Lessons from the 2016 elections

At least once every six years, we are invited to dream that enduring social change is, at last, within sight. And that a great deal depends on the person we elect to be the country’s next president. If we choose well, so the line goes, our country and our people will be on the path to recovery in no time at all. But, if we choose badly, things will surely take a turn for the worse.

This is the familiar language of political mobilization, and I will not dispute its value in getting citizens actively involved in elections. But it needs to be pointed out that this view suffers from an oversimplification of the nature of politics and the problems of society.

First, it makes of the political system a privileged site that commands greater importance than all the other domains of society—the family, the economy, law, the mass media, religion, science, education, etc. This romantic view assigns to the government (or the state) the power to transform and control nearly all the conditions of social existence.

Second, it expects the president of the country to be wise, all-seeing, and capable of radically transforming—in six years—the social realities that engender the problems that the masses of our people have historically faced. Chronic problems like hunger, illiteracy, oppression and injustice, joblessness, homelessness, drug addiction, etc.

Third, this view regards the Philippines and Filipinos as though they were insulated from the dynamics and imperatives of world society. It does not consider the fact that global realities, such as they are, impinge upon and determine the extent to which nations and regions can transform conditions in their own societies. No other event in recent memory has demonstrated this truism more bleakly than the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

This inflated view of politics positions us for inevitable disappointment in our leaders, in our government, and, yes, in ourselves. More importantly, it reinforces the excessive belief in the transformative power of individual leaders, notably of political strongmen and messiahs who promise the moon and the stars to people long steeped in the culture of dependence and patronage.

By the same token, this view of politics diminishes the value of organized constituencies, people’s organizations, and social movements that alone can exert pressure on governments and hold accountable those who make decisions affecting the collective life of the people. This is why President Duterte, who overestimated his own political capabilities, found no need for a political party or movement to help him carry out and continue whatever vision of change he had when he assumed the presidency.

So long as his survey ratings were high, he was content to ride on the populist gestures he made early in his administration. He managed to sustain the illusion that he was an agent of change by doing certain things no president before him had the impudence to do. As shallow as it was, his theatrical presidency resonated with the people’s deep yearning for a different way of running society.

On the campaign trail, he brandished his record as Davao City mayor to establish his credentials as a strongman—someone who was prepared to kill to protect his constituents, to flout the law to achieve results, to browbeat big business to keep it in line, to intimidate the media by going after its owners, to silence the Church by threatening to expose the supposed sins and abuses of the clergy, to secure the submission of other politicians by threatening them with unspecified charges of corruption, collusion with drug lords, criminal syndicates, tax evasion. For a while, he also managed to mute the armed Left by giving its nominees a chance to sit in his Cabinet.

During the 2016 presidential debates, Mr. Duterte could barely conceal his ignorance of basic national and global issues. Still, he succeeded in projecting himself as a leader like no other.

Overnight, he became the sensational personification of all the unarticulated resentments of the disgruntled and powerless in Philippine society. In their minds, here at last was a leader who could fearlessly overturn the corrupt and unjust social order run by the oligarchy and their allies in media, academe, and the Church.

In his public appearances, he was irreverent, disrespectful of institutions, vulgar, and seemingly unconcerned about winning. He came out unpolished but authentic. His dark charisma resided in his being able to position himself as precisely the antithesis of an elite-driven, hypocritical, and highly unequal society.

Nearing the end of his six-year term as president, Mr. Duterte has hardly made a dent on the problems that he himself set out to solve—the drug menace, corruption in government, mass poverty, a dysfunctional bureaucracy, a broken law enforcement and justice system, etc. Strangely enough, he has been able to distance himself from the failures of government.

Trust in government is low, yet he remains popular. To make sense of this paradox, one needs to understand why voters chose him in 2016. It wasn’t for the causes he advocated, the promises he made, or the positions he took on issues. People just saw in him someone who could jolt the post-Edsa ruling elites out of their smugness. Leaders like him, as we have seen, bring us nowhere.

Politics that draws its energy from resentment than from a clear and shared vision of a better future is, to borrow the words of the great Nelson Mandela, “like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”