Alternative to Dutertismo

In the aftermath of the 2019 midterm elections, analysts have debated the reasons for the shocking shutout of the opposition in the senatorial race, offering interpretations that typically confirm the continuing public support for the Duterte brand, but also drawing hope from the unexpected win of a handful of young leaders over some old faces from entrenched political dynasties.

To be sure, no single explanation can provide a consistent account of what is clearly a complex phenomenon. In the absence of rigorous research on the ground, which looks into how, for example, presumed bailiwicks actually voted, or seeks to grasp the mindset that the electorate brought with them to the voting precincts, any theory can be tweaked to supply a plausible account of things.

I’m personally hesitant to participate in this game of interpretations because I have not seen any reliable field research or statistical analysis that suggests substantive answers to the kind of questions the public has been asking.  Questions like: Why did the opposition senatorial candidates rank so poorly in the final count? How did virtual unknowns like Bong Go, Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa and Francis Tolentino garner so many votes given the relatively short time they have been in the public eye?  How come a number of candidates from the President’s own party found themselves at the tail-end of the senatorial contest, unable to profit from their leader’s vaunted endorsing power?

The data from the field would be instructive for those who will participate in future elections. But, these cannot, by themselves, be a justification for protesting the legitimacy of the last elections. Such is the nature of political legitimacy.  It has everything to do with whether or not the voting public can accept a proffered formula that justifies the way things turned out. It has little to do with whether the electoral outcomes correspond with reality or are in conformity with moral norms.

What is now important, I believe — at least for those of us who do not accept the style of leadership and mode of governance that I called “Dutertismo” in a column I wrote shortly before the 2016 presidential election (Public Lives, 5/1/16) — is to understand the broad context in which this political phenomenon arose and the public consciousness that enabled and continues to sustain it.

What needs of the Filipino public does Dutertismo satisfy?  Is there a functional alternative to it that is genuinely reform-minded but, in lieu of the figure of the wilful strongman, puts an informed and active citizenry at the center of the change process? What kind of political leaders can personify and catalyze the kind of social and cultural transformation we need as a nation in order to navigate the complex terrain of a global and digital world?

This is the type of national discussion we need at this time.  Nations everywhere are looking for leaders who can protect their people from all the threats, dangers and disruptions of a rapidly changing global environment. The emerging consensus is that such leadership can no longer be supplied by politicians of the modern liberal democrat mold. They are too weak, too ineffective and too conventional for the complex challenges of our times.

I am not convinced that people are necessarily looking for strongmen. But, they are definitely looking for outsiders to the political establishment, new leaders who do not hesitate to shake things up. Nor do I think people are merely in quest of decisive leaders who take responsibility for their actions.  Rather, I think they are looking for figures who are confident about what they need to do, who inspire others by their example, and who offer hope for a better world.

These are qualities that are slowly emerging from the murky political world jointly created by a self-serving political class bereft of imagination and a cohort of narcissistic autocrats who have neither wisdom nor vision. Like bright lotus blooms shooting out of the muddy waters of political despair and resentment, a new breed of charismatic leaders is coming out to challenge both the sclerotic rule of the political class and the model of political thuggery personified by figures like Rodrigo Duterte, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and America’s Donald Trump—to name only a few.

We see these qualities in young leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who cut her teeth in US electoral politics by working as a volunteer in the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. Today, as one of the few fresh faces in the US Congress, who are mostly women by the way, AOC, as she is fondly called, waged one of the most methodical volunteer-driven campaigns ever to upend American politics. She hasn’t disappointed her supporters. Her performance at congressional hearings is a masterful demonstration of preparedness, intelligence, wit, courtesy and politeness.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s current prime minister, is yet another example. A democratic socialist like Ocasio-Cortez, 38-year-old Jacinda is reshaping her country’s political culture not by mocking or spitting at its institutions but by patiently working to transform them into what they should have been in the first place.

There is no doubt in my mind that we already have in our own midst countless yet unknown AOCs and Jacindas waiting for the right time to break out of the political muck into which our country is stuck. They need to find each other soon so they can begin the vital process of forming a critical mass of fiery lotuses.