The astounding rise of Bong Go

The latest Social Weather Stations public opinion survey on the 2019 senatorial race, which shows longtime Duterte aide Christopher “Bong” Go jumping from 15th-16th place to 5th just before the official start of the election campaign, is hardly surprising. He is, in many ways, President Duterte’s sole senatorial bet, the one and only significant proxy candidate of a sitting president in this midterm elections.

If Go loses, it would reflect on the nature and extent of Mr. Duterte’s influence. It would show that his popularity is not transferable. But, if he wins, especially if he lands in the top six, it would affirm in a big way this President’s unchallenged grip on the people’s consciousness. It would surely set the stage for Mr. Duterte’s anointed successor in the next presidential election.

Mr. Duterte mentions other senatorial candidates at public functions, but never with the same confident and affectionate tone that he exudes when he talks about Bong Go. The latter is clearly more than just a man-Friday to a busy boss. While Go constantly refers to Mr. Duterte as his mentor, their relationship appears to be far more than that of a teacher and a favorite student.

In countless speeches, Mr. Duterte refers to him as his all-round problem solver, his record keeper, his steady sounding board, his brain trust and closest confidant, and more than a son or brother to him. Bong is, in a word, Digong’s “alter ego”—that is, “another aspect of oneself,” as Webster’s New World Dictionary defines the word. As such, he is the quiet and stoic other to Mr. Duterte’s loquacious persona, the soft and gentle side to the hard and unpolished Duterte ego, and, perhaps most important of all, the sole access to the stern patriarch’s complex interior.

To understand this interesting assemblage of roles, I think one has to step out of the modern institutional system from which we tend to view the functions of positions immediately surrounding the nation’s highest official. We are not talking here of the role of executive secretary or of chief of staff, or, even less, that of the presidential spokesperson. Bong Go is more than all of these combined.

He was conferred the nondescript title, “special presidential assistant,” a lazy designation that is thoughtlessly given to all kinds of gofers and characters in a president’s cordon sanitaire. But, while Go may often be seen performing the tasks of a personal secretary for Mr. Duterte, he is far from being a performer of minor and menial tasks. He seems, in fact, to be the chief executive’s ultimate gatekeeper.

As anyone in the business and political community — who has had to navigate the delicate terrain of presidential habits, mood swings, pet peeves and preferences, in order to send a message to the President or secure a favor from him — might know by now, the safest and most assured route to Mr. Duterte is through Bong Go. He not only has a direct line to the President, he also used to keep the latter’s mobile phone for him. His duty is to insulate the President from everything that may potentially disturb his equanimity. Mr. Duterte would sometimes tell his listeners that his own children have to go through Bong Go to be able to reach him.

This is the kind of distance an autocrat creates in order to protect himself from the pressures of his immediate surroundings. Somebody who enjoys his implicit trust has to serve as the chief custodian of that distance. To Mr. Duterte, that is Bong Go.

Go is fully aware of this. Responding to the good news of his astounding performance in the January 2019 survey of senatorial preferences, he solemnly declared: “Just like what I promised you, I will be your bridge to the President, but I also want to be your bridge to real change that can benefit every Filipino.” Once he becomes senator, he will be President Duterte’s direct bridge not just to the Senate but to the entire Congress, the judiciary and the bureaucracy. As senator, he would no longer be merely basking in the reflected power of his boss; he would be reaching out to the other branches of government no longer as a lowly errand boy but as a duly-elected senator of the land.

Go’s bid to run for senator appears to have been instigated by Mr. Duterte himself. It was his way of avenging what he thought was the shabby treatment that people closely associated with him — his son and son-in-law, and then Bong Go — received at Senate hearings. This is what he told a recent assembly of tricycle drivers and operators: “They embarrassed them even though they could get nothing from them. So, when he came back from the hearing, I told Bong, s**t, ‘Bong for the Senate!’ So, there, now he’s a candidate.”

This is a reprise of the same blast of antielitist resentment that catapulted Mr. Duterte to the presidency in 2016. Go echoes this in his recent statement: “I’d like to change the mindset of people that a simple provincial man working as a staff, not popular, not an actor, not from a family of politicians, can dream of serving others in higher capacity.”

But, today, Bong Go is hardly the “simple provincial man” he likes to project himself to be.  As the most vital bridge to the President, he has himself become a center of power. The so-called “Malasakit centers” he has set up, bringing together under one roof all the government agencies that the poor need to access for medical and financial assistance, would be a great idea if they bore only the insignia of the Republic. But, paired with the ubiquitous name and face of the would-be senator, these centers have raised the politics of personal patronage to a whole new level.