Duterte: A president for the wrong time?

Photo: Facebook of Rodrigo Duterte

By Loke Hoe Yeong

The president-elect of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, met with his cabinet for the first time yesterday (15 June), which was also the first time he has set foot in the capital Manila since his victory at the elections last month. Duterte himself will take the oath of office on 30 June.

Since his victory, Duterte has continued to make the same kind of controversial remarks which propelled him to notoriety in the international media, while being wildly popular at home with a large segment of the electorate.

He has continued making outrageous remarks such as the need to execute 50 criminals every month, as well as bizarre pronouncements such as that he would not maintain regular office hours even after he is sworn in as president.

In the sphere of international relations, where the stakes are higher for the Philippines, he has not made any outrageous remarks yet that would suggest that he will soon put his country on a collision course with China over the South China Sea conflict. A ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected any time soon – already dragged on since May – and tension are high between the two countries.

Duterte has mostly made remarks such as that the Philippines will maintain its right to sail to islets and maritime features within its exclusive economic zone as allotted by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

But given that Duterte has made outrageous remarks during his presidential campaign about expelling foreign ambassadors who criticised his making of a rape joke, or for riding a jet ski to plant the Philippine flag in the disputed Spratly Islands, one can never be too sure what to expect from the very colourful man.

How can one make sense of the man who is about to assume the mantle of a key country involved in the South China Sea disputes?

Domestically: Duterte can still be acceptable

The first step is to understand Duterte’s domestic reception, and why he has been so popular at the polls.

Outrageous and outlandish as some of Duterte’s preferred methods of crime control have sounded, he has the success of Davao City – the city of which he has long been mayor of – to show. The city has also prospered, and is one of the most well-run places in the Philippines, in terms also of infrastructure, traffic and the economy.

The supporters of Duterte in this regard are not limited to the provincial swathe of voters who are attracted to his devil-may-care rhetoric. Highly educated voters in the country, including those with considerable international exposure, do think crime needs to be cracked down hard on. They may dismiss his rhetoric as something to be looked past, given his impressive track record as a mayor of Davao City who ultimately delivered. They see, in the example of Davao City, what more parts of the Philippines can emulate, where violent crime can be rampant at times.

But running a city can be vastly different from running a country. The political skills garnered from mayoral experience can certainly be useful when one is gunning for higher national office. Here, Boris Johnson, the immediate past mayor of London, comes to mind. Like him or loathe him, Johnson has come to lead a significant dissenting camp within his party, the governing Conservative Party of the UK.

Duterte can be characterised as an outstanding politician, but ultimately a regional politician. Dealing with the political and bureaucratic elite in Manila – an essential part of his job as president, not something he can simply shrug and retreat from – can be vastly different from his circle of people in Davao. In this regard, he is also untested.

Internationally: a man for the wrong era?

When it comes to the international stage, Duterte’s mercurial persona can be a time-bomb waiting to explode. Here, the international community operates on a more vastly different mode than the Manila elite is from the Davao circle.

Much has been made of Duterte’s possible stoking of hostilities against a country like China. He is, in all likelihood, very cognizant of what is at stakes, and therefore is rather balanced in his approach towards China. He has mixed war-like rhetoric with level-minded talk of negotiating with China if conflict continues after the ruling of the PCA is made known, which is most likely the case.

On the international stage, blunt talk is unlikely to be forgiven in the same way it is within the domestic political arena. Especially after he becomes president, Beijing certainly would not be turning a blind eye to the kinds of callous remarks he has been used to making on the campaign trail, or during his time as mayor of Davao.

And gone are the days of the strongmen and demagogues who led nations in wars and world wars – and for the better.

Duterte may have made for a great president in a past era, where that could have been accepted as part of the game of international relations. Now, however, is not such a time.