The Duterte Phenomenon

My July 14, 2015 column.
Rodrigo Duterte, the self-professed non-candidate in the 2016 presidential election, appeared in Gandang Gabi Vice, ABS-CBN’s popular Sunday evening show over the weekend.  Duterte denied, yet again, that he is running for president of the Republic next year.  He said he was not fit to become president.  In a separate forum with businessmen last month, he said he had no money to finance a presidential campaign and boldly declared that he was categorically and most definitely not running for president in 2016.  He has echoed and re-echoed the same assertions many times over in various fora and interviews. 
The man’s protestations should have already ended all further discussions on the matter.  The man has already expressed his disinterest and in various ways.  And yet, why does he continue to figure in discussions about the 2016 elections?  Why is he still being considered among the top contenders for the highest post in the land?  
Of course it can always be argued that Duterte’s body language does not seem to be aligned with what he is saying publicly. It has been pointed out by many that for someone who says he is not interested in becoming president, Duterte seems to have so much to say on the matter.  And his appearance in certain fora and television shows, and his various pronouncements, seem to be indicative of a political campaign strategy at work.  Even his appearance in Gandang Gabi Vice last Sunday seemed like a deliberate effort to soften his image.  So yes, it is indeed possible that Duterte’s current attempts to play coy are all part of a major public relations campaign to enhance his public image and to create a groundswell of support.
What cannot be denied is that Duterte is gaining support from a key segment of the Philippine population and if we are to believe what people are saying, the level of acceptability and desirability of a Duterte Presidency is rising with each public appearance.  Duterte’s appearance in Gandang Gabi Vice where he basically clowned around with the country’s most popular transgender should have endeared him to many, including lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders.  Duterte surprisingly expressed his support for same-sex marriages and claimed that he personally does not think sex between people of the same sex is wrong.  It can be recalled that the one thing most people feared about Duterte was his supposed dictatorial tendencies – the general perception about him was that he was not the type who listened to others or accepted dissenting opinions.  If we are to go by the general impression he created last Sunday, Duterte is not only a gentleman. He champions the oppressed and marginalized, and he is not a bigot.  I know many people who are now firmly convinced that Duterte is a much better alternative to, say, Vice President Jejomar Binay.
There is little doubt that Duterte’s background as mayor of the largest and probably the most peaceful city in the country for more than two decades has equipped him with certain critical competencies that would make him better qualified compared to others who are being catapulted into the Presidency on the wings of sheer potential.  In an ideal world, people should be choosing based on manifested competencies.  However, the reality is that most Filipinos choose leaders they can relate with at a very personal level; for many, it is about having a personal connection with a candidate and this means sharing the same set of values and priorities. 
So what can we then make of the emergence of Duterte as a non-candidate whose appeal seems to increase in the run-up to the 2016 elections?
It is very clear that there is an emerging clamor for genuine leadership; people are looking for someone that can lead the way forward.  It is pointless for people to continue harping on the educational and management background of potential candidates; as far as most people are concerned, proven track record in transforming communities and in solving real problems are what really counts. 
It is also apparent that moral integrity takes a backseat to issues that have direct impact on the everyday lives of people such as poverty, oppression, peace and order, drugs, etc.  Many people are apparently willing to gloss over Duterte’s human rights record in exchange for certain desirable results such as having policemen that actually do their work, or strict, fair, and consistent implementation of laws.  It should come as no surprise then that the many allegations of corruption being leveled against Binay has not succeeded yet in changing the minds of his core constituency.
 In short, people are not looking for saints – they want someone who will make their lives better.  And most important of all, it is very clear that political will is something that strikes a major chord among people today.  We want someone with the courage to do what is necessary.
Duterte could just be a representation of what voters want in 2016.  If he is not running, then the challenge seems pretty clear to the other presidential aspirants.


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