reforms or a major crackdown on smuggling (which most observers believed worsened under his watch), he focused on symbolic acts such as putting his predecessor President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo under house arrest on corruption charges (although she has not been convicted) and lobbying to have Congress remove the Supreme Court chief justice Renato Corona on dubious charges. In a major pork barrel scandal that rocked the legislature two years ago, Aquino's political enemies were targeted, giving rise to suspicions that on his watch, calls for good governance were little more than an excuse to go after his opponents.

     Most damningly, crime was widely seen to have soared under the oversight of Roxas who, as Interior Secretary, was in charge of the National Police Commission. Roxas was also widely faulted for repeated breakdowns in public transportation and for missteps in managing relief operations after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

     With a folksy style and tough guy image, Duterte promised to deliver a quick (and violent) fix to the growing crime problem, to rebuild crumbling infrastructure and to end corruption. "Dutertismo" is not a revolt of the poor, but a middle class movement driven by groups who are marginally better off after years of solid growth -- such as taxi drivers, small shop owners and overseas workers -- but worried that their gains could be threatened unless "order" is restored. Lacking policy specifics, Duterte's campaign was highly theatrical, playing on voters' darkest fears.

Early winners and losers

In the vice presidential race, conducted in parallel with the presidential election, Ferdinand "Bongbong" R. Marcos, Jr., son of the dictator Marcos, is falling behind in the race with Maria Leonor "Leni" Robredo. Robredo, a lawyer, social activist and widow of the well-regarded Interior Minister and former Mayor Jesse Robredo, projected a reformist image far more persuasively than her running mate Roxas during the campaign. Despite harsh criticism from Aquino and his supporters, the younger Marcos refuses to apologize for the human rights violations and economic plunder blamed on his father's regime. But voters have shown little concern about such issues while Duterte expressed open admiration for the elder Marcos during the campaign.

     Indeed, Duterte's claim that the country needed "discipline" amid disorder echoes Marcos' justification for martial law in 1972. In the unusually volatile presidential campaign, in which polls showed three different leading candidates during the three months of official campaigning, Roxas always trailed. At first, his inability to inherit Aquino's reformist mantle appeared to benefit Vice President Jejomar "Jojo" Binay, who had broken with the administration. Binay adopted a pro-poor populist narrative, appealing to the majority of Filipinos who frequently tell pollsters they have gained little from recent rapid economic growth, claiming the benefits have been largely confined to the rich and some of the middle class. But Binay's campaign was derailed by corruption charges -- very publicly made in congressional hearings in which Aquino's allies played a major role.

     Initially, the major beneficiary of Binay's rapidly declining opinion ratings was Grace Poe, the stepdaughter of a famous movie-star politician, Fernando Poe, Jr., who was widely seen as having been cheated in the 2004 presidential election due to electoral manipulation by his opponent, the then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo . But Grace Poe, a neophyte senator, lacked a clear message in her campaign, trying to appeal both to the poor and to elite backers of reform.

     She was also badly hurt by revelations that she had renounced her Philippine citizenship while living in the U.S. While the Supreme Court ultimately decided that she was eligible to run because she had again become a Filipino more than a decade ago, the perception that she had little loyalty to the country and was out of touch with ordinary people's problems fatally wounded her campaign. Her image as an outsider candidate was also damaged by ties to the controversial tycoon and politician Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco, Jr. and her reported openness to an endorsement from Arroyo.

     The implosion of Poe's candidacy left an opening for Duterte, who relentlessly attacked Roxas as incompetent and weak in the face of what he portrayed as growing chaos in the country. His unconventional, brash campaign style (including bragging about his mistresses, swearing about the Pope for causing traffic jams during his papal visit last year, and joking that "he should have been first" in the rape of an Australian missionary who was later murdered) underlined his outsider status even as it dismayed Filipino elites and foreign observers.

"Imperial" Manila

Duterte's electoral success also had a regional dimension. Mobilizing sentiment against "imperial Manila" as the first mayor from a major city outside the capital to launch a viable presidential bid, he built on solid support in the southern island of Mindanao. That spread into parts of the Visayas islands in the middle of the country and then to Manila itself. Even an expose accusing him of keeping billions of pesos in secret bank accounts was too little and too late to stop the Duterte bandwagon.

     There may be a silver lining to a Duterte presidency. His advocacy of federalism would be an important step in decentralizing power in the Philippines, which has long been too concentrated in the capital city. His call for an immediate cease-fire and talks with communist rebels, and his determination to compete a deal -- stalled during the Aquino administration -- with Muslim secessionists in the south is also encouraging.

     Duterte has also spoken of raising the Philippines' low agricultural productivity and re-emphasizing industrialization (neglected during the Aquino years) as well as encouraging foreign investment by allowing a higher percentage of foreign ownership. More controversially, he has said he is willing to take extreme measures (including travelling by jet ski) to negotiate with the Chinese over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, recently dubbed the "West Philippine Sea" by Filipino nationalists.

     However, Duterte's record of close ties to the military in Davao and his repeated threats to push aside democratic institutions and legal due process are worrisome, especially in the light of the enormous powers of the Philippine presidency.

     An optimistic scenario would see Duterte appointing a largely technocratic cabinet and making compromises to achieve major reforms. A less optimistic possibility is a period of growing political instability, with Duterte clashing with Congress, the courts, human rights advocates and even with some elements in the military -- where there are worries that he is too willing to compromise with communist rebels. His call for a constitutional convention to create a federalist political system is likely to be a political hot potato, with opponents warning of the threat of constitutional manipulation to strengthen Duterte's position.

     Whichever scenario plays out, the coming six years in the Philippines are likely to be much more politically unstable than the term of the Aquino administration. With hindsight, however, this stability was misleading given the frustration and fears of so many ordinary Filipinos, which were exploited by Duterte to win the election.

Mark R. Thompson is acting head of the Department of Asian and International Studies and director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong.Julio C. Teehankee is professor of political science and international studies and dean of the College of Liberal Arts at De La Salle University. He is also executive secretary of the Asian Political and International Studies Association.

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