Rage Against the Regime

The rise of Digong Duterte is being fuelled by an anger from the ‘aspirational class’ against the establishment’s apathy, but is his brand of authoritarianism really the solution?

With barely a week to go before the May 9 general elections, Rodrigo ‘Digong’ Duterte is in pole position to claim the presidency of the Philippines. His brash language led pundits to believe that he would only appeal to illiterate, provinciano voters, but subsequent polls have proven them wrong.

Core support for Duterte is coming from the upper and middle classes, including professionals and small business owners. He is stealing this constituency away from the EDSA ‘86 People Power regime, its natural home. This regime has been in power for the last 30 years, save for a brief moment when the pro-poor populist Erap Estrada took the 1998 election by storm, only to be toppled a mere three years later by another EDSA uprising.

Duterte’s mass appeal cannot be credited to some kind of pro-poor slant like Estrada’s. It stems from the disenchantment the upwardly mobile, ‘aspirational set’ feel towards the established order, for failing to live up to its own standards of probity and justice. Unlike the poor, that are easily swayed by money or gifts from pandering politicians, these voters are not for sale.

Duterte’s mass appeal stems from the disenchantment the ‘aspirational set’ feel towards the established order, for failing to live up to its own standards of probity and justice.

What they are after is a meritocracy, the kind where one’s surname does not determine how far one advances in life, but where talent and hard work are recognized and rewarded. To a large extent, the EDSA regime allowed them to achieve a modicum of success. Following the demise of the Marcos dictatorship, democratic space was restored. Fiscal and banking systems were shored up. The economy gradually improved over time.

The last six years, in particular, have seen a revival of investor confidence, with the government earning several sovereign credit upgrades leading to investment status. Fiscal space was created leading to a large boost in social spending. Inflation and unemployment trended down to their lowest levels in a long time. There is even some evidence that economic growth has started to benefit the poor.

The problem is that having tasted a bit of the good life, Filipinos are now demanding and expecting more. With our consumer-oriented service economy, we have become a nation of self-employed cab drivers, shopkeepers and overseas migrant workers. We aren’t just landless peasants anymore. We have graduated into lower middle income status.

Having tasted a bit of the good life, Filipinos are now demanding and expecting more.

Average Filipinos now aspire to finish a tertiary degree, own a home, drive a car, and earn a living from within the country, not from abroad. They want to bring up their children in a safe environment and retire without worrying that health bills will eat their entire life savings. Ordinary Filipinos want a society that supports these aspirations, but what do they get instead?

They get a regime that hands out juicy contracts and licenses to its allies and party-mates. They get poor service and crumbling infrastructure. They witness political scions getting ahead on the basis of their lineage. They see economic spoils being disproportionately obtained by a few wealthy families. They see collusion between dynastic politicians and their plutocratic tycoon backers rigging the rules to favor their interests.

They see the small fry being taxed and burdened with inconveniences while fat cats and vice lords are given a free pass and special privileges even in prison. They see the system as inherently unfair and stacked up against them. They don’t see a genuine attempt to rein in corruption, only political bickering over the spoils of power. This is self-interest gone wild.

Ordinary Filipinos don’t see a genuine attempt to rein in corruption, only political bickering over the spoils of power. This is self-interest gone wild.

Enter Duterte, the man of the hour, who vents their frustration and expresses their anger. He minces no words showing little tolerance for weaselly ineffective bureaucrats. He serves as a perfect counter-foil to the administration’s bet Mar Roxas and his army of yellow apologists.

He is an outsider unlike Vice President Binay or Grace Poe who were once part of the administration’s inner circle. He doesn’t feel the need to kowtow to political correctness. To his followers he displays the rugged individualism of an explorer, pioneer or chief executive. For all his faults and flaws he seems to be the perfect antidote to the establishment’s apathy.

Under his presidency criminals are to be liquidated as was his policy in Davao. He plans to make peace with Muslim separatists through federalism, and end Communist insurgency by inviting the reds to share power. He will lease vast tracts of land to foreign investors, allow them to develop it and govern themselves within its boundaries. If the elite get in his way he will shut down congress and declare a revolutionary government. If Western powers have a problem with that they can get stuffed, while he does a deal with China.

Such radical thinking has rattled markets and analysts, who fear that such a bold experiment would disrupt the current growth trajectory of the country. Pro-democracy and human rights advocates including the Catholic clergy fear that his dictatorial tendencies will set the nation back a few decades into the dark days of Martial Law. Without congress or the courts to check his powers, wouldn’t he slip into the same plunderous ways of Pres. Marcos? The exposé involving undeclared assets allegedly belonging to him have just reinforced those fears.

What we should not do is disregard the aspiration of ordinary Filipinos and their disenchantment with the established order.

We can criticize the mayor for his brass knuckled approach to governance, and de-mystify the cult of personality behind his ascendancy. We can denounce some of his supporters who abuse his critics and issue threats against them. We can do all this, but what we should not do is disregard the aspiration of ordinary Filipinos that support him and their disenchantment with the established order that has spawned his candidacy.

The current regime offered to take us to a promised land, filled with ‘milk and honey’ where there would be economic opportunity for all and justice would reign. After thirty years of wandering in the desert, people have grown weary of such seemingly empty promises. They now see it as a mirage foisted on them by the regime that is so used to ruling that it has gotten fat and complacent.

The regime offered to take us to a promised land. After 30 years of wandering in the desert, people have grown weary of such seemingly empty promises.

Like the children of Israel, they have begun to pine for a life back in ‘Egypt’ under a Pharaoh that enslaved them. This imagined past, is full of false memories, but is also the result of false hopes created by their present rulers. If we are ever going to get to the promised land, we need to stay the course, but perhaps switch to a new generation of leaders that have grown up in the wilderness, who see the promised land as their birthright, and won’t look back.  

The author works as a development consultant and policy analyst in Adelaide, South Australia and Manila, Philippines. He is also the founder of the 2Klas Program, which equips inner city youth in Metro Manila with 21st Century skills. He has a Facebook page @CuspPH and tweets as @cusp_ph. He blogs and hosts a podcast on htttps://cusp-ph.blogspot.com.

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