Philippines election: Why fatigued voters yearn for 'strongman' leader

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Editor's note: Richard Javad Heydarian is a political science professor at De La Salle University, Manila, and the author of Asia's New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific (Zed, London).

(CNN) — The upcoming presidential election in the Philippines is arguably the country's most consequential in recent memory.

In coming weeks, the world will discover whether the Southeast Asian country's recent impressive political and economic gains mark the beginning of a new chapter or, alternatively, represent a fortunate yet short-lived deviation.

Under the stewardship of President Benigno Aquino, the Philippines has posted one of the fastest growth rates in the world, initiated various good governance initiatives, and injected vigor into the country's foreign policy, particularly with the South China Sea disputes.

No longer seen as the "sick man of Asia," the country is now the toast of the town among international investors.

But all of this could change — for better, or worse.

Autocratic nostalgia

Latest polls suggest Rodrigo Duterte, Davao City's firebrand mayor, who has made international headlines for his controversial statements in recent weeks, is comfortably leading the presidential race.

Meanwhile, Ferdinand "BongBong" Marcos Jr., the only son of the infamous former dictator, is in an equally strong position to win the second-highest elected post in the government. If successful, Marcos is widely expected to run for presidency in 2022.

Related: Duterte, Marcos maintain lead in latest Pulse Asia survey

Both Duterte and Marcos have actively tapped into growing social discontent over the lack of inclusive growth, chronic corruption, lack of law and order, massive infrastructural bottlenecks, and the perceived absence of decisive leadership in the country.

Contrary to the incumbent, they have also promised more engagement with China, with Duterte even suggesting that sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea are negotiable. Similarly, they have expressed doubt in existing democratic institutions.

Frustrated with the shortcomings of democratically-elected governments in the past, a growing number of Filipinos are giving into democratic fatigue and embracing autocratic nostalgia.

What is at stake isn't only recent gains under the Aquino administration but the whole elite democracy — a political system dominated by few major political families — that supplanted the Marcos dictatorship.

The strongman syndrome

Almost half a century ago, Harvard University professor Samuel Huntington observed a counterintuitive connection between accelerated economic growth and political polarization.

Throughout the past few years, we have seen examples of this in numerous nations, with a series of tough-talking, single-minded politicians making inroads across rapidly growing but dysfunctional democracies such as Indonesia, India, Peru, and the Philippines.

Even established democracies such as the U.S. are falling for the strongman syndrome — the misguided belief that a single strong leader can save the whole nation — as most pronounced in the rise of Donald Trump.

However, the Philippines is more of an oligarchy disguised as democracy, with elections largely a clash of political families.

Up to 70% of Filipino legislators hail from political dynasties, and the economic picture reveals a similar tendency. In 2011, for instance, the 40 richest families swallowed up to 76% of newly-created growth in recent years — the highest rate of growth-concentration in the Asia-Pacific region.

No wonder then that in the Philippines, as in other troubled democracies, there is a growing yearn for change — for better or worse.

If elected as president, Duterte, who is accused of supporting extra-judicial killings to bring stability to the once-crime-ravaged city of Davao, has astonishingly promised to end crime and corruption nationally within his first three to six months in office.

In light of the breakdown in the peace process in the troubled southern island of Mindanao, with ISIS-sympathizers such as Abu Sayyaf stepping up their terror operations and recently beheading a Canadian hostage, Duterte is in a particularly strong position to portray himself as a shield against further instability in the country. In fact, he has presented himself as the only candidate who truly understands the complexity of the decades-long conflict in the south, vowing to bring together different rebel groups to negotiate an end to the conflict in Mindanao, if elected president.

Marcos has similarly promised a decisive style of leadership. He has consistently glorified his father's legacy, even daring to claim that the Southeast Asian country would have turned into a developed country if not for the 1986 EDSA Revolution.

In a country where forgetfulness and forgiveness are interchangeable and there is collective mental bias for the immediate present than the distant past, Marcos' blitzkrieg campaign of "historical revisionism" has proven increasingly effective, especially among the youth and those who are critical of the Philippines' oligarchy.

A race to the end

The race for president has been tight for the past six months, with essentially four candidates slugging it out. But in the past few weeks, Duterte and Grace Poe have pulled away from the rest of the pack, according to the polls.

Poe, the daughter of a former movie action star and presidential candidate, is largely seen as the other candidate of change, who combines popular appeal with a reformist agenda.

A former American citizen, she barely survived a constitutional challenge on the grounds of citizenship to her presidential bid, and could still face disqualification if she wins in the upcoming elections.

Related: Poe urges Filipinos in U.S. to apply for dual citizenship

In recent weeks, however, her perceived affiliation with oligarchs such as Danding Cuajuangco and the endorsement of former president and convicted plunderer, Joseph Estrada, have partly undermined her authenticity and reformist appeal.

At this point, in a single-round, first-past-the-post race, Duterte seems to be the candidate most likely to win, leaving Poe as the only other candidate with a realistic chance of defeating the frontrunner.

In the vice-presidential race, Marcos Jr. is leading by a smaller margin, though another survey suggests that he is now tied for first with the Aquino administration's candidate, Leni Robredo, who has leveraged decades of public service and reformist credentials.

With vast financial resources and an impeccable machinery, Marcos is very much still the candidate to beat.

Of course, it is far from certain whether Duterte and Marcos can win the elections. Duterte's recent "rape joke" scandal could dent his momentum, putting Poe in a strong position to regain her own momentum. But establishment candidates, particularly Vice-President Jejomar Binay and Secretary Roxas, have been struggling in the surveys.

What is clear is that a rising tide of "grievance politics" is taking over the Philippine political landscape, empowering outside-the-box candidates like Duterte and Marcos.

This could very well mark the beginning of the end for the Philippines' elite democracy system.