Part I: The Philippines Elections and the Promise of a Duterte Presidency


On May 9th 2016, the Filipino people demonstrated significant interest in the Philippine elections, more so than usual. Many had grown apathetic to the political environment of the country, but something was different in this election. It has been three decades since this kind of euphoria has been felt by the masses, when we were able to oust former president and dictator Ferdinand Edralin Marcos. The same feelings of hope and aspiration have once again sprung from the heart of the nation through the more than six million voters, who turned out to support Rodrigo Roa Duterte.

What drew Filipinos to a candidate who has been called “the Philippines’ Dirty Harry”?

Among the presidential candidates, Mayor Rody Duterte has never failed to amaze or shock people. Many have likened him to American Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – however, aside from both being foul-mouthed and sexist, their similarities end there. One thing is for sure, he is the only candidate to ever go directly against the existing order of where most traditional politicians traverse. He boldly declares stifling drug trafficking and crime in six months. He says he will re-establish the death penalty. He promises to end patronage politics and corruption in government and use the money lost to corruption to fund social programs that would truly benefit the people. At one point in his campaign, he even threatened to establish a “revolutionary” government. His conviction in bringing about change made people believe that with a strong and steadfast leader, the nation will be freed from the quagmire of poverty and eradicate a culture of impunity.  He is the only one seen as the “true opposition” of the Aquino Regime and its “Yellow Cult[1]”, whose only credentials include the massive corruption of the “pork barrel funds”, corruption of calamity funds and donations for the typhoons and other natural disasters, the many massacres including the Mamasapano massacre in Mindanao, the privatization of social institutions such as hospitals, schools and transport facilities. It is a regime that is vindictive, non-performing and favors only the oligarchy and its imperial masters whose programs are largely anti-poor.

As a local government official, Duterte has served as Assistant Prosecutor, Vice Mayor, Congressman, Mayor (for several terms), and is now the incoming President of the Republic of the Philippines. Under his watch, the city of Davao was transformed from what was once termed as the “Killing Fields of the South” to the 4th safest city in the world. He also developed the city economically and made it one of the cleanest cities in the Philippines. Thanks to him, Davao also has one of the most progressive and comprehensive social programs, better even than that of the capital, Manila.

However, his governance has also earned negative publicity through claims of human rights violation, particularly allegations that he is somehow linked to the Davao Death Squad[2]. Furthermore, he has admitted to personally killing criminals. Yet somehow, this has not hurt his bid for presidency – in fact, it has even helped him because of the hard-line anti-crime stance it implies. For most, this is viewed positively and essential in order to counter or erase the culture of impunity in the country.

For a country whose educational system inhibits its people’s freedom of thought and political beliefs and where red-baiting and red-scares abound, incoming President Duterte remarkably shows no apprehension about  claiming that he is the first-ever, socialist President…from the moderate left[3]. In fact, it is a break-through that he has gone as far as to offer vital cabinet posts to communists. This is because for the progressives and communists in Mindanao, their history of working and mutually supporting each other goes far back and remains strong. Duterte is also quite popular with the Muslim separatists and indigenous people  (IP) because he accurately cites historical injustice as being the reason why Filipino Muslims and IPs continue to take up arms and fight for independence.

Credibility, good governance, and a pro-people agenda has been paramount and central to his campaign. It generated massive and spontaneous support (financial and otherwise) among migrant workers, local workers, peasants and all sectors, and yes, even women (despite the womanizing, cat-calling and the “rape-joke[4]” references that earned the ire of women’s rights groups). His supporters rise to the occasion without failing to fight tooth and nail on his behalf whenever he is criticized. Under all the gruff, machismo, and ruggedness that he projects, people see that beneath the surface lies a soft-hearted man who is easily moved to tears by sick children and the elderly, goes out of his way to defend the weak, selflessly gives what he has to people in need, always lends a hand in times of crisis, and unabashedly cries his heart out in front of the graves of his parents.

