Can Rodrigo Duterte win by being himself?

Pia Ranada
Can Rodrigo Duterte win by being himself?
Duterte wants voters to take him for who he is. But is his authenticity alienating the moderates who could win him the presidency?

MANILA, Philippines – Rodrigo Duterte has been this election’s suckerpunch to the stomach.

He pulled the rug under everyone when he announced his presidential run. He continues to shock with incendiary statements on freeing villified political personalities, lips-to-lips kissing with supporters, and curses at the Pope.

Yet, to many, his presidential candidacy is a long time in the making. Those who believe in his no-nonsense approach to fighting crime and corruption, in his upliftment of Davao City, say it’s about time the Philippines is led by someone who won’t take “no” for an answer.

Duterte’s popularity is evident in recent electoral surveys. He is now at second or third place among the country’s top choices for president.

With margins between candidates so slim, analysts still say it’s anyone’s ball game.

The next 90 days left in the campaign season will determine who will outrun the rest on election day in May. 

Duterte, a latecomer in the race, has a lot of catching up to do. With time running short, no one can afford to make the wrong move.

Rappler talks to political analysts for their thoughts on what Duterte and his campaign team should be doing from now until May to increase his chances of winning.


TIP 1: Convert the unconvinced

If the recent surveys are an indication of Duterte’s consistency as a favored candidate, they also indicate that he is in danger of stagnating.

For instance, the January Pulse Asia Survey saw Duterte’s numbers go from 23% in December to 20% in January.

He is not expanding his voter base. He continues to preach to the converted.

– Aries Arugay, political analyst

 

Though the numbers are still within the margin of error and the change can’t be counted as a dip, a political analyst says what’s telling is how Duterte’s numbers have not increased significantly.

One factor could be that at the time the January survey was conducted, Duterte’s candidacy still faced disqualification cases. This also captures the time after he cursed Pope Francis over traffic and admitted he is a womanizer.

But political analyst Aries Arugay says another reason could be that Duterte is not expanding his voter base. Arugay is an associate professor at UP Diliman’s Department of Political Science.

“It’s stagnating in a way because I think what he has been doing so far is rallying the converted. He is not expanding his voter base. He continues to preach to the converted,” Arugay told Rappler.

By the converted, Arugay refers to Duterte’s die-hard fans whose votes are as good as set in stone. 

What Duterte needs to do is reach out to the “moderates,” said Arugay.

“These are voters who are scared of his insinuations, his iron-handed approach to solving some of our problems. Those who want to still respect democratic procedures, at the same time want to solve problems like crime and the lack of public order,” he explained.

Arugay described these groups of unconvinced voters as belonging to the middle-class, likely college graduates, politically-active, and religious.  

These scrupulous voters may have been turned off by Duterte’s cursing, his statements against the Pope, and his self-confessed womanizing tendencies.

Another political analyst from UP Diliman, Erwin Alampay, agrees.

“There’s the middle who can’t imagine him because they are still looking for something in a president and he’s not addressing that or showing that,” Alampay, associate professor at the National College of Public Administration and Governance, told Rappler.

Could their changing minds be why Duterte suffered a huge dip in voters’ preferences in Metro Manila, from 27% in December to only 16% in January (a decrease by 11 points)? 

In fact, Duterte lost points in the Balance of Luzon and Visayas as well, even as he gained 5 points in Mindanao. 

Then there’s his “shooting-from-the-hip” statements that not only alienate the moderates but even those he had already convinced. 

For instance, Duterte initially won praise from labor groups for declaring he would phase out contractualization.

But the same groups have recently issued damning statements against him for his declaration in his proclamation speech that he would “kill labor unions” to ensure a good business environment. Though he later on clarified he meant only abusive labor unions, the damage was done. So far, none of the groups have retracted their statements.

Though he likely did not mean he would outright murder labor unionists, it would have helped if he explained himself more during his speech. 

He and his media team like to say he is fond of using “hyperbole” to get his point across. But Duterte should remember that his audience now does not consist only of Davaoeños who know him inside out and accept him.  

