Rodrigo Duterte: Strongman, jokerman

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The rise of the tough-talking, foul-mouthed Davao City mayor and presumptive next president of the Philippines is symptomatic of a citizenry that has never fully recovered from a decades-old disorder of iron-fisted rule, argues the award-winning writer Gina Apostol.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In 1987, when the deposed Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos had long been ensconced in Hawaii, dying of lupus, and Cory Aquino’s people-powered installation had inspired the world, a charismatic student radical joined mainstream politics and ran for Congress in the district of Malabon-Navotas. Lean Alejandro, a lanky, wiry scholar-activist, could rivet his audience by quoting Dante, “The Lord of the Rings,” and Mao in one breath. He was just 27 years old, a recognized icon of the left, an intellectual who combined wit with hard work, a magnetizing voice for his causes: anti-fascist, anti-imperialist, pro-poor, and pro-labor. Despite his popularity, he lost to a presidential aunt, Tessie Aquino-Oreta, amid reports of cheating. He was dead four months later, shot in September, his gunman still unfound, in a political assassination that resonates now, nearly three decades later, when the Philippines is in dire need of hope in an election landscape that reeks of horror.

Polls say Rodrigo Duterte, the longtime mayor of Davao City in the south, is set to win the presidential election. With all the grace of a priapic figure of the commedia dell’arte, or a goonish security guard in a telenovela, Duterte, “The Punisher” — or Duterte Harry, as pun-happy Filipinos call him, after the Clint Eastwood vigilante — has taken the Philippines by storm.

Duterte also came to power during those 1987 campaigns, handpicked by Cory Aquino herself. Son of a Davao governor, Duterte is related to a Marcos-era political family, the notoriously violent Duranos of Danao City in Cebu. As the historian Michael Cullinane notes in his chapter on the Duranos in a book on Filipino cronyism, “An Anarchy of Families,” the Duranos literally ruled through a gun-making business, providing illegal paltik, the cheap, Filipino-made gun for which Danao City is known. The name Durano in Cebu is synonymous with the violence that the family’s business spurred. As the equally violence-promoting Durano nephew Rodrigo Duterte boasts of his mayoralty in Davao: “We’re the ninth safest city … How did I reach that title among the world’s safest cities? Kill them all.” And by “all” he means criminals.

Duterte is, in fact, a classic oligarch with money in his pockets (or so the current news reports of his millions of pesos in bank accounts claim) — but he acts convincingly like a peasant buffoon.

The Duterte phenomenon invites the question: Is it inevitable that in a grotesque society of injustice, impunity, plunder, and inequality, citizens would make awful choices?

The man jokes about rape. He vows to kill all drug addicts within six months of his election. If Congress opposes him, he will abolish it. A dynastic politician himself, he is seen as the scourge of the elite, in one speech excusing his crass humor because he is “not a konyo,” a colloquial Filipino term for the upper classes. He curses the Pope. He gleefully announces he’d like to burn the flag of Singapore, or expel the Australian embassy, or show people his penis. He says of the strongman Ferdinand Marcos that “if only he had not stayed so long, becoming a dictator, he is the best president.”

Duterte has the air of a corner drunk, or canto-boy lasenggo — brazen, vulgar, and happily shameless — albeit one who is linked to death squads, says Human Rights Watch. However, Duterte’s appeal is broad — and rising. He leads in every socioeconomic class and across geographic strata. The upper class backs him: 43 percent of the middle to upper classes are for Duterte. The poorest groups (the so-called D and E class in the Pulse Asia surveys) are slightly less enamored but support him 32 percent (D class) and 40 percent (E class). From the capital region of Manila — home of elites — to his stronghold, Mindanao — home of provincial emigrants and historic Muslim resisters, classic outsiders in Philippine chronicles — Duterte’s poll numbers, given his theatrical, even insane, remarks, are shockingly high.

But his rise is not surprising. He is a grotesque figure whose actual policies are “secret, secret” (so he jokes with reporters who ask about his plans). His funders remain veiled in gossip (jailed oligarchs are rumored to have him in his pockets). But above all, Duterte’s rise is symptomatic of a traumatized citizenry, an irrational response to rational rage.

In the month of April alone, Pulse Asia lists the headlines that led the news during the last survey: A rice shortage, due to El Niño, in Kidapawan, South Cotabato, leads to the deaths of three farmers in clashes between protesters and police. Bail is granted to the notorious businesswoman Janet Napoles, imprisoned on plunder charges for bribing senators in a pork barrel scam. The ombudsman finds that the police chief and presidential crony Alan Purisima likely “violated the Anti-Graft and Corruption Practices Act.” And U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announces joint patrols with the Philippine military under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement while China lands a military aircraft on a disputed reef — one more sign of the country’s vulnerable defenses.

Duterte is, in fact, a classic oligarch with money in his pockets (or so the current news reports of his millions of pesos in bank accounts claim) — but he acts convincingly like a peasant buffoon.

Since 1986, citizens have witnessed land reform fail, corruption scandals erupt (two presidents, Estrada and Arroyo, have gone to jail), the MRT and LRT rail lines fall apart, and disasters strike with faint reprieve for the stricken. They’ve seen journalists massacred, peace treaties upended, and militarization increased, Marcos-style — state-sponsored violence against protesters in indigenous Lumad lands full of mining gold, in urban centers — as if the dictator had never fled.

And the hold of the very rich on the increasingly poor remains criminal: 35 years after the so-called EDSA revolution, the top 40 richest Filipino families have an increased wealth equivalent to 76.5 percent of the country's overall increase in GDP.

And so the public turns to Duterte, in fact a punitive oligarch disguised in revolutionary clothes. Like a French revolutionary sans culottes, he will épater le bourgeois, or in the case of the Philippines, throw out the oligarchy — while in Davao City he roots out street children, petty criminals, and drug dealers by killing them through vigilante assassins assisted by police officers and local officials. The Duterte phenomenon invites the question: Is it inevitable that in a grotesque society of injustice, impunity, plunder, and inequality, citizens would make awful choices?

His rise is a people’s revenge. His cursing mouth is the proxy spokesman for their own cursed lives. He will establish law and order. He will destroy the elite. He will kill the bad guys. 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.

Lidy Nacpil, the widow of Lean Alejandro, believes her husband’s killing was part of Oplan Lambat Bitag, “a military campaign aimed at the political infrastructure of the left [...] against leaders [...] waging open, legal struggles.” Within a six-month period in 1987, she says, “more than 40 leaders were killed — lawyers, writers, labor leaders, farmer leaders.” Dictatorship-style counterinsurgency programs, called Oplan Lambat Bitag under Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos’s regimes, Oplan Makabayan and Oplan Balangai under Joseph Estrada, Oplan Bantay Laya under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and Oplan Bayanihan under Benigno Aquino III, continue to harass and target protesters, farmers, student activists, community organizers — citizens working for change. It is true that the Aquino government’s counterinsurgency effort has turned to community building, employing military peacekeepers in the hinterlands. But the progressive police are all too late.

No wonder there is a vacuum in this election landscape. A state policy that has long promoted political murders has consequences. Traditional politicians, thugs, oligarchs, and jokers remain. Dreamers are dead.

And on May 9, today, 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.

Editor's note: The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CNN Philippines.


Gina Apostol is a Filipino writer living in New York City. She is the author of the novels “Bibliolepsy,” “The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata,” and “Gun Dealers’ Daughter,” which won the 2013 PEN/Open Book Award.