The Duterte-Marcos constituency

What is behind the rise of Duterte-Marcos?

The latest Pulse Asia poll commissioned by ABS-CBN showed both Mayor Rody Duterte and Sen. Bongbong Marcos leading their respective races for president and vice president. Both candidates seem to be deriving their support from highly educated, affluent voters (Class ABC) and those residing in urban centers in the national capital region (NCR).

Duterte who garnered 25% of national preferences is statistically tied with Sen. Grace Poe for the lead at 26% (there is a +/- 1.5% margin of error). They are also tied in the NCR at about 29% to 30% apiece. Marcos who got 25% of preferences nationwide has, for the first time a slight, albeit insignificant lead over Sen. Francis Escudero who is at 24%. He has a clear plurality in NCR at 35% ahead of Escudero’s 30%.

Among Class ABC voters, Duterte garners a plurality of preferences at 35%. Ms Poe trails him at 22%. Similarly, Marcos has a plurality of 31% against his nearest rival Escudero at 17%. Duterte’s and Marcos’ support tends to wane the further down the income ladder one goes. They both share the lead among median voters in the fourth quintile, or Class D.

“Interview” with a Duterte-Marcos supporter

These results are quite baffling, given the profile of voters supporting the tandem. To provide some perspective on this phenomenon I would like to recount an interesting chat I had recently with a Duterte-Marcos supporter. It took place at a party, over a few drinks. The atmosphere was what I would call convivial. I didn’t identify myself as a blogger or supporter of any candidate. There was no reason for the person not to speak candidly.

The person in question fit perfectly with the demographics that polls indicate offer strong support to Duterte and Marcos. He is young, middle class, upwardly mobile, and urban-based. We can hardly call him poorly educated or stupid, as he belongs to a skilled profession. He is part of the most tech savvy, socially connected generation, being in his mid-thirties, so we can assume he has access to a lot of information.

The Duterte-Marcos supporter I was talking to trained as a nurse and worked in a government hospital in Quezon City, before migrating to Australia about a year and a half ago. He grew up in Tarlac (the Ilocano speaking side) and was a constituent of President Aquino when PNoy was still a congressman. In the 2010, he claims to have supported Gilbert Teodoro for president.

Part of his support for Duterte seemed to be in protest against the Aquino administration’s lackluster performance. He said that as a congressman Noynoy didn’t even initiate a single project for his district. I asked him at that point to confirm a report that I had heard from a dyed in the wool Coryista that Noynoy struggled to win his first congressional race and had to resort to vote buying. The young man confirmed it. He said that PNoy’s ability to win elections through his wealth and pedigree gave him a sense of entitlement to rule, that in turn made him lazy.

During the span of his young life (which neatly corresponds to the post-EDSA era) all he had seen was corruption.

Corruption seemed to be his primary concern, though. As a health worker, he said that stocks of medicine in public hospitals were always depleted. So much more could be done, he said, if we could only control corruption. He didn’t seem to agree with the administration’s claim that it had improved governance. During the span of his young life (which neatly corresponds to the post-EDSA era) all he had seen was corruption.

When asked why he supported Bongbong Marcos, he said that he saw the senator as a strong and effective leader, like his father. He saw no contradiction with his earlier statements about corruption (the Marcoses had been seen as one of the most corrupt rulers in modern history).

Perhaps it was the Ilocano in him speaking, as he absolved the late president by saying it was his wife, Imelda, who hails from Leyte, that was the cause of corruption and source of his downfall. Bongbong, on the other hand, had demonstrated his ability to lead the country given his track record as governor of Ilocos Norte and as senator.

This young, educated, well-informed, middle class, upwardly mobile professional fits what historically speaking constituted the profile of a People Power, Daang Matuwid supporter. He is the type of voter whom we would normally regard as belonging to the “reform constituency”. What has caused this person, and the millions like him, to abandon the straight path and shift allegiance to candidates that represent a break from its tradition?

Why is the Daang Matuwid coalition losing its constituents?

I have written quite extensively about this in the past, talking about “reform fatigue”, warning about what would happen if the regime failed to act boldly and more intelligently in setting its policy agenda. Lo and behold, my predictions have come true! In my view, there are several explanations for this “reform fatigue”. Here are just a few:

  • Good governance under President Aquino was not “good enough”. The problem with the good governance agenda was it was just so all encompassing. There were too many priorities. Progress might have taken place, but it was too imperceptible. Meanwhile new problems and challenges kept emerging. It would have been better to focus efforts on improving economic services that drove rapid growth, and do it well, rather than try to address corruption universally, and achieve mediocre results. A more targeted approach would have made for “good enough” governance, more realistic, achievable, and able to deliver results.
  • There was too much of a concern for process, rather than outcomes. What matters most to voters are outcomes. The good governance agenda often focuses on creating processes that mimic first world institutions, to appear to be doing things right (isomorphic mimicry it is called), rather than doing the right things. The “results” of this approach speak for themselves: underspending on development projects, snail-paced outflow of the PPP pipeline, bottlenecks and breakdowns in economic infrastructure, all in the name of doing things “above board”. Of course, now we are finding out that even that wasn’t the case. A number of shady deals still went down, and services continued to deteriorate (think LTO, MRT, traffic, tanim bala).
  • Industry policy took a backseat to social programs. The industry road maps and the infrastructure pipeline needed to support it took too long. Much needed tax reforms and incentives rationalization were put in the “too hard” basket. Only about a quarter of additional spending went to economic services. What took off were social services which received half of all additional spending, resulting in a social constituency which is now influencing the election. The CCT program, studies have found, was ramped up too quickly, leading to improper targeting of up to 37% of all recipients. Inclusive growth starts with fostering growth in employment, in productive sectors, which will provide government with enough revenue to fund social programs.

This is not to say that progress on a number of fronts did not take place, or that the measures undertaken during PNoy’s term were not well meaning. The problem was progress did not take place in areas that mattered the most, and often enough.

Desperate times call for desperate measures?

So in the end, we are left with a situation where many voters feel frustrated with the slow, often snail-paced progress of reform. They are feeling desperate, and are now calling for desperate measures. What Messrs Duterte and Marcos both offer in the minds of these voters is a way to untangle what they perceive is the unnecessarily complicated way government operates to address intransigent problems in our country.

Duterte’s pursuit of dark but incorruptible justice in Davao, which has caused it to flourish, and Marcos’ brand of “diskarteng pinoy” in solving the energy problems of his home province represent bold, visionary and results-driven leadership. To millennials in particular they would represent fresh, out of the box thinking since all they have known and been exposed to are epal-iticians who grab credit, promise but underdeliver, if at all.

An effective state that gets things done, even though it might resort to using an iron fist rather than doing things by the book is what Duterte-Marcos stand for. Their constituents have had enough of the rule-book, finding that sticking to it gets them nowhere. They’re just after results, real tangible results, ones they can feel and appreciate, not in six or twelve years, but right now.