SINGAPORE (IDN): Both in the Philippines and internationally, corporate media predicted doom for Philippines’ democracy after Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-talking mayor of Davao City in southern Philippines, won a landslide victory at the May 9 presidential polls in one of the world’s most vibrant democracies. Rather than heralding in a new era of dictatorship, it may well bring hope to those who are disillusioned with democracy around the world.
The tough campaign rhetoric to kill criminals and override Congress if it got in his way and his sometimes crude or vulgar language may have alarmed the Filipino elite, but it also hypnotized the masses of marginalized Filipinos, who voted for the “Mayor” in droves.
“The excluded have spoken, and they have crowned Rodrigo Duterte their champion,” noted executive editor Ana Marie Pamintuan in a post-election editorial in The Philippine Star, arguing that outgoing President Benigno Aquino III’s impressive economic charts were of no use to the 99 percent of the population left out of the benefits of one of the most sustained periods of economic growth in the country.
“The masses are also aware that much of the positive economic news can be credited to the remittances of Filipinos forced to work overseas for lack of better opportunities at home,” she added, pointing out that Manila’s hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit last year “sealed the perception of a yawning gap between the .001 percent and the rest of Pinoys (Filipinos).”
APEC calls its members as economies, not societies, thus the Aquino administration’s championing of its economic credentials by hosting this summit last year backfired as far as ordinary Filipino voters were concerned.
This was also a view echoed by political analyst Marlen V. Ronquillo of The Manila Times. “The Aquino administration posted nice charts and much of its claims are true. Six years of growth, incremental credit upgrades and fiscal prudence,” he noted in a post-election analysis.
“The grand accomplishments of Mr. Aquino benefited a very small segment of society, the top 1 percent, ironically the sector most capable of advancing its personal and economic interests without support from government.”
“To be candid about it, Mr. Aquino never cared about the less fortunate and proudly stood by—and has been unapologetic of—his Social Darwinism … Put simply, Mr. Aquino’s policies engineered the most sweeping and the most ambitious upward redistribution in the country’s history at the expense, naturally, of the 99 percent,” argued Ronquillo.
“He channeled all gains to the already wealthy and zero to those outside the favored elite. His nice growth charts came at the expense of more suffering to the have-nots.”
In 2010, when Aquino won the presidency on the back of a sympathy vote generated by the death of his popular mother Corazon Aquino (who led the 1987 “people power” revolution against the Marcos dictatorship), he was seen as someone who could clean up the Philippines’ corrupted political system because he was already rich, and did not have children for whom he needed to build up dynasties and economic empires.
Yet, halfway through his presidency when pressure was mounting over his failure to tackle rampant corruption, such as the so-called “pork-barrel controversy” involving political funding, he picked up a fight with China over sparsely populated islands in the South China Sea and diverted the attention of the media and the Filipino people.
With corporate media ever willing to play the game, cheering him on in the fight against China supported by the United States, and singing the praises of Aquino’s economic credentials, even just six months ago it was unimaginable that a rank outsider, especially from the southernmost island of Mindanao with historic connections to the communist rebels of the New People’s Army (NPA), could be elected to the presidency.
But the man, the campaign and the masses who catapulted him into the presidency reflect a deep-seated disillusionment with the way democracy works (or does not work) in the Philippines and the peoples’ desire for change.
“The people, especially the grassroots, want real change that would trickle down to the lowest human beings whose homes are the cold pavement of cities’ street,” argues Evelyn Agato, former station manager of Radyo Pilipinas and now a mass communications lecturer. “They expect that a strong leader will usher them to at least a peaceful night’s sleep. Thus, Duterte’s phenomenal victory was brought about by votes of disappointment and dissatisfaction.”
Agato told INPS that the political culture in the Philippines could change with the election of a president from Mindanao, which has faced decades of civil war between the community and the NPA, as well as Islamic groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf.
“Manila-based political culture, as I see it, will now be learning to adjust to the political culture of the south, especially the style of governance by the new President,” she notes.
“He is the man of the people. The way he dresses, the way he talks, and I think the way he thinks, are real for the common man. He is the man who does what he says and performs with sincerity.”
President-elect Duterte, who is scheduled to take office on June 30, has already started work on the transfer of power, at the moment working from his southern base of Davao City, where he was the mayor for two decades after he won seven consecutive elections.
His transition team has already hinted that the NPA would be offered Cabinet posts in the new administration which would cover labor, social welfare, environment and agrarian reform.
NPA leaders have told the Philippine media that they have started discussions with the transition team and the Communist Party of the Philippines’ founder Jose Maria Sison, Duterte’s political-science professor, would be returning home to start peace talks after 30 years of exile in the Netherlands.
An NPA leader has told a Manila radio station that until a peace deal is hammered out with the government, it will not nominate rebels to the Cabinet but other “competent and dedicated persons.”
If this happens, it would be the first time a real left-leaning government with a clear social agenda would take power in the Philippines. It seems that the Filipino public is prepared for it, even though the corporate media tried to scare them away, focusing on his threats to kill criminals without due legal process.
“His kind of leadership, fiery and strong, was enough to make a great stride in convincing the electorate even from the far Batanes in the north to the nearer part of Tawi-Tawi in the south. Even the Visayas (the bulwark of Mar Roxas, the administration’s candidate), went gaga over Duterte,” noted Agato.
“Threatening to kill criminals was never a threat. It was a fact. Davao City is a showcase of a clean, peaceful, and ‘obedient’ culture. Discipline is a way of life, which a tourist will seldom experience in other parts of the country.”
During the campaign, it was often noted that the people of Davao and Mindanao in general were the most enthusiastic supporters of his presidential bid. “We supported the mayor’s campaign because he is a good disciplinarian,” Rita Banados, president of local women’s organization Gabriela, told INPS. “He reduced the [number of]poor people here in Davao because he provided community livelihood and conducted free seminars for those who needed special skills (for employment) … we expect him to do the same for the rest of the Pinoys.”
The phenomenal victory of Duterte is attributed in no small measure to the buzz created around the candidate by social media, which most Filipinos access through their mobile phones.
In a commentary published on the popular news site Rappler, social-media strategist Jay Jaboneta said: “The most successful digital strategies for the campaign were things that helped create a movement around the mayor… sending of high-quality and engaging emails and other materials… making the supporters an important part of the story.”
Jaboneta, who worked for some time as the Head of New Media in President Aquino’s Presidential Communications Operations Office, noted that the Duterte campaign attracted many talented young people such as noted bloggers and social-media people who worked side-by-side with traditional media practitioners and used tools like Facebook extensively to drive the campaign which was heavily data-driven.
“Volunteers and supporters were given the creative leeway to design it based on their own interpretation of the campaign narrative and it then allowed the messaging to be strategically aligned with what voters cared for at the moment. This even spread offline where supporters created their own T-shirt designs and used their own money to print them as well,” Jaboneta explained.
He pointed out that it was a grassroots-oriented campaign driven by committed volunteers. “The team was not selling a candidate, it was simply covering the movement around the campaign. The team was able to engage people, draw in viewers and make them feel like they were part of something big.”
From the United States across Europe and the Arab world to Asia, young people are impatient with the inability of multi-party democracy to bring real social change. If Duterte is able to keep the common-man instincts in office and deliver on his promise, even if it means using “undemocratic” means to rid the society of criminals and corruption, the Philippines could give hope to the “99 percent” around the world that are becoming disillusioned with democracy.