He has blasted media for showing only his antics and not his platform. But no statement of his can counter the fact that videos of him locked in a kiss with a supporter have more viral potential than him explaining his support for conditional cash transfer programs. 

The reality is that, even when both exist, the bad news will eat up the good news. His so-called jokes may end up more fodder for a blaze that will only consume him.

TIP 2: Understand the cost of authenticity

Duterte’s response to all this: he is being true to himself.

“I would rather lose the elections than lose my God-given identity,” he has said in response to appeals that he change his public demeanor. 

If most politicians conform to public demands, Duterte is asking the electorate to do the opposite: accommodate me, take me for what I am. If you can’t, don’t vote for me. (IN PHOTOS: Inside Rodrigo Duterte’s home)

His speeches are typically impromptu, although he has a dependable line-up of jokes executed dozens of times. Only once did this reporter see Duterte read a speech, and it was in front of elementary school students.

 

His authenticity has paid off with some voters. People reacting to his speeches have told this reporter they appreciate his genuineness, saying it’s a welcome change from politicians who are “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Duterte is at his best, and some would say at his worst, in moments of spontaneity. Audiences of all economic classes are typically in fits of laughter when he speaks. He is disarming and witty, able to press the right buttons to diffuse tension in almost every setting. 

Though adamant about showing his true colors, Duterte has shown flexibility in making some slight changes to his image.

He has apologized for cursing the Pope, even promising to personally seek pardon from the religious leader after elections. His declarations of waging a bloody war against criminals are now back-ended with a caveat that police and military are to follow the rules of engagement and can only kill when their lives are threatened and when there is resistance to arrest.

In front of middle- to upper-class audiences, he tones down the cursing and flirting.

But will his crassness and outrageous statements seriously affect his chances of winning? It seems that for certain voters, particularly the well-to-do, his behavior is something they are willing to put up with as long as the candidate represents what they value the most: competence.

Arugay says the ABC economic classes “just want their interests to be secured. They just want things to get done, they don’t care as much about image.” 

Chinese businessman reacts to Duterte’s speech during a January 19 event:


 

Survey results reflect this. After Poe, Duterte is the top choice of the ABC classes. What’s interesting is, he experienced slight decreases in popularity among the poorest of the poor, classes D and E.

Arugay explains it this way: “Class D and E want an idol, a model, someone they cannot be. By being crass, Duterte is not being much of an idol.”

He compared Duterte with former president Joseph “Erap” Estrada, who he described as possessing more “finesse.” 

Like Duterte, Erap was accused of womanizing and tended to speak the language of the masa (masses), though he did not publicly curse. Estrada was a “master” of imaging.

“He allowed his image to be shaped. Duterte is not that open to changing his image. He doesn’t want a manufactured image,” said Arugay.

If Duterte wants to continue being true to himself, warts and all, he risks losing large groups of voters. Whereas refining himself will surely not harm his votes from the well-to-do.

After all, the president is both head of state and head of government. Duterte projects himself as the head of government who will do what it takes, be it cursing or killing, to protect the public good. But can he become the “prim and proper” head of state and symbol of the nation?

“He needs to find a balance. To win as president, your appeal must be cross-cutting,” said Arugay. 

TIP 3: Strengthen political machinery

Duterte is up against at least two candidates who have been oiling their political machinery for years in preparation for 2016.  

When dawn breaks on May 9, it’s these local networks that will deliver the win to their candidates. 

“That’s where he will be beaten by [Jejomar] Binay and [Mar] Roxas. In terms of a command base at the local level, local votes, they will put up a fight,” said Arugay. 

But Duterte’s campaign team is not sitting pretty. They’ve been putting up regional chapters and enlisting locals for support. Substantial mobilization is going on even among Overseas Filipino Workers who have been tasked to influence the votes of their family members back home.

It’s also definitely possible for existing alliances at the local level to shift to Duterte, especially in Mindanao. 

So far among the candidates he has the most change-oriented candidacy.

– Aries Arugay, political analyst

 

But another dimension is emerging as potentially game-changing in a race with such small margins between candidates: social media.

Duterte’s supporters have a pronounced presence online. On Facebook alone, there are a kaleidoscope of FB groups dedicated to his candidacy. Interviews with moderators of this group reveal increased levels of organization and coordination going on in this front with moderators for various “chapters” supposedly managing chatrooms 24/7.

