Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines since May 2016, has extensive and rock-solid support unscathed by official gaffes and bad language. During his first nine months in power, the popular support he enjoys increased and according to polls is now stable at about 75%. In spite of criticism from the international community over his not very democratic and illiberal methods – as witnessed by the 8,000 victims of his well-known anti-drugs crusade, mainly extra-judicial executions – Duterte rejects all interference concerning his policies.
“The people gave me their vote and now I am the one who decides,” he repeats. It is true that Filipino citizens voted for him en masse, giving him almost 40% of the votes. But why? What are the social, cultural and political dynamics that have made Duterte the country’s most beloved politician?
The millennials’ short memory
The spring 2016 elections were filled with strong symbolism for the Republic of the Philippines. The presidential elections fell on the 30th anniversary of the end of Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship. That regime ended in 1986 thanks to a non-violent people’s revolt; people took to the street en masse, encouraged also by a campaign backing the Catholic Church, a traditionally strong presence in Asia’s most Catholic country where over 85% of the people are believers.
But those days are long gone. It is sufficient to bear in mind that in November 2016, Duterte ordered the former Filipino dictator’s body be moved to the ‘heroes cemetery’ in Manila. Protests from human rights activists – “this is a dark day in the country’s history” said the NGO Karapatan – did not have much of an effect.
If one adds the praise for Marcos and references to martial law made by Duterte, without causing widespread indignation, one observes that fear and vigilance regarding oppressive and illiberal forms of power seem to be dormant in the collective consciousness. This is happening above all because of a generational gap. Filipino millennials, young people born after the mid-Eighties, have not personally experienced the suffering inflicted by a dictatorship. And their parents’ memories are not enough.
One must also add that one cannot lay all responsibility at the feet of the young. The school books they use are rather lacking in information about the Marcos era and the techno-democracy that characterises their lives does not help. The entire system has failed to transfer to the new generations the lesson the nation had learned thirty years ago.
In the Philippines, out of its 100 million inhabitants the young aged between 18 and 35 represent over 37% of the electorate (which has a total of 55 million voters), and the percentage of voters under the age of 30 (over 25 million when last counted) continues to rise every year. According to observers, the millennials’ vote was decisive for Duterte’s victory and the young still form the solid base for his support.
The strong man’s appeal
It is, however, undeniable that Duterte enjoys transversal approval in society. The Filipinos are subject to the irresistible charm of strong men. In the course of his political ascent, Duterte exploited the widespread dissatisfaction with poverty and phenomena such as crime, drugs and corruption. The people’s frustration catapulted him to victory. The Filipinos rewarded his authoritarian attitude and his intransigent rhetoric. In a country in which democratic processes have repeatedly failed to improve the lives of ordinary people, the public seems drawn to charismatic leaders who achieve results no matter by what means.
Duterte presented himself as an “anti-system man” promising social and economic change. He presented himself bringing with his political baggage his efficiency in managing the city of Davao, in the south of the archipelago, where he was the mayor for 22 years. It is from his experience in government there, that names such as “The Punisher” come, due to the focus on issues such as security and, according to others, complicity with the squadrons of “vigilantes” who cleared the city of crime using methods that were anything but legal. Epithets that, instead of becoming a handicap in the race for the presidency, turned out instead to benefit him.
In the sign of discontinuity
In any case, the newly elected president is an “outsider” and embodies the paradigm of discontinuity compared to a past dominated by large family clans. The cumbersome presence of dynasties, hence a small oligarchy managing power, is the factor that characterises both the economy and politics in the Philippines, acting as a restraint to the country’s real democratisation. Society there is closely linked to the phenomenon known as crony capitalism.
Political dynasties increase corruption and inefficiency, monopolising political authority and bending it to the interests of a few. While the Philippines’ constitution specifically forbids political dynasties, 40% of Filipino legislators, civil administrators and politicians belong to a clan. And cronyism did not vanish at all following the deposal of the Marcos regime. Control over the banking, property, energy and telecommunications sectors as well as gambling remain firmly in the net of crony capitalism.
Duterte has had the power to break this organisational paradigm. Filipinos identify with their undisputed leader who, on the other hand, plays greatly on populism and arouses sentiments of national pride. Slamming the door on Washington, Beijing or Brussels, as Duterte has at least done verbally, is a move that has had a psychological impact on the people and consolidated their support.
The uninfluential Church
There is one last element that seems significant; the Catholic Church, which in the Philippines has always played a role and exercised significant political influence. On the eve of the 2016 elections, the entire Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines had publicly begged Catholics “not to vote for Duterte”. Priests and nuns gathered to pray, asking people “not to vote for this demon”, portraying him as the “expression of forces of evil”. Archbishop Antonio Ledesma wrote, “This infernal monster is a Pol Pot who will not hesitate to kill people en masse. There will be new extermination camps if Duterte becomes president.”
The stronger the Church’s opposition, the more resounding and symbolically stinging seemed the defeat suffered by the hierarchies. The 2016 elections marked a momentous change in Filipino society, certifying the end of the Church’s influence on the people’s political and moral choices. While effectively the vote was presented as “a choice between good and evil”, the fact that in spite of everything the people chose Duterte, shows the citizens, albeit Catholics, no longer entrust to the clergy the discernment of their own conscience-based choices.
Filipino society has changed profoundly. Four years ago parliament’s approval of a law regulating “reproductive health” (which legalised birth control) and was strongly opposed by the Church, was a warning bell. This issue has now exploded in all its clarity. Parliament’s recent approval of the death penalty, thanks to which the Philippines, previously a country on the front lines as far as abolitionism was concerned, will now reintroduce capital punishment – the vote in the Senate at the beginning of May is considered a formality – is additional confirmation of the Catholic hierarchy’s lack of influence on the public in spite of having expressed its strong opposition.
The Church in the Philippines nowadays appears to be slow in understanding that credibility, authoritativeness and the people’s loyalty are not won over through a show of strength but rather by becoming a transparent vehicle for the Gospel, enlightening consciousness.