TOKYO, JAPAN: What makes President Rodrigo Roa Duterte tick? What is it about him that despite his vulgar and profane language and unpresidential demeanor, his popularity and the people’s trust in him have not diminished?
A caveat: I am neither a medical practitioner nor a psychiatrist so that my opinion of the man carries no medical weight whatsoever. I will attempt to divine him from the point of view of a former Public Relations practitioner who had handled politicians of note during past elections.
Duterte is no angel. He doesn’t claim to be, in fairness to him. That we already know since his name first cropped up as a presidential wannabe months before the start of the filing of the certificate of candidacy for the 2016 presidential elections.
As early as when he was still mayor of Davao City, he was accused of heading the dreaded Davao Death Squad (DDS), yet Davaeños speak glowingly, admiringly of him for maintaining peace in Davao by ridding it of drugs and criminality.
On the campaign trail, he cursed the Catholic Church, Pope Francis and fantasized about abusing a beautiful Australian missionary who was gang-raped and killed in the hostage-taking drama inside the Davao Penal Colony in 1989.
His opponents and quite a number of political analysts said that Duterte had imploded and had written him off for the presidential race. To their consternation, rather than implode, his poll numbers continued its upward trajectory.
Duterte confounds his allies and detractors alike. He possesses all of the No-Nos of a respected leader. He is profane, vulgar, amoral. He does not have a clear path to economic deliverance. His campaign against drugs does not distinguish between the user and the pusher and the innocent bystander.
Yet, despite all those negatives, people gravitate to him. They adore him. They are all too willing to turn a blind eye to his alleged abuses and excesses. Why?
Have we lost our moral compass? Have we lost our moral sense to distinguish between right and wrong?
Not at all.
Filipinos are God-fearing. They are also loving, compassionate and quick to forgive and forget. That they welcome Duterte’s profane language is a reflection of their frustration with the government and our leaders. Laughing at every “P—–inamo” allows them to release their anger at those who oppress them. At the airport, at the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and in various government agencies, they are subjected to various levels of extortion and oppression and even humiliation.
On the issue of extrajudicial killings, the people are solidly behind Duterte in his campaign to rid the country of illegal drugs despite the deaths of some innocent civilians. I know it is wrong. But it is not difficult to sympathize with a mother whose daughter of 12 or younger, was raped and killed by a drug user. Neither is it hard to feel for a poor family whose son or daughter who just graduated from college or just started to work was brutally slain by a neighborhood toughie who was high on drugs.
Duterte is highly intelligent. Years of being a mayor and congressman sharpened his natural talent of crowd control. His speech in Tokyo before more than 2,000 Filipinos was a classic illustration of his brilliance as a politician. He said nothing new. It was a refrain of his previous speeches before and during the campaign and in his first 100 days in office. No mention of policies, programs or vision for the country.
Instead, he mused and talked about his personal experience as a young man and laughed about himself – his follies and shortcomings. His audience would laugh as he self-deprecates. He has this cunning ability to connect with the crowd.
He would joke about his friends and some members of his Cabinet. He would tell the crowd why he had chosen them to be members of his official family. He would recall their YMCA days. In Lyceum where I first heard him speak before a group of students, he recalled his Lyceum days and said of his former classmates, “Sila matatalino. Mga 90 ang grade. Ako, pa-75-75 lang. Ok lang. [They’re all bright. Rating 90 percent. I used to get about 75 percent. That’s ok.]” And the audience would burst into uncontrollable laughter.
In Tokyo, Duterte did not make any policy speech, either. Neither did he mention a program of government that will impact the lives of the Filipinos living in Japan. But the audience did not mind at all. They wanted to hear the vintage Duterte and his signature “P” word. And they were not disappointed.
Looking at House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, he first asked him not to get mad at him, “Huwag kang magalit sa akin, ha.” (Don’t get mad at me, please.) And pointing his thumb at Alvarez, “Ito, (Alvarez), pareho kami dalawa” (meaning we both have two wives.) The audience laughed, clapped and cheered Duterte as if asking for more.
The crowd went wild when he advised them not to be cowed and make a scene if a policeman or customs official tries to extort money.“Pag hiningan kang pera, sampalin mo, murahin mo. P—–ina mo.” (If they try to extort money from you, slap him, curse him.) The crowd roars into laughter. “Pag may nakitang bala, ipakain mo sa kanya ang bala. P—–inamo, ipakain ko sa iyo ito.” [If he says he has found a bullet in your luggage, let him eat the bullet. ‘You SOB, I’ll have you eat this.’]” That finally brought the house down.
That’s precisely why they adore him. It is those words that our poor and battered returning Filipinos they themselves would want to tell the mulcting policemen and customs personnel at the airport but couldn’t. And it takes a Duterte to say it for them, to bring it out of their system.
They associate themselves with Duterte with his folksy demeanor. They fantasize about standing up to the corrupt policemen, customs personnel and politicians, cursing them and slapping them as Duterte advised. With every “P—–inamo,” that comes out of Duterte’s mouth, they are empowered. Surreal but it is the kind of mood that prevails in every Duterte gathering. Life imitating art.
And that’s what makes President Duterte a tough nut to crack. The masa are with him. And for as long as he is in the embrace of the people, he will be safe against the importunings of his detractors.
I hope, however, that the President does not miscalculate, for if he does, he would be bringing the more than 100 million Filipinos to perdition. That is why keeping the adage in mind, “For every action, there’s a corresponding reaction” should serve him in good stead.