A regime is ending, earlier than expected, and dubious post-mortems such as this will abound on the legacy of Duterteeism.
Historically we have had only two truly disruptive leaders. One was Marcos, the other is Duterte. It is ironic therefore that one could spawn the resurrection of the other (or his heir).
Duterte is the story of a Davao Mayor on the national stage. He focused on the priorities of a city – drugs, peace and order, inner politics – not recognizing he was now playing in a bigger arena where the economy, management and vision were larger issues.
The President’s political signature is the cult of personality. He takes everything personally be it in how he attacks an opponent or his reaction to slights. He loves to play mind games, to unbalance you. This entertained voters but also narrowed his vision leading to national and family overreach and a dramatic end to his Administration that he never would have foreseen.
In foreign affairs he pivoted from the U.S. to China but this was arguably not out of a grand view of international relations as it was from a reported personal affront with U.S. authorities while Davao Mayor and, on the other hand, from the suspected financial support from the Mainland in his 2016 Presidential run. The President’s unwavering friendship with China came to haunt him after the latter’s brazen invasion of our Pacific islands.
The President’s last two years was marred by COVID so he will be judged, perhaps unfairly, not by his prior accomplishments whatever they be but by the failure of his Government’s response to the pandemic and the massive corruption that COVID exposed. Suddenly the Administration was seen to have no clothes.
To disguise its deficiencies, Malacanang raised the “existential” threat of a Communist takeover even as the notion of Red was abandoned 50 years ago in the Cold War. Even Russia and China have long put Communism behind them.
The War On Drugs which the President himself admits to being a failure was a simplistic approach – just kill the dealers and users – to a real problem while exempting the true culprits, the drug lords and the police.
The President was an absentee leader on the economy. He relegated the matter to Dominguez & Co. who had the momentum of the previous Administration to carry them through the first years but who were then blindsided by COVID. Sonny had plans but became engulfed in the economicl havoc of the pandemic.
As we approach May the conversation will shift from the assessment of the past to the prospects of the future. Here are some FAQs:
- Who will be our next leader?
The consensus is BBM/Sara have a commanding lead. BBM needs to maintain this gap because that is his best protection against a disqualification. He enjoys the support of GMA, the Estradas and possibly the President when things simmer down. He has the best oiled and funded machine with his wife, Liza, an important part of the fixture.
2. Why did Sara abandon the Presidency when she was the front-runner?
The Sara saga is a family discussion gone bad. It was the combination of an overreach by a controlling father, the remnants of a broken family, the tension between Sara and key members of Team Duterte, and the fear of a possibly failed presidential run. The father insisted the daughter play by his rules or he would take the ball away. This removed the political umbrella she thought she needed to win. A BBM partnership allowed her to retreat from the lime light with possible assurances of a role and an endorsement in 2028 without the shadow of her father. Sara was seemingly not ready for the Presidency.
2. How did BBM break from the pack?
BBM is a case of just showing up, of being at the right place at the right time. Elections are won by political presence, not by programs nor even personalities. Noy Aquino did not win because of his persona and his accomplishments and neither will Marcos. They are simply the embodiment of the family brand. BBM offers a message of unity even if his name is the source of the division. Yet he is no neophyte having been possibly the winner of the VPship in 2016. It is interesting if voters see in Marcos the anti-Establishment face of the future even as he so personifies the Establishment face of the past.
3. How do the other presidentiables hope to win?
First, they have to coalesce around one candidate and even this may not be enough. This coalition may emerge by attrition as the less financially and electorally viable campaigns wither on the vine.
Second, the surviving candidate(s) must stamp his political presence which may mean taking inordinate risks. The challenge for the contenders is how to be heard in the cacophony of elections. Marginal political thinking will be not enough to overtake BBM. His opponents may have to go out on either the extreme left or right of the ideological spectrum with programs such as Universal Income, Near-Free Housing, higher Minimum Wage, Emancipation of the Rural Folk and other populist measures however fiscally unsustainable. Such programs may scare capitalist donors so candidates must convince the Big Money that, hey, other than Jesus and Lee Kwan Yew, no leader has ever delivered nor had to deliver on campaign promises.
4. Does populism work?
Duterte is the product of populism. Voters lapped up his outrageous claims like solving drugs in six months, jet skiing to the Spratleys and publicly shaming Big Business. He was their revenge on the elite.
Voters are seemingly bored with centrists, top down economics and liberal and human rights talk. In South America left leaning up-starts have overthrown years of right wing authoritarianism, the latest being the election of the new Honduran President and the return in Brazil of Lula, the past socialist president. On Sunday Chileans will be choosing between two (out of seven) candidates who represent the extreme left and right. These countries are in many ways akin to the Philippines – Are we not the Banana Republic of Asia? – so what worked there could work here.
5. Which of the candidates can best espouse populism?
Isko has the most temerity to take political risks and be disruptive. His rise from the slums gives him the credibility to push the ideological envelope.
Leni is caring but her background and supporters are largely conservative and traditional. She is small steps at a time.
Marcos could move to the political right but that could bring out martial law skeletons. Why fix something that is not broken? He is best saying nothing and running out the clock.
Pacquiao comes from poverty but now lives the good life so he is not the best messenger of anything different.
Ping is walking for President so anything he says may not actually matter.
6. Can external forces affect the May outcome?
China and the U.S. have a vested geo-political interest in the coming elections. The military has not spoken but will if asked. BBM could be disqualified but I would not bet on it. The Marcos’ are surely already reaching out to the President and he, I believe, will listen. His stepping down from the Senate race indicates he is ready to ride into the sunset but with his head high.
Going forward BBM needs only to avoid mishaps and to stick to overarching themes of unity, stability and progress without the details.The others must go out on a limb with specifics and without a safety net if they are to gain traction and therein lies the rub.