FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - January 22, 2021 - 12:00am

Many analysts both local and foreign have drawn comparison between former US president Trump and President Duterte beginning with how they came to power against all the odds, and then their style of governance once they were seated. Now, even though Trump has been voted out of office and Duterte will end his term in 2022, both are expected to continue to exert influence in politics in their respective countries. More specifically, in their respective coming presidential elections. Both enjoy almost cultish devotion from their base. Will their brand of populist politics become a permanent feature of the political landscape in their countries? Will they prove decisive in the forthcoming elections?

The tumultuous four years of Donald Trump at the helm of the world’s most powerful nation has wrought tremendous damage to America domestically and internationally, and will take a long time to repair. What is worrying is that he has unleashed the genie that may now be impossible to put back inside its bottle. I am referring to the 74 million people who voted for Trump, particularly those who believe his unproven claim that he won the election, but for the massive fraud committed by the Democrats and the “deep state”.  He will continue to exert an influence on American politics in the years to come. How was he able to amass so many supporters who believe he was their savior and can do no wrong, and that his autocratic/strongman rule was what was needed to bring back their vision of America? Many analysts have sought to explain that in terms of the cult of personality that is the modus of autocrats throughout history. He tapped into a rich vein of disgruntled, mostly white rural folks, who felt hard done by jobs going overseas as local manufacturing and services became uncompetitive, and mainstream conservatives repelled by liberal views on abortion, same sex marriage, and inclusion.  He promoted hateful rightwing conspiracy theories and supported extremist groups to fan the flames of radicalization. That said, a considerable portion of his base support were mainstream Republicans who would not brook voting a Democrat as their president, even if they have reservations about their candidate’s character. What made this toxic combination work is his being enabled by right-wing media like Fox News, by the Republican Party who feared his vindictiveness, and by the use of social media to peddle “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories. At the same time, he tried to co-opt mainstream media by branding them “fake news”.  In the process, he woke up America’s baser instincts of racism, intolerance, and xenophobia – of “us against them”.


Duterte was voted into office on the back of the vote of the ”masa,” with whom he identified himself as one of them. Previous administrations have had little impact on their lives, so here comes someone who behaves like he is one of them and promises to take their cause. He speaks like them and regales them with coarse language, jokes, and macho talk. He portrays himself as the champion of the Filipino everyman. He railed against the injustices committed against them by big business and the political and social elites. Like Trump, a sizable portion of mainstream Filipinos – the middle and upper class – also wanted to change the pattern of electing career politicians, so they were willing to take a gamble on an outsider. They, too, were tired of crime and corruption, and were attracted to someone who had a record of ridding his city of crime and demonstrating a model of effective local governance. They hoped that he could somehow scale this up to the national level.

Similarly, his base believes he was on the side of good in pursuing his anti-crime stance, and so they tolerated the bloody anti-drug war and extra judicial killings. They also did not find it egregious that he went after those who dare criticise him, including the media, opposition politicians, and foreign governments. He did not get blamed for the mismanagement of the COVID-19 response from both its public health and economic consequences, and the fall in the country’s global rankings on competitiveness and corruption, which are crucial for attracting foreign investors and earning favorable credit ratings. Most of all, he has largely gotten away with his timid response to Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea and indeed, even shielding China from blame while threatening to sever relations with the country’s historic ally – the United States.

He has retained his astonishingly high approval rating and has shown he is the ultimate powerbroker. He got eight of his candidates to win the 12 Senate seats at stake in the last elections. His endorsement would, therefore, be critical to a candidate’s winnability in the 2022 presidential election. Bongbong Marcos and Alan Peter Cayetano are vying for that endorsement to bolster the advantage they have in terms of name recognition. On the other hand, relative newbies like Bong Go and Manny Pacquiao, if bestowed Duterte’s blessing, will become formidable candidates. But it is the President’s daughter, Sara, despite the President maintaining she is not running for a job not fit for a woman, who tops the polls. Whoever is chosen is expected to carry on the Duterte legacy.

Will President Duterte’s influence remain and his base hold that they would elect his chosen successor without a moment’s hesitation? That is also the question being asked in America where Trump can be a kingmaker or run again himself with the support he has built. Or has populism and demagoguery ran its course and that voters – particularly those in the mainstream – now return to a more conventional, back to basics type of leader? If so, that would open it up to others who will not get the President’s endorsement, but who have demonstrated their leadership mettle and personal character in a broader stage, not necessarily just in government, but in business as well? That would include those whose names have been floated about – Vice-President Leni Robredo, Senators Grace Poe or Panfilo Lacson, Mayor Isko Moreno or even businessman Ramon Ang. Let us see how the remaining two years of President Duterte’s term pans out. It will also be an opportunity to intensify voter education to make the right choice for themselves based on merit and not personalities.

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