Duterte’s senatorial choices

By now it is obvious who among the current crop of senatorial hopefuls President Duterte is endorsing.  At the top of the list is long-time Duterte aide, Christopher “Bong” Go, followed by Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, who served Mr. Duterte as head of the Philippine National Police, and, more recently, as Bureau of Corrections chief.  Coming close in third place is Francis Tolentino, erstwhile presidential adviser for political affairs.

Toward the end of another meandering speech, this time before an assembly of the Tricycle Operators and Drivers Association, the President tried to explain the reasons for his choices. He seemed aware that his three choices were not exactly doing well in the latest surveys on senatorial preferences.

While his own ballot, he said, would include other names, Mr. Duterte repeatedly appealed for support for Bong, Bato and Francis. He urged his listeners to do their own “mathematics,” and consider adding more names — like that of Freddie Aguilar (“the only singer whose songs have a message”) and Imee Marcos (“who supported me when I ran for the presidency”).

Aguilar and Marcos weren’t there.  But, another candidate for senator was — former presidential spokesman Harry Roque. Apart from routinely acknowledging his presence at the start of his speech, Mr. Duterte largely ignored him. He made no mention of his candidacy, an omission that seemed as loud and clear as the President’s profuse endorsement of Bong Go, Bato dela Rosa and Francis Tolentino. Whether intended or unintended, Harry was made to look like a fool by the President he once served at the cost of his own reputation as a human rights champion.

Mr. Duterte was in campaign mode, though he seemed aware it might not be proper. I will freely translate his words here.

“Now, I will tell you something. Just for you. But if you prefer not to, I won’t — but this is politics…. So, about Bong. Bong really is a Batangueño. He is a Tesoro. It’s his father who is Chinese. But Bong is a Visayan Batangueño from Davao. In Davao, he’s not considered Chinese but more of a Batangueño… Now he’s a candidate. Of course, I must help him. He’s kind, honest — that’s really the first consideration. Honesty. You can trust him with money. He has his own money. His family’s printing press is the biggest in Mindanao.”

Let’s deconstruct this fascinating discourse. Mr. Duterte is trying to neutralize a residual anti-Chinese sentiment that may be used against Bong Go because of his family name. He does this by insisting that Bong is more Batangueño and Visayan than Chinese. Instead of arguing that having Chinese blood or a Chinese surname should not matter in our political choices, the President asks his audience to focus instead on what he believes are this man’s most important traits — his Tagalog-Visayan ethnicity, his generosity and his trustworthiness. In the President’s eyes, Bong is someone who can be relied upon not to steal the people’s money — well, because, he comes from a wealthy family.

It is not just the logic of this message that is flawed. It is also factually without basis: those who have money are not necessarily less corruptible than those without. But, more than this, it is the message’s underlying racial and ethnic bias that is particularly appalling.

It’s the Duterte style to say something one moment, and to quickly shift gear after realizing its double-sided connotation. For example, the President said that Bong Go could be trusted not to steal because he came from a monied family. But, would a rich kid know how the masses live? The exact words of Mr. Duterte are worth reproducing here. “Hindi itong si Bong, medyo anak ng mayaman pero nasanay ’to sa akin. Marunong ito mag-diskarte ng kapwa tao niya. Kasi natuto sa akin eh. Masa talaga ’yan.” (Not Bong: he may be a rich kid, but he learned from me.  He knows how to conduct himself in the company of  other people.  I trained him.  He is really from the masses.)

What follows next is an authoritarian peroration on the masses as political subjects. Mr. Duterte says that in Davao, he was always angry and never smiled. He would shout at those who waited on him, threaten them, insult them — but they never took offense. They would unfailingly manifest their undying affection for him by applauding him. I guess that is what he means by “diskarte.”

At one point in his speech, a rare lucid interval, I thought the President came close to highlighting the need to vote for candidates with solid professional credentials and experiences.  He told his audience not to be dazzled by sheer popularity. He pointed to Francis Tolentino’s record as mayor of Tagaytay and his training as a lawyer. He boasted that Bong Go is a De la Salle University graduate, not a mere “probinsyano.”

“Bahala na maloko kayo diyan sa mga ano-anong bagay hindi ko lang masabi. Pero pagdating sa gobyerno mamili naman kayo ng tao na dapat sa gobyerno. [Applause] Maawa naman kayo sa bayan ninyo. Iyon lang.” (You may allow yourselves to be fooled by things that I’d rather not mention here. But, when it has to do with government, choose people who are right for government.  Have pity on your government. That’s all.)

Hearing that, I almost joined the applause. On that criterion alone, the opposition senatorial slate, without exception, would have the best candidates in the coming elections. But Mr. Duterte’s mind was elsewhere. From out of the blue, he brought up the name of Sen. Manny Pacquiao who is not even a candidate — as though belatedly realizing the implication of what he had just said for his friend and supporter who, after winning a seat in the Senate, still could not decide whether he wants to be a boxer or a senator.