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Is Duterte 2.0 inevitable?

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo - The Philippine Star

In two previous columns, I wrote about populist politics and whether they will continue to prevail using as examples the continuing influence of former US president Donald Trump and Duterte on the body politic in their respective countries, thanks to the almost fanatical support from their core base.

Duterte has retained his astonishingly high approval rating despite what his critics say is his poor record of governance. They point to his failure to deliver on his election campaign promise of reducing poverty, corruption and crime which have in fact worsened. They point to his willful disregard of human rights, with his violent anti-drug war and the unfolding campaign against rights activists and the left. Most egregious of their criticisms is the almost criminal mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that this has crippled the economy as a result of the world’s longest lockdown, but with no success in containing the pandemic. His administration bungled securing access to the vaccine in time compared to other countries and seems to continue to be ill-prepared to deploy the vaccine “en masse” once it becomes available. He has also been accused of near treason by allowing China to transgress Philippine sovereignty with impunity in the South China Sea not only in the areas under dispute, but also in our own territorial waters. Those critics also say he has shown his dictatorial bent by attacking and silencing his critics by weaponizing the law against them with the help of a pliant Congress and a cowed judiciary.

Duterte has clearly demonstrated he is the ultimate powerbroker in Philippine politics. He got his candidates to win eight of the 12 Senate seats at stake in the last elections, albeit with massive financial outlays. His endorsement, which comes with formidable resources, would therefore be critical to a candidate’s winnability in the 2022 presidential election. This early, Bongbong Marcos and Alan Peter Cayetano have indicated their desire to be the anointed one. Manny Pacquiao’s body language indicates he has presidential ambitions as well. But it is the President’s daughter, Sara, who denies she is running, and despite the President saying that the job is “not fit for a woman”, who tops the polls. Duterte also says that Sen. Bong Go, his trusted sidekick, wants to be president. Go, in turn, says he will not run unless Duterte runs as his vice president. His party has recognized that a Go-Duterte or a Duterte-Duterte ticket would be formidable. Ominously, Duterte has not dismissed this scenario. Some have compared this to the Kremlin two-step where Putin and his sidekick Medvedev merely exchange places when their term is up. With popularity and massive resources behind him, is Duterte 2.0 inevitable then, even if, technically he cannot run for president again?

My view is that while such a scenario is a strong possibility, it is not inevitable. A look at the demographics from the 2016 election offers a clue. It is true that Duterte enjoyed the support of the D and E classes who voted for someone who sounded like them and who railed against “The Establishment”. But his margins there were not overwhelming. According to an exit poll in the 2016 election conducted by the Social Weather Station (SWS), Duterte got 35 percent of their votes, while Roxas got 29 percent. It was the A, B and C groups – where he got 46 percent of their votes - that was decisive in the last election. The middle class also wanted a change from the traditional pattern of electing career politicians whom they perceived as dominated by the elite, so they were willing to take a gamble on an outlier. 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. Duterte’s messaging harped on this factor.

Another result of the SWS 2016 election exit poll suggests his messaging was effective in swaying undecided and perhaps more discerning voters to his side. According to Mahar Mangahas, the president of SWS, “voters who belonged to a higher social class, were more educated, younger, Muslim, a member of the Iglesia ni Cristo, from urban areas, and men tended to support Duterte. Duterte had less support from Catholics, from rural voters, and from women.” These demographic groups will play a similarly decisive role in 2022. Whether they will vote as they did in 2016 is the question. Will they now believe in what Duterte’s critics say that he failed on the good things he did as a mayor, but only succeeded in bringing to the national level the bad habits that a mayor can get away with in their “fiefdom”?

The 2016 election also was contested by five  candidates. Duterte won with just 39 percent of the votes cast. The next two candidates – Mar Roxas and Grace Poe – combined for about 45 percent of the votes. If this had been a straight fight between two candidates, would Duterte have prevailed?

Enter 1Sambayan, a newly launched coalition of prominent pro-democratic leaders who hope to derail the Duterte train. They have three massive challenges ahead of them: Agreeing on a single slate of candidates, developing a winnable platform and effective messaging, and raising funds to back their candidates.

If they are able to address these three challenges effectively, I think there is a good chance that the electorate would have learned enough to make an informed decision this time and vote on the basis of platform of governance and the ability to deliver them based on competence, character, and experience.

In part II of this column, I will share my thoughts about how 1Sambayan, or any non-Duterte group that may emerge, can address these challenges and offer them a chance to halt the Duterte juggernaut.

Urdaneta Apartments

On Friday, March 26, 5 pm, there will be a virtual annual general meeting and a board of directors will be elected. The first time in seven years.

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