Blindsided by Duterte: a postmortem

DAVAO City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte is greeted by supporters at Lipa City Hall in Batangas province during a campaign sortie. RAFFY LERMA

He came from behind and from the margins, literally and figuratively. Those who had been cruising on the same highway for much longer didn’t see him coming. Then, on a bend, just as the road began to tighten, he picked up speed and barreled his way to the finish line.

More than the frail borrowed bike he was riding, it was his daring outsize persona that seemed to propel him forward.

There are a thousand and one reasons we can think of to account for Rody Duterte’s phenomenal success.  But none is more interesting than his incomparable way with crowds.

The complete opposite of the stirring orator, he gave rambling monologues. Yet, he was a gifted storyteller: He had perfect timing, and was outrageously irreverent.

To a jaded public that expected nothing much from politicians, he was a delightful rogue who constantly tested the limits of civilized demeanor and speech. He mocked every institution.  No figure of respect was exempted from his habitual cussing.

But, in this unorthodox manner, Duterte was able to give full expression to deeply felt resentments that the average Filipino is too timid or too scared to verbalize. He taunted the ruling elites, the guardians of morality, and the defenders of the status quo.

In so doing, he brought out the defiant, the repressed, and the incorrect in his audiences wherever he spoke.

Political strategy?

And now, he has won the presidency. Was this crudeness all a matter of political strategy, designed to stir public controversy and draw media attention? Do we expect him to revert to a more sedate self, and begin to act more “presidential,” whatever that may mean?

What does this tell us about who we are as voters and what we expect of those who lead us?

I do not believe this was nothing but a carefully stage-managed act.  Duterte’s public persona during the campaign does not seem different from the legendary tough-talking mayor that his Davao constituents have seen and heard in his daily show on local television all these years.

I don’t know what he is like in private.  The first and only time we met, he struck me as rather shy, polite and likeable. And yet, in his public appearances, he seems automatically to assume a rough and aggressive bearing—almost as if he were donning a defensive armor.

I suspect that his advisers, who tried vainly to reinterpret some of his reckless statements, counseled him to tone down, only to realize that this unpolished and irrepressible side constituted precisely the core of the man’s charisma.

His contrite letter to Pope Francis after he had cursed him for causing traffic during the papal visit hardly made a dent on his popularity; if at all, it defined him as a flawed but authentic human being.  Indeed, his apology earned him an appreciative response from the Vatican.

Rebellious streak

What does Duterte’s rise tell us about ourselves? I think the Filipino voter has always harbored a rebellious streak that comes out in unpredictable ways during elections.

In the 1986 snap presidential election, this defiance found common cause with the moral figure of Cory Aquino in her battle against the Marcos dictatorship. In 1992, that same recalcitrant vein fostered the candidacy of the feisty Miriam Defensor Santiago.

In 1998, it catapulted Joseph “Erap” Estrada, who played countless movie roles as the protector of the oppressed, to the presidency. Six years later, another movie icon drawn from the same filmic genre, Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ), was carried on the wings of widespread public anger against Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. He almost became President.

In 2010, sick of corruption, Filipino voters turned to yet another moral symbol, Noynoy Aquino, the scion of two democracy icons, to embody their hopes for a decent and responsive government that could replace the corrupt and indifferent Arroyo presidency.

Angry voters

Now, in 2016, angry voters seemed bent once again to reject what they perceive to be an incompetent and insensitive administration. Blinded by resentment, they have heaped all their anger on the ruling party’s anointed candidate, Mar Roxas.

The first beneficiary of this public anger had been the folksy and portly former mayor of Makati, Jojo Binay.

That role was however snatched from him by Grace Poe, who came on stage basking in the charisma of her late father, FPJ, while wearing the pristine image of a new politician who cared.

Political outsider

In the end, as we have seen, it was the unadorned political outsider, Rody Duterte, who was able to harness this smoldering public rage, giving it an urgency never before seen in Philippine politics.

His rise to the presidency has been accompanied by extremely high expectations. We can only wish him success as he tackles the first item on his rather sparse agenda: stopping criminality and illegal drugs.

For now, the Filipino public may be willing to dismiss his rugged manners as irrelevant to the important tasks before him.

But, even before the novelty has worn off, the same antics that made him a loveable rascal on the campaign trail may no longer look or sound as funny or cute, but simply revolting.

From Day One, the public will be monitoring and scrutinizing his every move, starting with his first official acts as President.

They will look at his Cabinet appointments and ask if they are based on merit or on sheer friendship.  They will measure his first policy pronouncements against the gravitas that is expected of any occupant of the nation’s highest office.

For the sake of our country and of President Rody himself (as he wishes to be called), I hope that those who have pinned their hopes on him will soon wake up to the reality that the nation’s problems are so complex and interconnected that it would take more than the will or readiness to kill to solve them.

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