Written by Richard J. Heydarian.
In coming days, the Philippines is set to elect a new roster of leaders. This is, arguably, the Southeast Asian country’s most important presidential election in recent memory, with potentially far-reaching implications in both domestic and foreign policy realms.
In what has turned out as one of the most unpredictable elections in recent memory, the Philippines’ presidential race has finally produced a clear frontrunner. Rodrigo Duterte, Davao’s firebrand mayor, who has a penchant for pugnacious rhetoric and often-controversial remarks, is now clearly the man to beat.
Astonishingly, he was unscathed by the ‘rape joke’ fallout, which was expected to undermine — if not derail — his political ambitions. In fact, Duterte’s numbers have even increased, reflecting the degree of loyalty and support he enjoys among a growing number of voters. No less than Randy David, a leading Filipino sociologist, has gone so far as warning about the emergence of a proto-fascist “Dutertismo” movement in the Philippines.
Latest survey suggests Duterte (33%), a ‘political outsider’ par excellence, enjoys a comfortable double-digit lead over his closest rivals, Interior Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas (22%) and neophyte Senator Grace Poe (21%). But his numbers could decline in light of allegations of massive hidden wealth — an accusation that, especially if proven true, could undermine his ‘authenticity’ and carefully-crafted image as the purported leader of a ‘revolt of the periphery’ against the national oligarchy.
Meanwhile, in the vice-presidential race, which is separately contested, Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr. (28%), the sole son of the former Filipino strongman, is now statistically tied at first with Roxas’ running mate, Leni Robredo (30%), who has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the surveys in the past month. By and large, the race is increasingly looking like one between the “iron fist” (kamay na bakal) Duterte-Marcos tandem, on one hand, and the “straight path” (daan matuwid) Roxas-Robredo tandem, on the other. It has become an increasingly polarizing contest, which poses real risks of post-elections mayhem and/or long-term political fragmentation in the country.
The prospect of a Duterte-Marcos administration has spooked many voters and international observers, who fear the potential emergence of neo-authoritarianism in the country. Amid an era of ‘grievance politics’, both Duterte and Marcos, in their own distinct ways, have tapped into deep-running frustration and “democracy fatigue” among voters by promising decisive, single-minded leadership.
Running on the (vague) promise of federalism, Duterte is counting on massive support among voters in peripheral regions of Mindanao and Visayas, while developing a surprisingly robust following among upper- and middle-class residents of the capital region, who have proven receptive to his strong ‘anti-crime’ rhetoric. Marcos is even more popular among the upper- and middle classes, and is counting on the support of the “solid north” Ilocano ethno-linguistic group.
But what’s happening in the Philippines is nothing unique. In fact, from India (Narendra Modi) to Turkey (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), the world is witnessing the emergence of “strongmen” leaders across ‘emerging market’ democracies. In Peru, Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former dictator (Albert), is currently a favorite in the upcoming presidential elections. In Political Order in Changing Societies, no less than Samuel Huntington perspicaciously detected the counter-intuitive nexus between rapid economic growth and political decay.
Under the stewardship of the Benigno Aquino administration, the Philippines has posted one of the fastest growth rates in the world. Recent years have also seen good governance initiatives aimed at combating corruption and enhancing the country’s economic competitiveness. Yet, growth is not trickling down, while the middle classes bemoan heavy traffic congestion, infrastructure backlog, chronic corruption, and lack of law and order.
In short, expectations are far outstripping improvements on the ground. And this has created a healthy dosage of frustration ripe for political manipulation by skilled demagogues. After half-a-decade of relative political stability and notable macroeconomic gains, and three decades since the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, the Philippines has begun to flirt with autocratic nostalgia.
In fairness, Marcos Jr. has stopped short of endorsing martial law, but, quite unapologetically, he has consistently glorified his father’s (destructive) legacy, going so far as to claim that if not for the 1986 People Power Revolution, the Philippines would have become a developed country like Singapore.
As for the more flamboyant Duterte, he has actually threatened to abolish the Philippine congress, while often suggesting the prospect of “dictatorship” if elected into office. Of course, it is never clear whether this is pure braggadocio or expression of his darkest desires, but financial markets are jittery, with business leaders warning of potential “anarchy” under a Duterte leadership.
In contrast to the Aquino administration, which has adopted a counter-balancing strategy against China, both Marcos and Duterte have expressed their desire for direct dialogue as well as joint development agreements with China in the South China Sea. Recently, Duterte grabbed headlines by proclaiming that if China will “build me a train around Mindanao, build me train from Manila to Bicol . . . build me a train [going to] Batangas, for the six years that I’ll be president, I’ll shut up [on the sovereignty disputes].”
While China has been encouraged by these gestures of engagement, traditional allies like America and Japan are worried about the prospect of lukewarm relations under a Duterte presidency. There are even concerns that Duterte may just snub the likely favorable outcome of an ongoing arbitration case against China at The Hague in order to rebuilt frayed ties with Beijing.
Given their massive following, particularly in the case of Duterte, it is far from clear whether they will accept anything short of victory, especially if they (narrowly) lose elections to administration bets, who are perceived to be angling to ‘steal the elections’ in order to avoid a potential backslide into autocracy. Win or lose, the rise of the Duterte-Marcos tandem has shaken up the Philippine political landscape with potentially disturbing consequences.
Richard J. Heydarian is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University, Manila, and the author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific” (Zed Books, London). Image credit: CC by Marlon E/Flickr.