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How the Philippines’ new strongman romped into office despite a shocking campaign

How the Philippines’ new strongman romped into office despite a shocking campaign

Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao City in Mindanao is now president elect of the Philippines. His path to the presidency was controversial, riddled with expletives and reduced his detractors to mud slinging and comparisons with Hitler. But the mud failed to stick: with almost all precincts reporting, he looked to have won the race to the presidency with more than 15m votes and nearly 40% of the vote. His nearest rivals have conceded defeat.

Duterte came to the presidential race late, prompted by a Senatorial Electoral Tribunal decision to allow Senator Grace Poe to run for the presidency. Her presidential aspirations had been dogged by her background as a foundling, her temporary conversion to US citizenship and her alleged failure to meet the residency requirements for government office. Despite the tribunal’s verdict, Duterte threw his hat in the ring, saying he didn’t want an “American” to be president of the Philippines.

As election day loomed, surveys were released showing that Duterte was more than 10% ahead of his nearest rival, and his opponents mounted desperate efforts to stop his campaign juggernaut. Senator Antonio Trillanes, a vice-presidential candidate, accused Duterte of stashing unexplained funds in hidden bank accounts, of shooting people in the head at point blank range, and of being in league with the Communist Party of the Philippines. Duterte responded by filing treason charges against Trillanes, though they seem unlikely to stick.

Duterte also nearly self-destructed on more than one occasion. He publicly joked that he would have liked to have been first in line at a notorious gang rape, and also treated the members of the Makati Business club, who were expecting a speech on economic policy, to an 80-minute ramble on his womanising and libido and on his draconian ways of dealing with drug dealers.

He cursed the Pope when a papal visit to Manila trapped him in heavy traffic – hardly a good idea in such a strongly Catholic country. He also openly advocated killing criminals and plunderers, and admitted to having personally done so in the past.

And yet none of this dented his popularity. Why not?

Sick and tired

Duterte’s popularity runs across all social and economic classes. World Bank statistics indicate that 25.2% of Filipinos live below the poverty line, with self-rated poverty running at more than 50% – even though poverty reduction has been an official policy of the outgoing Aquino regime, and even as the country’s economy has enjoyed an average growth rate of 6.2% since 2010. The poor are fed up of being left out of this new-found prosperity.

Duterte’s final pre-election rally. EPA/Cocoy Sexcion

Aquino associated poverty reduction with clean governance, but much of the electorate remains unconvinced by Aquino’s tuwid na Daan (straight path) and little changed for the very poor. Aquino’s anointed heir, Mar Roxas’ exhortations to continue with this policy fell on deaf ears. Roxas was hindered in his electoral appeals to the poor as they judged him on the inadequacy of the previous administration of which he was part.

The poor want action, and they want it quickly. Duterte’s closing promise that he would give poor Filipinos a comfortable life was exactly what they wanted to hear, and they are clearly willing to give him the chance to deliver it. But Duterte also appeals to wealthier voters, in large part because he has promised a rapid crackdown on criminals.

The majority of Filipinos are also sick of seeing power passed around a few elite families, and of their leaders’ unsavoury habits. The outgoing vice-president and presidential candidate Jejomar Binay was tarnished by allegations of corruption levelled against him and his family, while many voters suspected Poe of being backed by Danding Cojuangco, Ferdinand Marcos’ old right-hand man.

Filipino voters seems to have embraced in 2016 what they rejected in 1986: a regime that rules with strong-arm tactics. Duterte has openly said that if the occasion merited it, he would introduce martial law, and has also promised to build peace and order within three to six months.

What sort of president he will be, and whether he can make good on these promises, is anyone’s guess. Winning the election was the easy part; now the hard work begins.