What a Duterte Win Means for Philippines
May 11, 2016
In 2010, the Philippines conducted its first-ever automated poll, and I wrote that “elections had changed, but politics didn’t.” This year for a second time, a general election, including the presidency, was automated. Again we had concessions from presidential candidates the day after the polls instead of having to wait weeks for a manual count. This year the websites were much more advanced, so that one could search for any locality or any race throughout the entire country, making the entire process much more transparent. (At the time of writing, the only close national vote is for the separately elected vice president, between Bongbong Marcos and Leni Robredo – neither of whom was the running mate of victorious Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte.) So, a new administration starts on the basis of a credible election.
Duterte’s (presumptive) election as president has generated considerable interest in international media due to his colorful, outlandish, occasionally vulgar language, and his very tough line on criminality that has drawn criticism for violating human rights. Asked how such a man could be elected president, one can point out the he is merely the latest in a series of national candidates that have made a political career on the back of crime fighting. Former President Joseph Estrada was, while vice president in an earlier administration, head of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission. He is currently mayor of Manila, having just narrowly defeated former mayor Alfredo “Dirty Harry” Lim, a retired police general who was also not fond of criminals’ human rights. Other police generals have been nationally elected to the Senate – Panfilo Lacson and Robert Barbers. Rich, poor, and middle class Filipinos share a fear of crime, particularly drug-related, and have rewarded their votes to those who are seen to be tough on criminals.
Painting the election of Duterte as a rejection of the current Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino III administration is disproven by the data. The president himself personally has a higher satisfaction rating than any prior president at the end of the term, and satisfaction with his administration as a whole, rates higher than previous ones. What we have instead is, once again, a demonstration that the endorsement of a sitting administration does not translate into votes for the anointed successor. In 1992, Corazon Aquino’s chosen successor, Fidel V. Ramos, barely won a narrow election with 24 percent of the vote (against 22% for his nearest rival). In 1998, Ramos’s choice, Jose de Venecia, failed miserably, and in 2010, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s choice, Gilberto Teodoro, also failed. In 2016, Aquino’s choice, Mar Roxas, never led the race and in the end was handily defeated.
In broad strokes, politics hasn’t changed – family ties are what organize electoral races over a wide swath of the country, and show business or sports fame is often a boost in electoral contests (most obviously the victory of boxer Manny Pacquiao for the nationally-elected Senate after having been a district Congressman who rarely attended sessions). There are some hints, though, that considerations of performance and policy can actually attract votes. Human rights lawyer and first term congresswoman Leni Robredo came from far behind to be in a very tight race for vice president with Bongbong Marcos, given her ability to project sincerity (taking public transport, for instance). As the Aquino administration’s candidate, she not only gained 4 million votes more than her running mate, Mar Roxas, but comes within a million votes of the number Duterte got for president (adding to the argument that the election was not a repudiation of the current administration).
So, elections continue to get better, politics remain fundamentally the same with some indications of change – how about policy? Surely, in a system as president-centric as the Philippines, the choice of Duterte will make a difference? The answer to this question is extraordinarily difficult, since as a campaigner Mayor Duterte had a laser-like focus on what was needed to win: crime, corruption, drugs. (One could go on in admiration of the media savvy this demonstrated, but the voting results speak for themselves.)
Since the election, many have been recommending particular economic, social, and international policies. Duterte’s most prominent policy position is to change the Philippines into a federal state, and has raised the possibility of reducing the economically restrictive provisions of the constitution. Duterte himself has been busy clarifying that he does support the increased number of years of education in the senior high school, continuing the good programs of previous administrations, and copy the ideas of his rivals. He pledged to prioritize agriculture, where poverty is prevalent, though he has not outlined, for instance, how to help farmers shift into more high-value crops. Peace advocates have been heartened by his support for talks with communist insurgents as well as his endorsement of peace deals reached with Muslim separatists.
In international affairs, Duterte’s position on the West Philippine/South China Sea is generally misunderstood. He pledges to try to implement any decision of the UN Tribunal currently hearing the West Philippine/South China case, but worries that it would take too long. He has said he is open to joint development with China, or that he would base an exchange on whether China would build for the Philippines the kind of railway that it has built in Africa. But both of these propositions rest on a prior agreement not to talk about sovereignty. He regards the Philippine claims to be valid but is willing to set them aside for the moment if China is also willing to do so. In the end, this leads to the same position as the current administration, inasmuch as China is generally perceived as unwilling to set aside sovereignty claims.
Analysts are well-advised to look beyond Duterte’s flamboyant rhetoric to discern where policies might head (and who might be appointed to implement those policies). As a new administration gets staffed up, and the new president delivers his State of the Nation Address on July 25, new directions for the Philippines will be emerging.
Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines and can be reached at email@example.com and @StevenRoodPH on Twitter. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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