Even before taking office, he showed a particular determination to carry out his campaign promises, which he has thus far lived up to. Cabinet positions for departments for social programs have been assigned to prominent progressive/leftist personalities. Preparations for the Peace Talks with the CPP-NPA-NDF  have begun.  He believes that in order to pave the way for peace and national unity, he needs to be pro-active in engagements through dialogues, on equal footing and in neutral grounds. He acknowledges the legitimacy of the revolution and he does not believe a militaristic approach will end the 47-year struggle of the armed revolutionaries. He believes that in order to attain peace, he needs to first address the root causes of the armed conflict.

Declarations have been made for the release of all political prisoners; for a more independent foreign policy; for an end to contractual or irregular work; against corporate mining; to minimize state exactions and taxations; to set up more efficient government service; to uphold the law and dispense swift punishment for those who would violate it; to establish a national industry to create jobs; for land reform; for social benefits; and for so much more. These agendas continue to keep Filipinos hopeful that change is underway.

Despite all of these positive declarations and good will, it is evident that Duterte has fascist tendencies. His machismo and offensive humour also helps to perpetuate violence and discrimination towards women. And his admission that he will continue the economic agenda of the outgoing President Benigno Simeon Cojuanco Aquino III ‘s regime makes it evident that he would allow the country’s previous neo-liberal policies (imposed upon the Philippines by the United States and other imperialist nations) to continue to suppress the people. The creation of the Department for Overseas Filipino Workers aims to streamline and make more efficient the export of Filipino labor and thus supports a neo-liberal agenda that continues to commodify human beings, pit workers against workers, and suppress wages and rescind the victories of the working class won through struggle and paid for with life and blood.

Duterte’s platform of national unity may be seen as positive, but it is still hard to completely give in to the perceived peace and national unity this administration promises. Key positions in the cabinet are occupied by known implementers of anti-people policies, and notorious instruments of tyranny from the military are still a part of his administration. His campaign was said to have be partly funded by bureaucrat capitalist-Like Manny Villar and Gloria Arroyo supporters whose) interests are served by Duterte’s economic agenda.

Ultimately, neither the progressives nor the Filipino people should get our hopes up (or let our guard down), because a just and lasting peace cannot be achieved through simple reforms or a change in leadership. It can only be achieved through the most tenacious, determined, and scientific struggle. Historically, our struggle has been consistently against state violence and nothing less can be expected. Contradictions are ever-present, but we must remember that the interests of the people directly oppose the interests of those in power (not just the president). Their interest is to stay in power and keep the current system of oppression, while ours is to win emancipation from that oppression.

If there is one thing that Filipinos can be thankful for, it is the breathing room that a Duterte presidency can provide. It is the chance to educate the masses and the opportunity to learn that there is an alternative to the current system – one that is more humane, just, and equitable, and aims to serve the needs of the people. Filipinos have a chance to be truly involved and forge the change they want.

For progressives in particular, it is an opportunity for us to be instrumental in that change. It is our responsibility to educate the people and show the true essence of socialism. We have to involve ourselves in achieving provisional gains in order to alleviate the suffering of the people while also aiming for maximum gains to serve the people. It is an opportunity for us to expose the existing system that it is rotten to the core. Crime, corruption, poverty, and the lack of social services and problems in this society are but symptoms of a systemic disease, one that is the capitalist system itself.

by Michel Paulos (Deputy Secretary General, Migrante International)

[Note: The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the International Strategy Center.]

  1. Yellow Cult – refers to supporters of the Cojuanco-Aquino clan comprised of influential individuals from the Philippine oligarchy,politicians, media, celebrities and ordinary people who mythologizes that the ousting of the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos was achieved solely through the martyrdom of the late Senator, Benigno Aquino Jr. which led to the people’s uprising in EDSA 1.
  2. Davao Death Squad – a vigilante group exclusively in Davao, said to have links with Duterte. Responsible for summary executions of “small-time” criminals and drug dealers.
  3. …moderate left – the leftist groups who share an anti-imperialist stance, strives to establish socialism through legislative reforms but rejects the revolutionary armed struggle as opposed to the other left who believes that the armed revolution is legitimate and takes a natural course of action in establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat. The revolutionary left in the Philippines are guided by the Marx-Lenin-Mao principles.
  4. Rape joke