Why does the Philippines have a Donald Trump-like presidential frontrunner?

Photo: Facebook of Rodrigo Duterte
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By Loke Hoe Yeong

The upcoming Philippine presidential election has been compared to the concurrent race in the US. The frontrunner, Rodrigo Duterte, a tough-talking, long time mayor who became infamous internationally of late for an insensitive rape joke, has been compared to Donald Trump for his populist, devil-may-care campaign style. Both men have also been criticised for having practically no foreign policy influence.

Another comparison with another US presidential election could soon become salient.

After two terms of the Bill Clinton presidency, during which the US federal deficit was erased and the country witnessed considerable economic growth, Americans voted narrowly for the Republican George W. Bush, rather than for Bill Clinton’s natural successor on the Democratic ticket, Al Gore.

Under the presidency of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III for the past six years, the Philippines experienced one of the highest growth rates in Asia at rates of around 6%. The Philippines was billed not too long ago as the “sick man of Asia”, but it is now chugging with vibrancy with investors.

But the candidate leading the opinion is not Mar Roxas, Aquino’s anointed successor, but Rodrigo Duterte.

So why is Duterte leading in the polls, and why does his lead appear to be widening even more in his favour? The latest opinion poll placed Duterte at 34%, with the runner-up at a distant 22%.

The grievances of voters

Inequality and income disparities remain at very much the same levels, despite the phenomenal economic growth of the Aquino years. Neither have they worsened, but the electorate has come to expect more from their leaders to create more inclusive economic growth.

Infrastructure under-development has also been commonly cited as another major grievance of the electorate. Unresolved traffic woes in Metro Manila come to mind. But as with the issue of economic inequality, the situation has not worsened compared to the pre-Aquino years.

Yet others have explained it as a wearing out of the aura surrounding the Aquino family. President Aquino’s mother, Corazon, was the first Filipino president after the 1986 revolution that overthrew the dictatorial President Ferdinand Marcos. Aquino’s father was a popular senator and leader of the opposition, who was assassinated in 1983. The ensuing public uproar spiraled into a chain of events that led to Marcos’ overthrow three years later.

“Noynoy” himself was not initially his Liberal Party’s candidate in the previous presidential election in 2010. But a sudden swell in public sentiments for his late mother, who died around that time, essentially catapulted “Noynoy” to the presidency.

Duterte: like The Donald?

Duterte had said at a campaign rally on 12 April that he “should have been the first” to rape an Australian missionary who was assaulted and killed by prisoners in his home city of Davao City back in 1989.

“What came to my mind was they raped her, they took turns raping her,” Duterte said. “Why did I get angry—because she was raped? Yes, that’s part of the reason, but also because she was so beautiful and the mayor should have been first.”

His campaign has also been in the business of name-dropping. He has misleadingly posted on social media photographs of world leaders like Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis supposedly in support of his presidential bid. His latest pick, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, has not gone unaddressed. The Singaporean embassy in Manila said it could be looking at legal remedies.

At the heart of this populist politician is a law-and-order sort of leader – the quintessential Southeast Asian “strongman”. During his long tenure as mayor of Davao City, crime rates plunged. Yet he is also extreme in having spoken up in favour of vigilante-style killings of alleged criminals.

Perhaps it is this desire for the law-and-order sort of politicians that a certain mass of Filipino voters are clamouring for. This can be seen also in the surge in popularity of Ferdinand “BongBong” Marcos Jr., the son of the former dictatorial President Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos Jr. is running for the post of vice-president, the election for which is conducted separately from that of President. If he wins the vice-presidency, he will be on course to become president at the next election.

Marcos Jr.’s supporters tend to reminisce about the “orderly” Philippines that the authoritarian Marcos senior ran. The stories on the kleptocracy of the Marcos regime seem to have either been forgotten or played down by them.

Paradoxes: the popularity of Grace Poe, and Duterte’s views on China

Even more surprising than Duterte leading the opinion polls is that the runner-up in these polls is Grace Poe, a cosmopolitan-minded Senator, and a former US citizen –someone who could not be more different from Duterte.

All this suggests a fragmentation of the Filipino electorate, where starkly different candidates appeal to starkly different camps of supporters – reminiscent, again, of the concurrent US presidential race.

In the light of rising anti-China sentiments in the Philippines, the good performance of populist, nationalistic candidates in this presidential election is a textbook outcome. The Philippines has in recent months granted the US the right to operate military bases on Filipino soil, in a bid to counter China’s manoevres in the South China Sea.

It therefore comes as a great surprise that Duterte is not espousing the anti-China sentiment, but has in fact said that the disputes with China in the South China Sea are negotiable. Marcos Jr. shares similar stances towards China.

All this suggests a subtle interplay of messaging in Filippino politics that is lost on international watchers. But it does draw interesting inferences for how the new Philippine president will deal with China in the course of this year.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration is expected to rule on the Philippines’ case against China’s “nine-dotted line” claim on the South China Sea in May, around the time of the Philippine presidential election.