Persuasion is what drives electoral campaigns, but for Rodrigo Duterte, his rhetoric doesn’t just ring bells – it bangs gongs, clangs cymbals, and produces loud explosions. He seizes every opportunity to offend. He is larger than life. He is beholden to no one. He speaks his mind without fear of the repercussions. He brags about his mistresses and the criminals he has gunned down. He has become the man of the moment and his quotes are shown all over the news – television, print and online.
The statements get ever more offensive. Most recently, with Metro Manila just a few weeks removed from the traffic mess brought by the APEC summit, he didn’t mince his words and cursed the Pope, whose visit in January caused massive congestion both in the roads and in the airports.
Putang ina ka, umuwi ka na. Huwag ka na magbisita dito.
The latest foul-mouthed episode has caused national outrage. Filipinos, even non-Catholics, said the mayor has stepped way out of bounds. It forced Duterte to perform damage control and show contrition, a side of him many may have not seen before, a 180-degree turn from his macho bravado.
But this PR misstep seems trifling to Filipinos who have shot him to the top of the surveys, hinting of a strong possibility one day that the iron-fisted politician may actually come to occupy Malacañang. Observers and analysts identify this support as a result of Filipinos getting tired of what they perceive as incompetence and callousness of the government. In Metro Manila, where commuters are either perpetually stuck for hours in traffic or in horrendous queues at the MRT, the voters are furious and Duterte is their spokesman. And with about six months to the start of the elections that will determine the next president, it is increasingly clear that Filipinos are demanding not just change, but an overhaul.
To understand the tremendous support for Duterte, one only needs to look at Davao City, the city in which he has served since 1988. Davao City has become one of the most progressive and safest in the country and it was hailed as one of the fastest-growing cities in Asia in 2011. Its success story is attributed to its social stability bought about by strict implementations of ordinances, such as curfew for minors and ban on alcoholic beverages past midnight. And there are the reported vigilante killings of alleged criminals that lowered the city’s crime rate. Duterte tells the people how he has made Davao City a successful place through his iron hands. He doesn’t even wink when human rights groups question his method of justice. He claims he has killed 1,700 criminals when reports say only 700.
Most politicians these days are so out of tune with their constituents, so calculated in their speeches, that a candidate who blurts out whatever comes into his head seems like a breath of fresh air, even if what he is saying runs against the people’s moral principles.
Compare this with P-Noy, for instance. The president has been trumpeting the economic gains of the Philippines. For the past few years, the country saw its economic performance improve, with the Asia Development Bank citing the country’s higher employment rate, low inflation, and rising remittances from overseas Filipinos.
But progress has been uneven, to say the least. The country is now classified as newly industrialized, which means the focus has shifted to services and manufacturing at the expense of the agricultural sector. The bulk of economic improvement is concentrated in major cities and large private corporations. The effects of this disparity have hit hard, especially in Metro Manila, where an underdeveloped transportation infrastructure is overmatched by a ballooning workforce.
Furthermore, selective justice, corruption from the Bureau of Customs and airport officials, as well as other issues like the “Laglag Bala” scheme all contribute to the dissatisfaction. And the president’s indifference to the deaths of the SAF 44 and to the other tragedies that befell the common Filipino doesn’t help alleviate that deep-seated cynicism.
For the last five and a half years, Filipinos believe, P-Noy’s governance has done nothing to help.
They don’t want detailed discussions filled with technical terms of GDP increases or the Paris climate talks or the arbitration against China. They want an outlet for their anger. They want someone to stand up and promise them that the everyday problems plaguing the regular Filipino will soon disappear.
Duterte is their man. He is the exact opposite of what Filipinos describe as trapo, the traditional politician. His speeches are spontaneous and raw. The words flow from his mouth, oozing machismo and anger that frames the political landscape as a war between the ruling elite and the increasingly exasperated common people. He offers simplistic solutions to complex issues. He plays on the public’s growing frustration, promising to eliminate crime and corruption by any means necessary – even through murder.
But it would be a mistake if Filipinos followed this anger into a path where Duterte promises to take us. It gives power to a man who manipulates laws to suit his purpose, and who may veer from legal procedures to execute his brand of justice. His often irresponsible and reckless speeches can be disastrous in areas such as foreign relations, especially now that globalization plays a critical role in determining where the Philippines is headed.
At the same time, it would also be wrong to simply dismiss what made Duterte so appealing to so many voters in the first place. For them, the rants he unleashes against a privileged political class and inefficient government agencies ring true. In a country where progress can hardly be felt by the poor and the marginalized, people are desperate for something concrete.
As long as many Filipinos feel that way, they will side with someone who has the balls to raise his middle finger to the government, the Catholic Church be damned.
Illustration by Rica Palomo-Espiritu