President Rodrigo Duterte: A new era?

Yet, he also reminded his opponents that the president could also be an ordinary person, a sinner, and a struggling student who barely passed his courses — an extraordinarily “ordinary” Filipino. Politics is a game of connecting to the audience, of establishing affinity with the electorate. Arguably no one has done it better than Duterte in the last elections.

No wonder then, Duterte has never lost a single election in his life. But how did the foul-mouthed provincial mayor become the 16th president of the Philippines, especially when one considers how only few months back, many dismissed him as a loose canon, a political outsider with no realistic chance at the highest office in the country? No less than Duterte himself at some point considered withdrawing from the race. After all, the field was just too tight and competitive for him.

He confronted establishment goliaths like Vice President Jojomar Binay, who boasted a nationwide network of patronage linkages. He also faced a stiff challenge in the Wharton-trained interior secretary Mar Roxas, who was expected to leverage the formidable machinery of the ruling party.

His fiercest competition, however, was Grace Poe, an American-educated senator, who combined a sleek reformist platform with a potent populist appeal, thanks to her (foster) parents, the late Fernando Poe and Susan Roces, who are considered as celebrity royalties. Dutere was, in the words of Filipino sociologist Randy David, “until very recently an outsider to national politics whom very few thoughtful Filipinos took seriously.” But this apparent weakness would turn out to be his strongest weapon in the race.

When Stars Aligned

Duterte’s astonishing success was the product of 3 factors. First and foremost, it was perfect timing. Dutere was the beneficiary of an emerging zeitgeist of ‘grievance politics‘ in the Philippines, and throughout the democratic world. Most of the electorate were just sick and tired of empty promises by mainstream politicians. With much of the population mired in crushing poverty, only a select few truly enjoyed the fruits of political freedom brought about by the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship.

This engendered a ‘cacique democracy fatigue’ among a growing numbers of Filipinos. The Philippines fell into what can be called “strongman syndrome”, the simplistic belief that only tough-talking leaders can address complex 21st century challenges.

Despite rapid economic growth in recent years, the Philippines still suffers from one of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty in Asia — an uber-dynamic region that hosts nine out of thirteen economic miracles in modern times. Strongman candidates like Duterte and Marcos Jr. were in a particularly favorable position to present themselves as single-minded, decisive leaders who could bring about overnight solutions to the country’s perennial predicaments.

Secondly, he was the beneficiary of the mistakes of his opponents, some of whom carried their own skeletons in the closet. On one hand, the populist Binay, who could also boast his own ‘Makati model’ of success, was racked by corruption scandals. On his part, Roxas, the anointed successor of President Benigno Aquino, largely ended up defending the incumbent’s (mixed) track record rather than promoting himself. In short, Roxas became a referendum on Aquino — a huge mistake in an era of grievance politics.

When it comes to Poe, who was the leading candidate throughout much of the campaign period, she suffered from ‘guilt by association’. More than her legal battled on question of eligibility, what hurt the former American citizen the most was her association with oligarchs and a convicted plunderer. Towards the end of the race, Dutere was in a strong position to portray all his opponents as incompetent, crook or puppet of the oligarchy.

Finally, Duterte launched an impressive campaign, anchored by a social media blitzkrieg, which presented the mayor as an uncompromising, independent and ‘authentic’ statesman, who could turn the Philippines into a safe and prosperous place. As a candidate from the margins, he promised more political autnomy and fiscal resources to peripheral regions of Visayas and Mindanao. No wonder then, he ended up dominating the race in southern island of Mindanao and vote-rich central islands of Visayas.

It must also be said, and this is extremely crucial, that Duterte’s strategy would have been too risky if the Philippines had a runoff election, where candidates are expected to garner the support of majority of the voters. The fact that the reformist vote was split between Poe and Roxas was a great source of help to Duterte (and even Binay, who climbed to the top of the polls early this year).

Duterte’s off-the-cuff rhetoric, however, was enough to get the support of a plurality of disillusioned voters who saw in him the promise of radical change — and were willing to turn a blind eye to his plethora of imperfections. In the Philippines’ single-round, first-past-the-post system, that was just enough to make him the president.

Duterte the Realist

When it comes to foreign policy, Duterte is, on the surface, a diplomatic-disaster-in-the-making. Some senior diplomats have asked me whether I think Duterte can oversee East Asia Summit and other major gathering next year, when the Philippines becomes the chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). After all, shortly after his despicable “rape joke” that was followed by global condemnation, Duterte went so far as to tell ambassadors of America and Australia to “shut their mouths”.

A more careful look, however, reveals a largely pragmatic statesman, who discerns the vicissitudes of high-stakes geopolitics. Yes, he has indeed made Trump-style statements like his ludicrous suggestion to drive a jet ski and plant flag on contested land features in the South China Sea. But that was more of Duterte-the-entertainer, who tried to play to the crowd and project a tough image before a broadly anti-China citizenry.

What is more consistent in his statements is his professed willingness to launch direct dialogue with Beijing and, if necessary, negotiate a joint development agreement across contested waters to avoid direct war. At one point, he said if China will “build [the Philippines] a train around Mindanao, build [the Philippines] train from Manila to Bicol... build [the Philippines] a train [going to] Batangas, for the six years that I’ll be president, I’ll shut up [on the sovereignty disputes].”

It is broadly expected that Duterte will adopt - similar to the Arroyo administration (2001-2010) — an equilateral-balancing strategy towards China and America and not side with one power against the other. In fact, Duterte is expected to appoint former Arroyo administration officials such as Gibo Teodoro and General Hermogenes Esperon in his presidential cabinet.

This means he will most likely dispense with Aquino administration’s counter-balancing strategy against China. But, despite his affiliation with leftist groups, it is unlikely that he will downgrade relations with America, a powerful ally that is extremely popular among the security establishment and intelligentsia. Though one can expect him to bargain for more American military assistance to the Philippines and not readily open more Philippine bases to Washington under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, America’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to the Philippines is actually lower than 2010, and dwarfed by Washington’s military support to allies in the (oil-rich) Middle East and (wealthy) Europe. America has also equivocated on whether its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines covers the latter’s claims in the South China Sea.

Duterte is deeply aware of the limits of American commitment, thus expect him to explore more constructive relations with China. He will cooperate with each great power on areas of common interest, whether it is infrastructure development (with China) or counter-terrorism (with America).

The Duterte administration, however, will be remiss to over-read its mandate. He actually won only 3 out of 18 regions in the Philippines. Six out of 10 voters chose Duterte’s rivals. So clearly he doesn’t have a carte blanche, though markets and the civil society, for now, are giving him the benefit of the doubt.

But if he dares to introduce a seismic shift in the Philippines’ domestic political landscape — by tinkering with democratic institutions — or dramatically reconfigure its foreign policy — by severing ties with America and bandwagoning with China — expect his legions of critics, including the outgoing president, to mobilize for his departure. Yet, one could bet that Duterte will likely be wise enough to properly assess the coordinates of peaceful yet meaningful change. –

Richard J. Heydarian teaches political science at De La Salle University, and is the author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific” (Zed, London).