MANILA, Philippines – Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa was stuck in a difficult place.
It was December 2017. Barely out of the Philippine National Police (PNP), Dela Rosa was toiling as the country’s top cop, leading the administration’s bloody campaign on drugs for over a year-and-a-half already. At that point, he was itching to retire in January 2018, describing in multiple occasions that he wanted to go back to his home province of Davao del Sur so he could just row a boat alone out to the sea and fish.
But President Rodrigo Duterte had other plans for him.
Dela Rosa was extended in the PNP for 3 months, then called to head the government’s “most difficult agency”, the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), upon his retirement.
During his last month in the police service, polling firm Pulse Asia found in its survey for senatorial bets in March 2018 that Dela Rosa garnered 33.1% – for Senate aspirants, a safe score for victory.
He had not signified any intentions to run, and yet he took over in the rankings legacy names such as Estrada, Marcos, Aquino, Ejercito.
Dela Rosa jumped into the senatorial race, holding on to a steady post in the winning circle, save for a survey period where he dropped out of the top after announcing plans of running for a different post.
On the day he bowed out of service in April 2018, he was showered with praise by Duterte, calling him the embodiment of “unprecedented accomplishments.” Months later in June 2018, his rating rose to 37.7%, as he was transitioning to the BuCor.
In September 2018, Dela Rosa landed in the red zone with 27% after he announced that he was planning to run for governor of his Davao del Sur. But then he bounced back in December to 35.7% after locking in a decision to run for the Senate.
He reached his highest score in March 2019 with 44.8%, months after the release of his biopic where Duterte-pardoned actor Robin Padilla acted as him.
In the latest survey covering April 2019, he got 36.7% – still above the comfortable 30% mark needed to win.
What made him so successful so far in running the race? It's not only coincidence.
A rock-hard start
"If you are with me, then let’s do it, but if you are not with me, then you are finished." Ronald dela Rosa. July 1, 2016 Photo by Darren Langit/Rappler
Dela Rosa’s advantage comes from his being former chief of the PNP. From the start, he had been among the most recognizable personalities in the new era that President Duterte had promised.
Everybody immediately knew Bato: the bald, barrel-chested, Visayan-accented police general. The face of the war on drugs. The President’s most trusted cop.
“He is like the President. The way he speaks, his mannerisms, his way of thinking,” Arjan Aguirre, a political science instructor at the Ateneo de Manila University, told Rappler in an interview.
His decorum bears little resemblance to that of the 4-star generals who marched before him. When he’s infuriated, he walks down the line of newbies to confront them, ignoring protocol and the layers of command between them. In live television broadcasts, he shamelessly stares at the camera with a grin while bouncing his head. And it worked well for him.
“People who want to vote for him seem to see a kindred spirit: somebody who talks like them, sounds like them, and comes from their simple roots. You can’t manufacture that or create it,” said Severino Sarmenta, former chairman of the Ateneo de Manila University’s communication department, who studies communication in election campaigns.
Outside his image-making from the capital, the police chief post also enjoyed an undeniable logistical boost for regional campaigning.
As police chief, Dela Rosa traveled all over the Philippines to meet with police officials for command conferences, oversee turnover ceremonies, visit families and wounded cops, and respond to crises. In all instances, he was heavily covered by the media.
“At least man lang, lahat ng urban centers ng bawat region ay mapuntahan mo. Kung meron ka pang time, at least lahat ng urban centers ng bawat probinsya mapuntahan mo. Pero at least nakakalamang na ako dahil noong chief PNP ako, naikot ko na lahat ng areas na ‘yan,” Dela Rosa said in an interview with CNN Philippines.
(At the very least, you go to each urban center in each region. If you have more time, you should go to at least all urban centers of each province. But at least I already had the edge because when I was PNP chief, I already went around all of those areas.)
“Second round na ito (This is already my second round),” he added.
Selling the drug war
When one speaks of the drug war – boon and bane of the administration – mentioning the name of Bato dela Rosa is unavoidable.
“Aside from President Duterte, Dela Rosa became the face of the strong anti-drug campaign. His name is closely linked to the extrajudicial killings that were allegedly done to pursue drug law violators. Rightly or wrongly, this has created his public persona,” said Sarmenta.
In a June 2018 survey, just two months after Dela Rosa stepped down as police chief, pollster Social Weather Stations found that around 8 in every 10 Filipinos were satisfied with the war on drugs.
Even in his darkest moments as the implementer of the administration's bloody campaign, Dela Rosa managed to steal the limelight and still gain positive publicity.
The allegations of extrajudicial killings, meanwhile, have led to the conviction of only 3 Caloocan cops. He has so far distanced himself from the 3, stressing that as police chief, he supposedly couldn’t have known. What he can offer only is his promise that the number of killings would drop, but would not end.
“You will always see him whenever it comes to Oplan Tokhang operations defending the President…On the EJK issue, one of the negative effects of Oplan Tokhang, Bato is there,” Aguirre said.
