The appeal of Rodrigo Duterte

The new President of the Republic of the Philippines is charming yet crude—or is his crudeness his charm? The polarizing appeal that propelled Rodrigo Duterte to his landslide victory is examined.

Rodrigo Duterte (Photography John Delfino of Draft Creative Group/Originally published in Zee Lifestyle, July 2016)

The nation has chosen. In the aftermath of the 2016 Philippine elections, Davao City’s Rodrigo Roa Duterte emerged as the clear winner of the presidential race. Amassing over 16 million votes, or 39% of the voting population, the former Davao City Mayor’s landslide victory over his formidable opponents DILG Secretary Manuel Roxas II, former Vice-President Jejomar Binay, and Senators Grace Poe Llamanzares and Miriam Defensor-Santiago quickly shifted the public’s attention to the tighter bid for the vice-presidential seat between Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and Congresswoman Leni Robredo, with Robredo narrowly defeating Marcos by some 200,000 votes.

That’s not to say that the focus on the vice-president race put Duterte in the backseat. If anything, the man dubbed by TIME Magazine as ‘The Punisher’ has continued to make headlines way after, and even long before the elections. During the campaign period, Duterte drew widespread criticism after making an inappropriate remark regarding the rape of an Australian missionary in 1989. He also irked more people after saying that corrupt journalists deserved to die. The list of Duterte’s social faux pas doesn’t just end there, with numerous incidents adding color to his two decades in public service.

Still, despite all these, his popularity among the people barely dwindled well into the elections and afterwards. So, why him? “Bad jokes versus track record, there’s no contest,” says political communications consultant Mike Acebedo Lopez. “Do I wish for him to have more tact? Most certainly. But as we always say, action speaks louder than words. And this guy has performed and delivered where his opponents were just about sweet talk.”

“His platform of federalism resonates with those in the countryside, the people in the peripheries.” – Mike Acebedo Lopez

As one of the country’s longest-serving mayors (he served seven terms, from 1988 to 1998, 2001 to 2010, and 2013 to 2016), Duterte has reinvented Davao City from what was said to be the country’s murder capital to one of the safest destinations in southeast Asia and the world. He signed numerous ordinances to prohibit selling, serving and consuming alcoholic beverages from 1:00 to 8:00 in the morning; to reduce speed limits for public safety; and to ban fireworks and smoking. He pushed for the city’s Women Development Code and the Magna Carta for Women to recognize, protect, fulfill and promote the rights of women in Davao. Under his term, he also developed the Public Safety and Security Command Center—likened to homeland security in the United States—which houses the central 911 free services provided by the city government—the only kind in the country.

“People are just so tired of same old, same old,” continues Mike. “They’re not only mad, they’re desperate. And so they we’re willing to risk it with someone who’s shown not only the best he has to offer—Davao as a centerpiece for good governance—but also the very worst he’s capable of, his crass humor, among others.”

For House of Lechon owner and mother of four, Cheryl Pages-Alba, who avidly supported Duterte based on the process of elimination (“The other candidates’ issues on competence and integrity made my process quicker and easier, as I found many traits in them that were major deal breakers.”) Duterte’s no-filter and uncouth behavior is the same quality that the masses found most endearing about him. “In hindsight, part of strategy was to create hype and theatrics,” she explains. “It almost didn’t matter if it was bad publicity, as he was everybody’s favorite topic—another brilliant move keeping him relevant throughout the campaign season.” She adds that, on her part as a responsible and curious voter, she did her own research when controversies came out. “I’d watch the whole source of a questionable short video clip or negative soundbite. I stuck to him when people were so quick to take his words out of context.”

Mike, who believes Duterte is the best choice for the Philippines at this particular time in the country’s history, deems Duterte has two things wanting in our populist politicians: political will and political capital. “The latter is exemplified by his diehard supporters who would fight tooth and nail to defend him, it’s showcased by how social media rallied support for him and seemingly overruled mainstream media that proffered largely anti-Duterte news during the campaign. Nothing short of revolutionary, really.” he says.

“It almost didn’t matter if it was bad publicity, as he was everybody’s favorite topic—another brilliant move keeping him relevant throughout the campaign season.” – Cheryl Pages-Alba

As for the former, no other politician in the Philippines has become synonymous to political will. “I guess many Filipinos believe that political will combined with enormous political capital can help Duterte push for meaningful and lasting change through charter change—that’s systemic change right there, as opposed to band aid solutions other candidates were offering,” Mike explains. “His platform of federalism resonates with those in the countryside, the people in the peripheries—Filipinos in the Visayas and Mindanao who’ve long been excluded by Manila-centric politics and policies. The administration’s proposal of more of the same (“ipatuloy ang Daang Matuwid”) simply pales in comparison to this promise of change.”

Even before Duterte assumed his post as the 16th President of the Republic of the Philippines, the change that his appointment has promised is already taking place. “We’re already seeing it, even in little things. For instance, his simple lifestyle, and how he demands the same from his appointees, is starting to change the psychology of power in this country,” Mike notes. “Branded stuff, SUVs, etc. are now seen as very uncool where powerful politicians are concerned. And that’s just a start.”

Cheryl recalls a conversation with her father over dinner, “He said, ‘You see, it just comes to show that the leader always directs the pace,’” she recalls. “He has set the tone for everybody with his nonstop crusade against corruption, criminality and drugs. One of the most interesting changes to happen under the Duterte administration will be the challenge for every Filipino citizen to choose discipline over convenience or entitlement in everything that he or she does.”

With Rodrigo Roa Duterte, ‘wait and see’ seems hardly necessary. It’s only the beginning, and yet the changes brought about by his appointment aren’t just mere promises, but already a reality. It’s highly representative of the man himself, who Mike, in his several meetings with the new President, describes as, “What you see is what you get.”

by Patty Taboada photography John Delfino of Draft Creative Group special thanks to April Rama

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