Power of the people: how Rodrigo Duterte became the next president of the Philippines

After three in the morning on May 11, 10 hours after the polls had closed, Rodrigo Duterte told his aides he wanted to pass by the public cemetery in Davao, the southern city of where he has been mayor for more than two decades. He wanted to visit his parents’ grave, he said. As election […]

After three in the morning on May 11, 10 hours after the polls had closed, Rodrigo Duterte told his aides he wanted to pass by the public cemetery in Davao, the southern city of where he has been mayor for more than two decades. He wanted to visit his parents’ grave, he said.

As election results trickled in from across the country, it became clear that Duterte had won the Philippine presidential election by a landslide, earning almost twice as many votes received by second-placer Mar Roxas, the grandson of former president Manuel Roxas.

As he approached his parents’ grave, the tough-talking and crime-crushing mayor known as The Punisher startled his aides when he began to break down in tears, as if realising the tremendous burden of leading a country.

Clenching his fist on top of his mother’s tomb, he sobbed like a child.

“Ma, please help me,” he said in the local Visayan dialect. “I can’t believe this. Who am I? I’m just a nobody.”

Duterte, 71, enacted many headline-grabbing moments throughout the election season: making fun of his opponents; threatening to kill criminals; insulting the Pope; joking about rape; kissing female supporters. What he never did was show emotion, until now.

“I have long wanted to cry aloud like that,” he told one of his aides as they drove out of the cemetery.

Affectionately called “Digong” by his supporters, Rodrigo Roa Duterte will be sworn in as the 16th president of the Republic of the Philippines on June 30. He is the son of a public schoolteacher, Soleng, and a former politician, Vicente. Duterte worked as a lawyer before being appointed as vice-mayor of Davao by president Corazon Aquino after the 1986 People Power Revolution that overthrew the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.

Duterte went on to serve as Davao’s mayor for seven terms – more than 22 years – and turned the once-murder capital of the country into what many now consider as the most peaceful city in South East Asia. Along the way, however, he has been accused of organising vigilante death squads that target criminals and drug dealers.

“A leader must be a terror to the few who are evil,” Duterte once said, “in order to protect the lives and well-being of the many who are good.”

His stern stance on law and order has resonated with millions of voters in a country where crime and corruption remain rampant. But Duterte’s win embodies something more significant: the electorate’s yearning for change.

Duterte is the first of all the 16 Filipino presidents to have never held a position in national government prior to being elected head of state, not counting Aquino, who was catapulted to power by a citizen revolution after the assassination of her husband, opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr.

During the election, Duterte’s four opponents were all major players in the national political arena: interior minister Mar Roxas, vice president Jejomar Binay and senators Grace Poe and Miriam Defensor-Santiago. In voting for Duterte, the people sent a resounding message to the political establishment: we’re tired of waiting for progress – and we’re ready to try somebody new.

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Celebrity versus policy in Philippine elections

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While campaigning for the presidency, Duterte’s platform focused on two matters. First, switching from a unitary form of government to a federal and parliamentary model, resulting in a devolvement of power from the capital city Manila to thousands of neglected towns across the country’s 7,107 islands. Second, cracking down on tax evaders and corrupt politicians to boost funding for welfare and basic services.

“He showed in Davao that he can build a city. Now he has to show us that he can build a country,” said Evelyn Macapantay, a 31-year-old accountant in Manila who voted for Duterte. “If all the allegations being thrown against him – about killing criminals and disrespecting women – are true, how come he has a near-perfect approval rating with Davaoeños? Why do they keep electing him?”

Duterte received 96.6 per cent of the presidential vote in Davao, proof of the city’s trust in his leadership.

That his promises struck a chord with voters is unsurprising. While the Philippines enjoyed six years of robust economic development under the leadership of outgoing president Benigno Aquino III, 90 per cent of Filipinos are still classified as lower or working class. About half of the population live on less than US$2 (Dh7) a day. While the country’s gross domestic product has improved, a significant number of Filipinos remain jobless. Social services and infrastructure are substandard.

