Duterte's young supporters whom we don’t talk about

My social media feed follows a pattern. Caught in a stream of cute dog photos would be staunch criticism of the government – “Access to Contraception Nears End”, “Duterte Admits ‘Ogling’ Over VPs Legs”, “Amnesty Reveals Terrifying Truths About Drug War”. A bit more scrolling then I’ll find a call-for-action championing either LGBT rights or gender equality. Occasionally, I come across a flattering piece on our Vice President.

Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm, which curates content to suit my interests, is doing a fine job. I like a few of these posts and I share the punchiest before I move on with my life. My friends and I hold the same views. Duterte is bad; gay marriage is good; feminism is best. There is comfort in knowing your immediate circle holds on to the same truths as you do.

But it gets old. Fruitful conversations are rare; a ten-minute discussion is a flowery chain of reaffirmations. I know it is impossible that everyone in my demographic – young, literate, of at least average IQ – agree on these issues. But where are my peers who can knock out this disillusion? Months before the election, I chose my truths and picked a color. In a few weeks, Duterte will finish off one of his 6 years on the job. It's time I actively seek out the other side.

Duterte's millennial supporters

My friends helped me invite millennials to answer a brief survey I posted online. We were looking for people who looked like us. They may have read the same books we have, or have gone to the same schools. But unlike us, they actually have positive sentiments for the President and the administration.

Is it possible to know the same truths yet stand on the other side? The protocol when arguing with people who do not share my beliefs is simple. I just reassure myself they don’t know better. The other side makes this easier than it should be. 

Take for example Duterte Youth, the ad-hoc representation for pro-administration youth. In the demonstrations by the “yellows” that this group boldly picketed, the Duterte Youth group has been consistent at only one thing: looking like a badly attended PTA meeting.

Where is the clever banter we’ve come to expect from millennials? And the million-dollar question: Where are the young people?

Surprisingly, getting responses for my survey was easy.

Reading the answers, however, is a different story. After all, these are people who oppose me. Instead of hitting back, I have resolved to listening, biting my lip and only speaking to clarify, not denounce. The point is to understand why these people have a different take on issues that have very obvious answers.

My survey asked respondents about their support for Duterte, the drug war, contraception, and same-sex marriage. I wanted to work on just Duterte but I sent in the other questions just in case I could find something interesting.

Everyone who took the time to answer my survey is pro-Duterte. All, except one citing the Bible, supported gay marriage.

Everyone was also strongly in favor of wider access to contraception. Duterte was initially for same-sex unions before denouncing it a few months back. He still thinks contraception must remain widely available. And until he changes his mind, he supports the distribution of condoms in schools.

No to drug war

The answers I received were sober and not the prattling I have imagined. They understand that his presidency isn’t a perfect one. When asked about their thoughts on the drug war, many answered in the negative. 

One supporter had this to say: “Yes, he could be impeached if given enough evidence of his involvement in the drug war.”

Duterte’s drug war has grabbed headlines from almost every major paper around the world. The President also stands accused of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. Over 8,000 drug suspects have been killed since his ascent to power, yet many deny his role in the cull. The President's excessively protectionary attitude towards the police backfired when members of the force were sacked and charged for the kidnapping and killing of Jee Ick Joo. 

But not everyone is convinced he is accountable. An 18-year-old respondent who refused to be identified had this to say: “The killings were committed by fellow drug-associated people, cops who raided a house and assumed that the residents posed a threat, and vigilantes. The cops who used lethal force do feel like they are protected by the President.” A 29-year old nurse echoed this sentiment.

The respondent then links to a 1987 story in The New York Times. In that year, then-President Corazon Aquino joined the call for unarmed vigilantism against Communist uprisings in the country. But the public didn’t care for peace and when a Communist leader was shot in public, the country was stimulated. Back then, death by bullet was kind. It was machetes and bolos that roamed the streets and lying on their path would be bodies of both “commies” and the innocent.  

Are the inherent characteristics of Filipinos to blame for the killing? When Duterte defends summary executions, does his error lie simply in forgetting the violent tendencies of his audience?

Between China and the world

Another issue that plagues Duterte supporters and detractors alike is his seemingly unsure footing in the growing rift between global powers. Our President, ergo the country, is sending mixed signals not only to global community but also to his constituents

The same respondent who mentioned the New York Times story had this to say: “I understand that we do want China as a trade partner and ally but the international community will back us up if we push our claim (also that's a lot of money in terms of resources and trade routes).”

But another 19-year-old college student who prefers anonymity is more understanding: “We can't head on directly with someone that has learned from their downfall in the 19th century, where 8 countries in the Eight-Nation Alliance wrecked China. We have to prove to China that we can be friends.”

This explanation recalls the Boxer Rebellion, an anti-foreigner movement in China that peaked in 1900. Eight nations, countries with a strong presence in the region rallied troops in Beijing to  quell the rebellion and the Qin Dynasty that supported it. For this respondent, Duterte’s warmth toward Xi Jinping is cunning. If the peace comes to an end, it would be smart to side with the country that had deeply-rooted motivation for winning. Whether this remains relevant today, I can’t really tell. But with increasing bold measures for the Chinese to strengthen their military and by recently initiating closer economic ties in the region, it's an angle worth considering.

I’ve practiced patience in hearing the other side with as much grace as I could muster. Apparently, I did not need that much. These Duterte supporters were easy to talk to, reasonable and had interesting ideas.

When Jim Paredes confronted 7 members of the Duterte Youth at a rally to commemorate the People Power Revolution, he screamed: “Okay! Lie to yourself!” At that moment, Paredes wasn’t spewing vitriol. He embodied the frustrations that many critics of the President, myself included, feel. Why exactly are you doing this to yourselves?

A few months before the election, I actually liked Duterte. He was refreshing in the deluge of well-mannered politicians that scuttled in government halls. Duterte is how you confront a flawed system, with bluntness and disregard for protocol and niceties. I switched sides because of the “Si mayor dapat mauna” comment. It still haunts me that our President had that to say about the gang rape of a woman in his city.

In the Social Weather Station survey, 80% of Filipinos have much trust for the President. I obviously belong to the minority. While the decline is steady (1% per quarter), I have quashed all hopes that people will change their opinion of Duterte anytime soon.  

One answer I got that I neither liked nor hated is this, "Yes, because he is the president we chose." True enough, this is the only election in recent memory where the results for weren’t questioned, at least for the presidency. Almost a year in, surveys still match the claims of Duterte’s popularity.

For now, maybe, this is what we on the other side should all do.

We have to remove the selective filters that plug our ears, ask Duterte supporters why exactly they are doing this, and bite a lip instead of fighting back. If no substantial answer is found, repeat. At the very least, it’s an entertaining ride towards discovery. Sometimes, you strike gold that’s worth at least a few thousand shares on Facebook. – Rappler.com


Leo Lutero is a freelance writer based in Metro Manila. He is a regular contributor to futurist think tank PSFK, and has written for Panay News, The News Today Iloilo and Men's Health Philippines