On Post-Mortems and FAQs

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:

  1. 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.

One Down

One down and only 96 left to go. The latter is the number of candidates who are officially still running for President if only in their minds.

Bong Go’s recent announcement he was withdrawing from the presidential race was hardly surprising. He had earlier written an op-ed piece stating he would leave his destiny to the Filipino people and to God. Since the former has not yet spoken the presumption is Bong did have a conversation with the Almighty who advised him, presumably, it was time to let go.

In Bong’s case the Almighty is his mentor and adopted father, President Duterte. In previous articles I had written that PPRD always knew Bong was a non-starter. The President reportedly took soundings from his Congressmen and Governors in a series of meetings convened for the purpose and they confirmed what Lyndon Johnson liked to say: “This dog won’t hunt”. Incidentally, the attendance at these gatherings was apparently only about a third of the usual crowd suggesting some of his political supporters are starting to head for the lifeboats as the Administration ship of state starts to take in water.

Bong Go was not disappointed with this turn of events. He has always been happiest just sitting at the right hand side of the Father doing his thing. He was dragged in tears into the race by D30. It was a knee jerk reaction when the President was blind sided by the announcement of Sara running for VP. It was a ploy to jolt Sara and her running mate BBM with the prospect of an Administration candidate who would eat their lunch. Unfortunately his bluff was called leaving D30 now with no horse in the race.

The President has a few options left. One, he could push for the disqualification of BBM with his influence in the COMELEC and if necessary in the Supreme Court. Disqualifications proceedings could take a few months (the Election Code allows for the disqualification of a candidate up to 15 days before the election date). Until then BBM will seek to run up his poll numbers as quickly as possible hoping that the higher his popularity the more difficult it will be for the adjudicators to kick him out of the race without creating a political storm and backlash from his supporters. Time is not on D30’s side on this one.

Two, the President could throw his support behind Isko. Isko has openly welcomed the support of the President and that includes bringing Sara into the equation. This option is sub-optimal if BBM remains in the race and wins because then PPRD would have blown his political wad in a losing cause.

Three, as I had previously suggested, D30 could after his anger has subsided come to an “entente cordiale” with BBM on future legal cover for him and his gang against the ICC and whatever else is thrown at them after May 2022. This would mean eating humble pie something the President is loath and unaccustomed to do. The upside is it will help the candidacy of Sara who is running against a popular Tito Sotto. Despite their differences the President still wants  his daughter to win.

After a scathing attack against a BBM-type as a cocaine user, weak leader and good-for-nothing the President has scaled down the rhetoric suggesting he may have decided to bury the hatchet and move on. BBM will not take the attacks on him personally since in his own words he “never felt alluded to”. Incidentally, since we are on the subject of cocaine, did you know that while the substance is undetectable after two days with blood tests and three days with urine tests it remains traceable in the hair for months and even a year? Candidates with lovely heads of hair – and there are a couple of them – perhaps should volunteer to submit to follicle tests. But we digress.

How are the other presidential candidates faring?

Isko is building momentum but still has considerable ways to go. He does not want to peak too early so he is parsing his media exposure. The word is he is full on with his fund raising and has among all the candidates spent the most so far. He announced he is ready to sleep with the enemy which is the mark of a good politician. At least he is transparent about his intentions which is part of his charm.

Leni saw an initial surge in the polls after her CoC. She has a base of enthusiastic supporters mostly from the AB crowd and the intelligentsia whose vote unfortunately for them is far less than their voice. By her own admission funding remains constrained until she can show better poll results and momentum. Her Senate slate which includes some ethically challenged members has drawn criticism even among her supporters. Leni may arguably have a bigger say as kingmaker than as queen but she needs to make this determination sooner rather than later if she is to maximize her sway.

Manny Paquiao continues to draw huge and adoring crowds  which is helped by his propensity to hand out P1,000 bills at will. This is arguably in violation of the election rules but more important is quickly depleting his funds; so he is no longer so inclined. Manny is clearly caring of the people and has a powerful brand but these alone will not be enough. He seems unaware of what it takes to run for President. Manny still has an important part to play in the final outcome the only question being what role since being the lead is increasingly less likely with time. 

Ping, well Ping was never really in the fight.

What will happen to the D30 base with Bong Go out of the picture? The Cusi faction of the PDP Laban will be deciding this soon not actually that it matters. For the first time in our political history the erstwhile dominant party has no standard bearer for President or VP.  It has become a paper tiger. Its base is much diminished what with the split with the Pacquiao/Pimentel forces. With D30 increasingly a lame duck, many of the party’s members are now looking for a new home with most of the space taken. The President still commands a political presence especially in the South, holds the power of the incumbent when it comes to getting down and dirty and has huge Bayanihan funds that can be spent. What he chooses to do next will still have a large bearing on who is our next leader.

The final electoral script has still to be written but it is taking shape with forces coalescing around the major points of engagement. The candidates on the fringe will start to trade in their political equity before they lose their value. This Come to Jesus moment will occur at different times for different contenders as bank accounts and ideals are depleted and fatigue and reality sets in which should be in the coming months.