Duterte has won overwhelmingly on 3 informal monthly surveys conducted by Rappler on Facebook, on www.rappler.com, and on SMS.

But will this online popularity translate into a victory or is it just “noise”? asked Alampay. 

A political analyst specializing in information and communication technology, Alampay said a large number of people on social media are youth and residents of Metro Manila. But, among all regions, Metro Manila typically has the lowest turn-out of voters, said Alampay quoting Comelec data.

“If you’re on social media, if you’re Duterte and you know your supporters, the other thing you have to be able to do is to convince the people who support you to actually go out and vote. Will they be passionate enough to actually vote?” he asked.

Thus, it might help if Duterte’s camp begins an online campaign convincing netizen supporters to cast their ballots in May.  

TIP 4: Articulate his strengths

Despite the challenges facing Duterte, he has the cards to win the game. 

Arugay points to his solid track record as Davao City mayor, the absence of corruption issues against him, and his strong pitch against the status quo.

Duterte, said Arugay, has “the most change-oriented candidacy” compared to Roxas, Binay, Poe, and Santiago.

“Whether they like it or not, in comparison to Duterte, they’re all continuity candidates. There are problems in our current set up, but [their] solutions are just calibrated, no grand projects. Duterte is a firebrand in the sense that he wants to make big changes,” he explained.

EXPLAINING PLATFORM. Rodrigo Duterte says agriculture will be his 2nd budget priority if elected president. Photo by Jansen Romero

It’s important for Duterte to communicate that there is something wrong with our political system, thus drastic change is called for.

To do this, Duterte needs to elaborate on his advocacy for federalism, the most radical of changes he is proposing.

“He should give us a plan, a vision. What does he really mean? And what is federalism for? His message that it will address inequality and corruption is fine but give us details. How will we get there? Is it Congress that will do that? Constitutional Convention?” weighed in Arugay. 

Another strength Duterte can emphasize is that he is not part of the political establishment – something his rivals, all national officials, cannot say.

“This is a guy who has never run for national office before,” said Arugay.

Though Duterte may, in a sense be part of a political dynasty, with his children holding local positions and his father a former governor of Davao, he is still “small potato” in terms of being a member of the ruling elite.

Duterte’s message of not being part of “imperial” Manila is also to his advantage. If used correctly, he could strengthen his hold on vote-rich regions like the Visayas, Calabarzon, and Bicol, said Arugay.

The narrative of a son of the Southern Philippines finally taking his place in Malacañang combined with his message of spreading development throughout the country, instead of just in the capital, is a powerful one. (WATCH: Rodrigo Duterte in Cebu: It’s time for a new Visayan hero)

And then there’s Duterte’s so-called “Exhibit A”: Davao City.

“He will continue to use his success record because you can never argue with success. Duterte can do no wrong by continuing to play that card, something that other candidates cannot show,” said Arugay.

The formula of successful local politicians elevated to national positions is “tried and tested,” he added. We’ve seen the likes of Binay and Jesse Robredo, for example.

But Duterte’s case is slightly different because he’s helmed Davao City for an unusually long time, over two decades. Part of the challenge he faces is to convince more voters that this means he will make a good president.

To win on this front, Duterte should also dedicate speech time to persuading voters of his competence to tackle national issues, aside from his Davao City achievements.

One such national issue he excels at compared to other candidates is the problem of Mindanao, said Alampay. Duterte’s understanding of Muslim Mindanao, the dynamics of the region, his ties with the ethnic groups there can strengthen his pitch that he is the lone candidate who can truly bring peace and development to Mindanao.


Duterte remains a formidable candidate because of his strengths and the almost zealous devotion of his solid base of supporters.

But pulling ahead requires him to step out of his comfort zone and perhaps accommodate the comfort zones of those he has not yet convinced. He and his campaign team need to beef up their vote-delivery system on the ground. 

He needs to tone down on his furor-causing antics and focus on articulating his good ideas. He owes that much to a discerning voting public – his future constituents, should destiny grant him the presidency. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.