Just as the American political elite has been disrupted by Donald “The Donald,”Trump, the tough-talking, cussing billionaire who is leading the Republican primaries, Philippine politics has been unsettled by the rise of Davao City Mayor Rodgigo Duterte in the presidential polls. From Digong Duterte, he is now “The Digong,”no surname required because of his surge in both national recognition and in the polls.
Even the befuddled pollsters themselves are probably asking this question. Who is this guy and what makes him a preferred presidential candidate? By all definitions, he is not a standard-issue frontrunner.
He mocks the Church, red flags have been raised against him by human rights groups, the p. i. (or a version of the p. i.) is the emphatic part of his media interviews and he has no pretension of adhering to civil political dialogue. And yet – just like the majority of the Republican primary voters’ love of “The Donald” – Filipinos spend time replaying media interviews of “The Digong” on their cell phones, guffawing at every p.i. and commenting “ang tapang talaga ni Duterte” after every dire warning on criminals and would-be-criminals.
Physically, there is nothing imposing about Duterte. He looks like the average senior citizen who abhors sun blocks, like many of us from the blue-collar stock. Like many us, he can’t be chosen the Homecoming King in a school reunion. Without a platform and a big stick as a big-city mayor, he would not stand out in a public plaza or at a bus terminal. Yet, the easy manner by which he has dispatched of the more popular names in Philippine politics – at least polling-wise — has raised very uncomfortable questions within the circles of the traditional political elite.
Policy-wise, he is a blank slate like “The Donald.” Mr. Trump has built his entire presidential quest on “Build a Wall” and “Ban the Muslims” tripe. He either indulges or circles around the language of fascism. The Digong has built his entire campaign on law-and-order, jailing or exterminating the criminals and building more funeral parlors etc. The original campaign plank of “federalism” has been relegated to the sidelines as his voting base expressed preference for his tough-on-criminals meme. None of these matter to his supporters.
The Philippine political elite is in a virtual state of shock and disbelief. And who would not be. The candidate of the ruling political coalition promises more economic growth, better lives and a loftier standing in the international community. The Digong promises to build more funeral parlors to accommodate the criminals that will fall prey to his anti-crime efforts. The Digong is number one in the polls. The mainstream candidate is the least likely, among the serious candidates, to win.
From his political war room, the mainstream candidate must have been swearing by the day he decided to make an empty slogan – daang matuwid – as the main theme of his campaign.
Whether the Philippine political elite likes it or not this is the hard truth. Philippine politics has been turned upside down and the punditry is at a loss for sane and rational reasons why the candidate who wants to make “Kill” the new national verb is, as of now, the number one in the presidential polls. The human rights groups, used to politicians folding up to their rants and rages, have been practically neutered by “The Digong.”
Earlier, I offered a lame explanation on the rise of “the Digong.”
Mr. Duterte’s campaign, I said lamely, feeds off the alienation of the majority of Filipinos from the governance of Mr. Aquino. While it is true that under Mr. Aquino the country has been posting sustained growth rates and credit upgrades, it is truer that 60 percent of these gains go straight to the Top 1 percent and that the 99 percent have to make do with the crumbs.
The economy has seen sustained joyless, jobless growth, if we can really call the slave-paying service jobs real jobs.
The majority would have been content with the little that they have gained over the past five years with a president cognizant of the mass alienation and promising to do more in terms of lifting the vulnerable. But no. The president disdains signing any and all legislative tokens for the poor and constantly harangues the citizenry on how great the country has been under his leadership. The rise of Duterte is rooted in “Aquino-fatigue,” I wrote earlier, and voters have been desperately seeking for the anti-Aquino. Which they have found in “The Digong.”
It is more broader and more complicated than that.
The Digong is actually a Pied Piper. His excessive, colorful language is equated by many with competence and toughness to lead. His scorched-earth promises are viewed as the instant, express train policies of deliverance to the many woes of ordinary Filipinos, from stalled trains to traffic gridlocks. The Digong vows to cut through the gridlocks that are normal in a democracy with three co-equal branches and to most Filipinos, this is a show of empathy.
The ordinary Filipino voter is worried, wary, fear-gripped and impatient. The Digong promises instant and total relief to their worries and fears.
The reality is this. For most of us stuck in the low-income to wretched-of-the-earth status, a president has no impact on our lives. A succession of incompetent leaders has not moved the needle – downward or upward – of our economic status. That made us largely indifferent to politics in general and presidential elections in particular.
This time it is different. Except for myself (I am a Digong-agnostic and fear leaders who rule by the gun), my lumpen friends and neighbors are rooting for The Digong.