Many have been forced to seek better opportunities in distant lands, resulting to the destruction of the fabric of home in a country where the family is considered the most important element of life. There are now 10 million Filipinos – a 10th of the population – living and working abroad. More than half a million are in the UAE.

“Our salaries are so low yet we have to pay high taxes, so where does it all go?” said Jerico Planta, a 25-year-old nurse who plans to apply to hospitals in Canada or the Middle East. “Traffic is bad, the trains are unreliable, food prices are going up – I just don’t feel any relief.”

Last week, Duterte released an eight-point economic agenda that prioritised tax reform, the acceleration of infrastructure spending and the strengthening of the basic education system. While pledging to continue the successful market-friendly macroeconomic policies of Aquino’s administration, he plans to review foreign ownership limits in several industries to attract more overseas investments.

Duterte also said his cabinet of ministers will comprise of seasoned veterans and new faces, “not politicians, but managers”. His plans eased investor concerns, as the Philippine peso quickly rose against the dollar.

“A wildcard in the pack of world leaders,” declared Time Magazine, where Duterte appears on the cover (of the May 23 issue).

Duterte also surprised his detractors by reaching out to his opponents the day after the election. “Let us begin the healing now,” he said, declaring that he was accepting the public’s mandate with “extreme humility”.

In the days that followed, Duterte attested to what many pundits had suspected during the campaign season: the brash rhetoric was a bit of an act. He utilised off-colour remarks to stand out from the measured tones of his rivals and to captivate the common voter.

“When I become president, I will really behave,” he said, dubbing his previous cursing and tactless language as plain “banter with Filipinos”.

“During the campaign, he had to be tough,” said Honeylet Avanceña, Duterte’s common-law wife. “But now he says he won’t curse anymore. I told him, ‘Wow, your mother will love that.'”

Filipinos cast their ballots for president and vice president separately, and Leni Robredo, a lawyer and congresswoman, is set to be declared the winner of the vice-presidential race, beating a slate that included Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, the son of the former dictator, and Alan Peter Cayetano, Duterte’s running mate.

While she ran with administration candidate Mar Roxas, Robredo is a fresh face in national politics, having only served three years in the Philippines Congress. She became a public figure after the death of her husband, interior secretary Jesse Robredo, in a plane crash in 2012.

The 52-year-old widow with three daughters polled at just one per cent with the electorate last year. But voters soon admired her down-to-earth attitude and previous achievements in Congress, where she passed 14 laws in three years. Prior to joining politics, Robredo worked as a lawyer for the marginalised and underprivileged.

“I am ready to become the mother of our nation,” Robredo said recently.

The same wave of anti-elitism that propelled Duterte to victory likely carried Robredo to hers. That two outsiders of the oligarchy are set to run the country in the next six years is remarkable. Robredo’s calm, soft-hearted approach should nicely complement Duterte’s harsh style.

They do have more in common than many assume: both are lawyers based outside of the capital; both were initially reluctant to run for national office; both have been praised for their hands-on leadership; and both have vowed to keep their simple lifestyles throughout their terms.

Robredo regularly takes public transportation, including a frequent eight-hour bus ride from Manila to Naga City, where her family lives. She is often photographed wearing flip-flops, waiting patiently in bus stops. Duterte, meanwhile, has worn the same checkered polo shirt and pair of tattered trainers throughout most of the campaign season. What these election results tell us is that Filipinos chose leaders who understood how it was to be an ordinary citizen.

In an interview earlier this week, Duterte said that on his oath-taking next month he will do away with much of the pomp that traditionally accompanies presidential inaugurations. Instead of a historic park in Manila where it is usually held, Duterte wants to do it right inside his office in Malacañang Palace.

“I will secretly invite all the people living under the bridges to Malacañang,” he said. “I will not throw a banquet at the diplomatic corps. The invitation will say, ‘Drinks will be served: juice or Coca-Cola.'”

James Gabrillo is a former arts editor at The National. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge studying cultural spectacles in the Philippines.

Source: art & life

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