But Duterte’s rise is not surprising. It’s symptomatic of a traumatized citizenry — an irrational response to a rational rage.
Just look at the news that featured prominently in April, according to Pulse Asia, a Filipino polling company. A rice shortage in the south of the country led to the deaths of three farmers, in clashes between protesters and police. Bail was granted to notorious businesswoman Janet Napoles, imprisoned on plunder charges for bribing senators in a billion-peso pork barrel scam. Police chief and presidential crony Alan Purisima may have violated the Anti-Graft and Corruption Practices Act, a 1960s law prominent in post-Marcos scandals of government malfeasance. And U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced joint patrols with the Philippine military, after which China landed a military aircraft on a disputed reef — a further sign of the country’s terminally weak military defenses.
Since Filipinos drove Marcos out of office in 1986, citizens have witnessed land reform fail, corruption scandals erupt (two presidents, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, have gone to jail), infrastructure decay, and responses to natural disasters bungled. Citizens have seen journalists massacred, peace treaties upended, and state harassment or outright murders of farmers, student activists, and labor leaders. They have weathered violent military action in indigenous, resource-rich lands. It is as if Marcos never left.
Meanwhile, the hold of the very rich over the poor remains criminal: In 2012, Forbes Asia reported that the collective wealth of the 40 richest Filipino families grew $13 billion in 2010-2011, equivalent to 76.5 percent of the country’s overall increase in GDP during that period. And while annual per capita income has steadily risen since 2006, it is still under $3,000 — on par with the West Bank and Gaza. No wonder Filipinos continue to seek jobs overseas in droves — 2.32 million workers left the country in 2015.
Duterte paints himself a populist, an outsider who will fix all ills. Indeed, the other candidates all come from Manila or the historical elite. They are Grace Poe, the adopted child of an action star; Mar Roxas, the favored candidate of embattled President Benigno Aquino III; Miriam Santiago, a tough-talking senator fighting lung cancer; and Jejomar Binay, the current vice president, who is under investigation for corruption.
Instead, the public has turned to Duterte, a strongman with a joker’s smile. But although Duterte affects humble roots, he is actually one of the many nephews of the Duranos of Danao City in the province of Cebu, a Marcos-era warlord family whose rise to power using the three G’s of Philippine politics — guns, goons, and gold — was notorious. Duterte’s father governed the province of Davao, south of Cebu, from 1959 to 1965, raising Duterte in an atmosphere of privilege.
Trained as a lawyer, Duterte was elected mayor of Davao City in 1988. He quickly became known for his anti-crime policies. During his seven four-year terms as mayor, he allegedly turned a city mired in crime into what he brags is the world’s ninth-safest city. Indeed, his most salient political platform today is that he will be tough on crime. In 2009, while serving as the peace and order advisor of then-president Arroyo, Duterte explained to her how Davao City fights crime. “The best practices in the city, ma’am, are the killings [of criminals],” he said. It’s an idea he’s repeated in various forms throughout the election campaign: To reduce crime, kill the criminals.
No one doubts he will follow through on his threats. The international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has chronicled the rise of “death squads” in Davao City: groups of men on the government payroll who kill petty criminals, street children, and drug dealers. For Duterte, HRW writes, “The brutal death squads that have claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people during his tenure as mayor of Davao City … are not a problem. They’re a political platform.” (How does Duterte respond to HRW’s claims? “All the bleeding hearts of U.S.-based crime watch: You want a taste of justice, my style?” he asked. “Come to Davao City, Philippines, and do drugs in my city. I will execute you in public.”)
Duterte advocates federalism — breaking the Philippines into autonomous regions to focus on regional economic development. But ask him about concrete plans for governance that don’t involve fighting crime, and he falls back on his bluster. “If you say Roxas’s proposals are good, then I will copy them. Give me his speech, also Poe’s, I’ll consolidate them and copy them,” he said, referring to two of the other candidates.
But scant policies combined with bravado seem enough for Filipino voters. The latest Pulse Asia survey reports that Duterte leads the other four candidates among every socioeconomic class, with an especially strong showing among the country’s middle class.
To his fans, his air of a corner drunk — brazen, vulgar, and happily shameless — makes him a truth-teller, not a disaster. In some ways, the people see him as their protection — from meddlesome foreign governments, from overweening institutions, and of course from criminals.In some ways, the people see him as their protection — from meddlesome foreign governments, from overweening institutions, and of course from criminals. He told the U.S. and Australian ambassadors to “shut your mouth” after they criticized his joke about gang rape. He called the pope “the son of a whore” — seemingly for worsening Manila’s traffic during his official visit. And he told criminals to “watch out”: If I become president, he said, “The fish in Manila Bay will get fat. That is where I will dump you!”
In short, his rise is a people’s revenge. His cursing mouth is the proxy spokesman for the people’s own cursed lives. He will establish law and order. He will destroy the elite. He will kill the bad guys. Rodrigo Duterte is a screen and a projection. He is a symptom, rather than the disease, of governance that never stanched the cancer of strongman rule. And on May 9, the joke will be on the country, when citizens wake up to find themselves in the nightmare they have chosen — the same nightmare they have been living all along.