REYKJAVIK, Iceland: The International Association of Political Consultants (IAPC) had its 50th world conference in the country made of ice and fire, with the theme “Political Volcano: Democracy at Risk.” The IAPC is the “worldwide organization for those involved in consulting to political parties, politicians and governments around the globe.” The IAPC meets annually to share best practices, offer support and develop democracy.
I was invited by Rick Ridder, a past president of IAPC, to be part of one of the discussion panels of the conference. Ridder, a former presidential campaign manager and senior consultant for five presidential campaigns, is the president and co-founder of RBI Strategies and Research (RBI). In his more than 25 years with RBI, Rick has consulted for numerous US congressional, gubernatorial, state and local campaigns. Internationally, he has worked in 20 countries, including the successful campaigns of four heads of state.
The three featured panels were—Political Volcano: Democracy at Risk; Weaponized Web and Fake News. I was in the first panel with Jeffrey Edmonds and was asked to respond to a key question: Are modern populist movements a threat to democracy, or merely a new expression of democratic ideals in action? For the weaponized web session, the panel was made up of Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager Robby Mook, Brent Blackab, and Tex Dozier. They examined the weaponized web in political campaigns, national security, and international relations, and its potential impact on global democracy. The panel on fake news had two very interesting individuals focusing on slanted, specious, or just plain trumped-up spurious stories that abounded in the 2016 US presidential race. Indeed, the proliferation of “fake news” has coincided with unprecedented attacks on the legitimacy of traditional news sources not only in the US but worldwide and these have affected campaigns. Mike Dubke, a former White House communications director under Donald Trump, and IAPC member Ekaterina Egorova, a Russian, spoke on the real impact of “fake news”.
I presented Duterte’s campaign narrative from 24 percent to 33 percent in 90 days that covered the late filing via substitution, the listening tour on federalism and being anti-establishment, an outlier (from Mindanao) and outsider from the political and economic elites of the country. Duterte showed disdain for formalities and luxury. I talked about Manila-centric politics and pointed out that the Philippines was not made of Metro Manila only. I referred to the strategy of being from Mindanao and what it meant in terms of national politics and how Duterte harnessed public anger and frustration. But I also talked about his 22-year track record as mayor of Davao City, the country’s biggest city and his various achievements there: most child friendly (1998 and 2015); most livable city (2003); best peace and order council (1999-2002); one of the Top 20 mostly livable cities in Asia (1996-1999). I referred to Duterte’s three battles: anti-criminality, anti-illegal drugs and anti-corruption. And that for him, the investors will come and the economy will take care of itself if these three battles are won. Proof of concept was Davao City. That he remained authentic and stayed on message cornering support from the collective underdogs of Philippine society. Duterte was their champion and since he was not one of the elite, he made it a battle of the underprivileged. I also talked about social media as a way of creating a beachhead in terms of building top-of-mind as well as the interplay of traditional and new media. I recalled how the Philippine flag became a visual tool of the campaign, to drive home his single overarching message—love of country.
My response to the main question of the conference: “Yes, Duterte is a political volcano, figuratively and literally. But no, democracy is not at risk in the Philippines. Thirty years after Martial Law, we face the same issues: poverty at 26 percent, a country controlled by 40 families, an illegal drug menace that only now is being accepted and confronted, and an infrastructure deficit that accounts for the Philippines’ low ranking in Asean. Duterte has been framed by Western media and governments as a risk but the game changer remains resolute in building a new Philippines. Diplomatically, he has done what no leader before him has done. He remains a strong voice for Asia and Asean. A quad pivot towards Japan, China, Russia and the US. He is a nationalist, not a populist. Duterte is a Filipino leader who has shown that love of country is the highest virtue than that of the presidency.”
Explaining the Philippines today and Duterte before various nationalities who are experts in the field of political campaigns in just 10 minutes was daunting. No “EJK question” was presented, but I referred to it anyway, explaining that it is an issue of sovereignty and that there is no state- sponsored killings as painted by some. The response was heartwarming.
As Olaf Eliasson said: “I’ve walked a lot in the mountains in Iceland. And as you come to a new valley, as you come to a new landscape, you have a certain view. If you stand still, the landscape doesn’t necessarily tell you how big it is. It doesn’t really tell you what you’re looking at. The moment you start to move the mountain starts to move.”