Digong is boss, not the bayan’s champion

Patricio N. Abinales
Digong is boss, not the bayan’s champion
Duterte has nationalized this local 'way of doing politics,' with its associated coercive features, vulgar argot, and a more personalized patronage system

It is easier to label President Rodrigo Duterte as a populist with an authoritarian tan. It sets him apart from his predecessors, but it also makes it easy to his supporters and, oddly, observers (academic and pundit) to explain away his resilient connections with his followers with minimal need for elaboration. “Ganyan talaga ’yan si Digong (Digong is really like that),” so enough said.

After 100 days in office, however, just invoking how much of a singular man of prowess the President is, or how he is the Jeanne D’Arc who is out to save the Republic from drug addicts and supporters of former President Benigno Aquino III, is becoming old hat. The myth is nevertheless well sustained by fake news, the adept use of social media by Duterte fans, and the showbiz aura of Mocha Uson.

Remove all these layers and what you have is a leader who has very little difference from a lot of local strongmen and bosses who have been the foundation of the political system. Duterte fans the oligarchy, and claims that he “doesn’t consider himself part of the Philippine ruling class or the feudal system.” But his disdain for the old elite (Aquino?) is also matched by his slobbering admiration of the parvenu elites who emerged after World War II, the most prominent of which is the Marcos family. That praise has to do much with family biography.

The Dutertes were one of the 3 families that lorded over Davao for most of the second half of the 20th century (the others were the Almendras clan before martial law, and the Floirendos – prominent local cronies of President Marcos – during the dictatorship era). The Dutertes were migrants from Danao, Cebu, where Digong’s father had his first taste of politics when President Manuel Roxas appointed him mayor of the city. Vicente Duterte, however, could not spread his wings since, given the sinecure. Danao was the fiefdom of his cousin, Don Ramon Durano. Durano – a former WWII guerilla-like Marcos – had claimed the town as the clan’s base of power, and Vicente had no choice but to look elsewhere to further his political ambitions. 

He found the continuation of his calling in Davao, then one the major landing points of migrants from Central Visayas, many of them fellow Cebuanos like the Dutertes. Vicente jump-started his career by offering his legal services to settlers battling each other and the lumad over land ownership. This was an excellent way to establish a presence (who would not have their property titled?). The Mindanao Times, Davao’s longest running newspaper, was full of accounts of Vicente solving land disputes. 

He was also fortunate to reconnect with another Danao cousin (and another World War II guerrilla), Alejandro Almendras, who was appointed the provincial governor of Davao by President Elpidio Quirino (Davao was then still a special province, and its officials were presidential appointees). 

Almendras’ close patronage ties with Quirino led to the appointment of Vicente as provincial secretary, and then, in 1958, when Almendras was elected to the Senate, Vicente took over as governor. Vicente would hold that position until President Ferdinand Marcos appointed him Secretary of General Services in 1964 (again replacing Almendras who was elected to the Senate). 

The Almendras-Duterte clan remained the unchallenged power of Davao City and Davao province. They would only step down from the pedestal when Marcos declared martial law and gradually promoted his own Davao cronies (the Floirendos). Vicente remained loyal to Marcos, but his wife, Soledad, turned oppositionist (and one of the first Davao Dilawan!) after Ninoy Aquino’s assassination in 1983.

It was around the late 1960s and throughout martial law that the young Digong turned from family black sheep to Vicente’s understudy. He finally graduated from college, took up law, and passed the bar. Upon his return to Davao, he was appointed city prosecutor, a position he held until Marcos fell from power. When Soledad refused the offer of President Cory Aquino (the Grand Lady Dilawan) to be officer-in-charge of Davao City in 1986, she recommended her son instead. The rest is history.

This short tour of Digong’s lineage shows how much he was a creature of the political clan and how, after he consolidated his power as mayor, replicated what his family – in fact, what other political families – did: ensure that the children inherit the post and ensure the clan’s monopoly of local power. 

Even Duterte’s populism is not unique. It is prototypical of Philippine local politics. What Duterte has done is nationalize this local “way of doing politics,” with its associated coercive features, vulgar argot, and a more personalized patronage system. Anyone who grew up with local politicos would know how this system worked: lots of macho braggadocio, where charismatic bosses show how tough they are by drinking mixed-brews of gin, beer, rum, and tuba to impress astonished voters; where cursing is part of the stock of trade in all miting de avances; where one proudly counted ones’ mistresses (a strong woman, however, does not talk about her sex life); and where one issues fistfight or gun-duel challenges to opponents.

What Digong has done is to bring this local world into the open. Suddenly, the provincial boss is now the national boss. He is a strongman, but his foundations remain to be the clan. And this explains why, one year into his presidency, he has not gone after any of the established political clans of the country, despite his and his subalterns’ claims that he is “para sa bayan (patriotic).” For how can one kill one’s own? – Rappler.com 

Patricio N. Abinales is an OFW. He is a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. He wrote the book Making Mindanao: Cotabato and Davao in the Formation of the Philippine Nation-State (Ateneo, 2000).  


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