Do Filipinos really want alcohol bans, curfews and the death penalty?

Photo: Facebook page of Rodrigo Duterte

By Loke Hoe Yeong

Since winning the Philippines’s presidential election, Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to enact many of the hard-line measures he promised during his campaign, including a ban on the public consumption of alcohol at night, curfews for children after 10pm and even bring back the death penalty.

Are these really what Filipino voters wanted?

Indeed, Duterte presented an image of a law and order guy, who flaunted what he had achieved in Davao as its mayor for over 22 years. During his tenure in that southern Philippine city, crime rates dropped and the city became safer. Less savoury, though, has been Duterte’s boasting of the vigilante style killings of criminals by his city police, which he has at times spoken of introducing throughout the country.

Amid the boom years under President Bengino Aquino, Filipinos were well aware of the socio-economic inequalities that lingered in the country, and with it, crime. There is also a sense among the Filipinos who support Duterte that the Philippines had become too lenient with criminals.

According to national police data, crimes reported in the Philippines doubled from 319,441 cases in 2010, when President Aquino took office, to 675,816 last year, 2015. About half of those were serious crimes, with rape cases increasing by a whopping 120% over this period.

However, one does have to consider that the reporting process of crimes has improved, given the proliferation of CCTV cameras in urban areas as well as a text messaging system for reporting crimes.

The return of the strongmen?

In electing Duterte by a considerable margin, Filipino voters have shown a clear preference for a fixer to run the country – a rare politician in the Philippines who “walks the talk”.

Manuel “Mar” Roxas was the establishment candidate, endorsed by the incumbent president and fellow Liberal Party member Benigno Aquino, who was regarded as standoffish and prone to political gaffes. He is the grandson of a former president, also named Manuel Roxas, who ruled the country in the 1940s, but seems to have only inherited his wealth but not his political acumen.

Another top contender for the presidency, the senator Grace Poe, is the antithesis to Duterte, but ultimately was not the kind of president the majority of voters yearned for.

Comparisons have been made between Duterte and Marcos, the former dictator, who imposed martial law in the Philippines from 1972 to 1981 in order to tackle crime as well as a communist insurgency. It was during that period when Filipinos last witnessed night-time curfews. The comparison is superficial of course, but it does buttress the idea that Filipinos want tougher leaders again.

Marcos’s son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., is tied neck to neck with another candidate in the vice-president race. The vote recounting process has already taken a week, and take yet another week.

If Marcos Jr. does indeed win the vice-president race, he is all but likely to be the frontrunner for the next president of the Philippines, after Duterte’s tenure.

Comparisons with Jokowi

The rise of Duterte from city administration to presidential office finds a parallel in the case of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo of Indonesia. The governor – essentially mayor – of Jakarta, Jokowi was known as a fixer of traffic and reducing flooding in the national capital, a knack said to have been picked up from his time in the furniture and logistics industry. And the governorship also brought him close to the centre of the sprawling nation’s political elite, albeit at a time of increasing decentralisation of Indonesian political power.

One and a half year into presidential office, Jokowi has fared less than well in opinion polls, being seen as a weak leader in a nation known for its strongmen. The question raised is whether his stellar record as a city mayor qualified him for the job of running the world’s fourth largest country by population.

There are considerable political hindrances that Jokowi faces of course. For one, he is not even the leader of his political party, the PDI-P. The honour of that position goes to Megawati Sukarnoputri, herself a former president of Indonesia. She stepped aside in the last presidential election, when she rightly realised the greater popularity of her younger colleague, but she continues to hold the reins of the party tightly.

The foul-mouthed Rodrigo Duterte is a very different character from the more civil Jokowi, but he is not without his challenges. A presidential candidate can glide into victory by drawing on domestic sentiments and playing the popular local guy. That very character could well be his undoing on the national and international stage, where diplomacy is part of the job.

This could not have come at a more inopportune time. The Philippines has been thrust into international limelight, not only in terms of its increasing military role in Southeast Asia and in the South China Sea disputes, as explored in a previous ASEAN Today commentary.

But it is also a time when investors are coming to the Philippines, after a long period of economic stagnation before the current Aquino presidency. The bravura of a demagogic president not only lends itself easily to war-mongering, but international investors are also not impressed by flip-flopping populists.