A mayor for a nation of 100 million

PRESUMPTIVE PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte’s winning formula can now be formulated more clearly. The idea is to first get elected. What to do after can wait. For this to work, all that is needed is to grasp the public’s disaffection with government, and whip it into a heightened sense of frustration and exasperation so that no solution is conceivable unless it is personified by no other figure than the tough-talking mayor of Davao City.

Many of us thought the country—one of the most modern in the region—was looking for a president for a nation of 100 million who could build an inclusive society by ensuring continued economic growth. It was a wrong assumption.

As it turned out, most Filipinos had little appreciation or patience for the complexities of modern governance.  They had no need for a visionary; they were only looking for a hands-on problem-solver. Someone to fix the traffic and make sure the trains don’t break down. A punisher who will discipline corrupt and abusive government personnel, patrol the streets, kill drug dealers and drive away criminals. A protector who will personally attend to the oppressed, the poor, the sick, and the abandoned.

In short, they were looking for a local mayor who can solve social problems by the sheer force of his personality, someone who will not be restrained by legal procedure or constitutional limitations from doing what he thinks needs to be done. And they have found him in Mayor Duterte.

Now that they have made him president, the public eagerly awaits his first actions to eliminate crime, drugs, and corruption and inefficiency in public service. Without belittling the mayor’s leadership capabilities, to ask him about his economic agenda or foreign policy seems almost impertinent. These are not the average Filipino citizen’s concerns at the moment.

The mayor calls himself a socialist, but I doubt if he has any intention to alter the prevailing property system. What he means, very likely, is that he wants to reduce the gap between the wealthy few and the vulnerable masses that struggle daily to keep body and soul together. He has offered no clear roadmap on how to accomplish this. He has said he doesn’t mind copying, which, to me, simply means he will not touch the existing system.

Indeed, nothing in Mayor Duterte’s supposed 8-point economic agenda, which was announced the other day by former agriculture secretary Sonny Dominguez, suggests even the faintest turn to any form of socialism. I can only surmise that the list was intended merely to dispel anxiety in the markets and reassure investors.  For the business community, it was probably enough.

In truth, there was no pressing need for it. In the modern globalized world, economies are so closely linked to one another that no state can hope to autonomously steer any national economic program to full fruition.  All that a midsize nation-state such as ours can do is to define its priorities and policies, taking into account the twists and turns in the world economy, and hope for the best.

Far more important to foreign and local investors alike is the peaceful, legitimate, and orderly transfer of governmental power to an incoming administration. In this regard, in spite of the viciousness of the electoral campaign and the shrill form it acquired in the social media, the Filipino nation has every right to take pride in the stability of its political institutions.

But what makes for political stability? This is not as simple as just having a neutral Commission on Elections, or being able to hold an orderly election, or report electoral outcomes with dispatch. Rather, it has everything to do with being able to use the power and resources of government to ensure that no one gets left behind in the march to progress. It has to do with managing rising expectations in a society that is becoming more complex and volatile. Finally, it has to do with providing ample room for divergent beliefs so that political and cultural differences are settled in nonviolent ways, and longstanding armed conflicts can be brought to a resolution at the negotiating table.

In short, how we conduct our politics spells all the difference.  No one who has seen the tragic collapse of old societies like Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan in recent years can underestimate the importance of having a politics that conscientiously avoids war. Yet, through all this, we tend to ignore the laborious effort that is required to keep a democratic culture alive. We assume that if we have the right institutions in place, democracy follows automatically.

But, how many times have we been assailed by the thought that these liberal democratic institutions might just be too far advanced for the kind of political culture we have? So palpable is the disconnect between the Enlightenment values assumed by these institutions and the culture of patronage and dependence that has grown out of the soil of our highly unequal society, that one must wonder if we have made any progress in our political life since we gained independence.

This type of culture will always incline us toward authoritarian rule, regardless of the freedoms that a modern constitution such as ours proudly enshrines and guarantees. That is why political dynasties continue to flourish at the local level despite the 1987 Constitution’s explicit prohibition against such. In many places in the last elections, entrenched political clans ran unchallenged, offering the electorate no choice but to vote for them or abstain. And, indeed, this also very much accounts for the appeal, not just of Mayor Duterte, but of the young Marcos as well.

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