The political outsider

At this late stage of the ongoing presidential contest, the man to beat appears to be Rodrigo Duterte—until very recently an outsider to national politics whom very few thoughtful Filipinos took seriously. How does one account for the phenomenal rise to national stature of a local politician from a remote corner of Mindanao?

Equipped with an enormous capacity to tell stories and tackle issues in street language dripping with expletives, the man talks tough against criminals, drug pushers and abusive people, promising to summarily purge them from our society. He laughs at his own dirty thoughts and desires, and ridicules our foibles as a people. But he reserves his harshest criticism and deepest contempt for what he considers the nation’s inept and corrupt public officials, and the ruling families they serve.

Despite, and perhaps because of, his crude language and coarse demeanor, he comes out—to his admirers—as an endearing rogue who articulates without fear their own resentments and fantasies. That is what is interesting—and, to the rest of us, disturbing.

I listened repeatedly to a video recording of Duterte’s controversial hourlong monologue at a political rally in which he recounted, with all the machismo he could summon, his reaction to the gang-rape and murder of the Australian lay missionary Jacqueline Hamill in 1989. Hamill and her companions were held hostage by 15 inmates inside a Davao detention center where they were conducting a prison ministry. Duterte’s remark about his feeling especially angry upon seeing the corpse—thinking he should have had a first go with the beautiful Hamill—struck me as totally perverse and disrespectful. Knowing that he is a lawyer and a former prosecutor, I didn’t expect it. I wondered if the tough-talking mayor was just carried away by the energy of the moment and, in his rush to tell a joke, had failed to censor a barbaric thought. But, he insists he wasn’t joking.

The applause, laughter and jeering from the complicit crowd left no doubt in my mind that the legendary mayor felt completely in his element. One could hear some of his admirers prompting him to share more of such stories—the more violent, it seemed, the better. It’s difficult to say where this is all coming from. My hunch is that we’re dealing here not so much with a mindset as with a configuration of raw emotions lying just beneath the surface of our culture. I suspect it is this that gives resonance to Mayor Duterte’s brand of political rhetoric.

People recognize themselves in him. They see him as someone who makes no attempt to represent our better or higher nature, but is content, rather, to speak to our unpolished, confused and insecure selves. He refuses to be bound by norms of political correctness, secure in the thought that in the fraudulent world of politics, talking bluntly is the only way to be authentic. “Take me for what I am,” he likes to tell his listeners. While the inability to admit a wrong may seem fatal to anyone with presidential ambitions, for Duterte fans, that same rebellious obstinacy seems to lie at the very core of his appeal.

There’s some basis to this, of course. I mean, Duterte would not be connecting to millions of Filipinos the way he has in recent weeks if he had not tapped into a rich vein of popular disenchantment. This public disaffection can flow from various sources. In a highly unequal society like ours, in which individuals find themselves permanently trapped in patron-client relationships, unexamined resentments silently build up in the hearts of those constantly at the receiving end of power and oppression. This is often accompanied by a vague yearning for emancipation and justice. But, instead of taking action, people are typically content to have a forceful figure like Rodrigo Duterte personify and articulate their rebellion, and displace their aggression, for them.

But, Duterte’s rise has equally been made possible by the grievances of Mindanao’s non-Muslim majority. Mostly Visayan settlers who made the island prosperous, they have long nurtured an antipathy to Manila politicians who speak of Mindanao’s peoples and their needs as though these were reducible to those of Muslim Mindanao.  Davao’s longtime mayor deftly articulates their sentiments by harping on the big disparity between Mindanao’s contribution to the country’s gross national product and the pittance it receives in internal revenue allotments. In this regard, Duterte’s rise mirrors the revolt of the periphery.

We have not really had in our political history anyone quite like him, who has made his way into the national electoral stage by cursing at the nation’s officials and ruling elites, and mocking its institutions. We have had countless politicians who rose to national prominence by portraying themselves as men of the masses. But none of them ever challenged the prevailing system. In contrast, Duterte has made it a point to mock the system and its conventions, seeing in its openings nothing more than channels through which to undermine it.

At his rallies, he kisses the flag and professes patriotism, pledging to repair the country’s broken system of government. Many can sympathize with that goal. But, without a clear vision of a reformed political order and a coherent set of principles to guide his presidency, Duterte’s victory could mean one of two things. It could spark a popular movement of the poor and jump-start a process of radical ferment, or it could pave the way for a fascist regime supported by a disgruntled middle class. In either case, it is difficult to see how, under a Duterte presidency, the country can avoid entering another period of political uncertainty.

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