And there was also the months-long striptease about his candidacy, between his last few months as police chief and his decision to run for the Senate.
Dela Rosa was in limbo, supposedly undecided about running, and fanning the flames of curiosity in the minds of the public. Down to the last days before the filing of papers, his decision to run for the Senate or the capitol of Davao del Sur was still up in the air.
When he did confirm his candidacy first to Rappler in September 2018, he said it was in obedience to an order of Duterte.
The cop in campaign
"Kung ayaw ’nyo pumalakpak, bukas ipa-Tokhang ko kayo sa pulis. O palakpakan kayo lahat diyan." Ronald dela Rosa. March 9, 2019 Photo by Maria Tan/Rappler
In his speeches, Dela Rosa mentioned no detailed battleplan to deliver his promise of a safe and secure Philippines.
Instead, he burned time on stage, eliciting laughter or inspiring chants. He found it to be the only way to keep the audience alive.
“Magprangkahan tayo. ‘Yang mga tao na ‘yan, pumupunta diyan purposely ba para makinig lang ng issues? I don’t think so. Ang mga tao, pumupunta diyan para sumaya. Karamihan diyan kung mapapatawa ang tao diyan gagaan na ang loob sa iyo,” Dela Rosa said in the same television interview.
(Let’s be frank. Do the people really go there on purpose just to listen to issues? I don’t think so. People go there to be entertained. If you're able to make most of them laugh, they'd already like you.)
While Dela Rosa’s statement on campaigning may be good fodder for his critics, it appealed to political handlers.
“It’s because people are no longer looking for a bright, intelligent, well-rounded experienced lawyer, idealistic, know-it-all person. They no longer want the decent, the conventional politician,” Aguirre said.
He added: “This is the electorate that pushed up Duterte.”
And for the campaign, Dela Rosa got the platform he needed to connect with voters, thanks to the endorsement of both the ruling party, PDP-Laban, and Hugpong ng Pagbabago, the regional party of Duterte's daughter Sara.
When pushed to a corner to expound on his platforms, Dela Rosa provided only broad strokes, promising security and peace for Filipinos, and of course, undying support for the President.
He had been caught in multiple instances just thinking out loud on the spot when pressed on specific draft legislation. In one instance, he called himself an “idiot” on inflation.
According to Aguirre, Dela Rosa knows his limits and he has unabashedly admitted them for the public to see and relate to him.
“He clearly wants to project that he understands the plight of the struggling poor. It helps that he has the ‘rough edges’ that people normally associate with their local cops: rough, rugged, fast-talking, etc. Poor people know this person,” Sarmenta said.
A son of a fisherman and a market vendor, Dela Rosa’s clout is perhaps best captured by his campaign gesture: a clenched right fist pounding on his heart. “Itaga mo sa bato (Mark my word).”
Dela Rosa’s biggest backer
If there’s one lesson to learn from the rapid rise of Dela Rosa, it’s that personality is still the key ingredient that attracts the most ballots.
“Until the way our politics is done changes (which is strongly personality-oriented in contrast to a more issues-oriented political literacy or culture), candidates who had previously high-profile work or personas will always have an edge in national and even local campaigns,” Sarmenta said.
That Dela Rosa’s caricature aligns with a popular President only makes it easier for his handlers to connect him with the electorate.
“We cannot blame the people if they’re losing trust [in]...institutions, beliefs, ideas, and if they start to look at the person now,” Aguirre said.
In many ways, the power of Dela Rosa’s campaign drew from the personality and politics of President Duterte himself. Aguirre described it as Duterte’s continuous “spillover effect.”
Consistently, the ex-cop exploited this narrative as he made his way around the country. He had the right to do so, according to Aguirre, as Dela Rosa had a genuine connection with the President compared to politicos who only stood close to Duterte after shooting up in popularity ratings.
Like leading senatorial candidate Bong Go, Dela Rosa’s bond with Duterte can be traced decades back. They knew each other as early as the first days following the People Power Revolution when Duterte was a recently-installed vice mayor and Dela Rosa was a lieutenant fresh from the Philippine Military Academy.
This makes Dela Rosa's candidacy like an offering to Duterte. The difference now is that he aspires to create laws, instead of enforce them. He shared this much early on.
“Hindi ako puwedeng susuway sa kagustuhan ni Presidente kung ano ang gusto niya (I cannot disobey what the President wants). He’s the one who made me,” Dela Rosa said in a morning interview with ANC.
Aguirre predicts that Dela Rosa would emerge victorious in the May 13 polls.
What does that spell for the Senate? “Expect one vote for the President,” Aguirre said. “Always.” – Rappler.com
TOP PHOTO: IN THE LEAD. Ronald dela Rosa enjoys a high chance of winning in the 2019 polls. Photo by Maria Tan/Rappler
Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.