Power of the people
Rodrigo ‘Digong’ Duterte’s landslide win in the Philippine presidential election reflects a sea change among the electorate, in their choice of a city mayor over a national politician and of a tough-talker on crime and corruption. James Gabrillo reports
At past three in the morning on May 11, 10 hours after the polls had closed, Rodrigo Duterte told his aides he wanted to pass by the public cemetery in Davao, the southern city of where he has been mayor for more than two decades. He wanted to visit his parents’ grave, he said.
As election results trickled in from across the country, it became clear that Duterte had won the Philippine presidential election by a landslide, earning almost twice as many votes received by second-placer Mar Roxas, the grandson of former president Manuel Roxas.
As he approached his parents’ grave, the tough-talking and crime-crushing mayor known as The Punisher startled his aides when he began to break down in tears, as if realising the tremendous burden of leading a country.
Clenching his fist on top of his mother’s tomb, he sobbed like a child.
“Ma, please help me,” he said in the local Visayan dialect. “I can’t believe this. Who am I? I’m just a nobody.”
Duterte, 71, enacted many headline-grabbing moments throughout the election season: making fun of his opponents; threatening to kill criminals; insulting the Pope; joking about rape; kissing female supporters. What he never did was show emotion, until now.
“I have long wanted to cry aloud like that,” he told one of his aides as they drove out of the cemetery.
Affectionately called “Digong” by his supporters, Rodrigo Roa Duterte will be sworn in as the 16th president of the Republic of the Philippines on June 30. He is the son of a public schoolteacher, Soleng, and a former politician, Vicente. Duterte worked as a lawyer before being appointed as vice-mayor of Davao by president Corazon Aquino after the 1986 People Power Revolution that overthrew the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
Duterte went on to serve as Davao’s mayor for seven terms – more than 22 years – and turned the once-murder capital of the country into what many now consider as the most peaceful city in South East Asia. Along the way, however, he has been accused of organising vigilante death squads that target criminals and drug dealers.
“A leader must be a terror to the few who are evil,” Duterte once said, “in order to protect the lives and well-being of the many who are good.”
His stern stance on law and order has resonated with millions of voters in a country where crime and corruption remain rampant. But Duterte’s win embodies something more significant: the electorate’s yearning for change.
Duterte is the first of all the 16 Filipino presidents to have never held a position in national government prior to being elected head of state, not counting Aquino, who was catapulted to power by a citizen revolution after the assassination of her husband, opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr.
During the election, Duterte’s four opponents were all major players in the national political arena: interior minister Mar Roxas, vice president Jejomar Binay and senators Grace Poe and Miriam Defensor-Santiago. In voting for Duterte, the people sent a resounding message to the political establishment: we’re tired of waiting for progress – and we’re ready to try somebody new.
While campaigning for the presidency, Duterte’s platform focused on two matters. First, switching from a unitary form of government to a federal and parliamentary model, resulting in a devolvement of power from the capital city Manila to thousands of neglected towns across the country’s 7,107 islands. Second, cracking down on tax evaders and corrupt politicians to boost funding for welfare and basic services. “He showed in Davao that he can build a city. Now he has to show us that he can build a country,” said Evelyn Macapantay, a 31-year-old accountant in Manila who voted for Duterte. “If all the allegations being thrown against him – about killing criminals and disrespecting women – are true, how come he has a near-perfect approval rating with Davaoeños? Why do they keep electing him?”
Duterte received 96.6 per cent of the presidential vote in Davao, proof of the city’s trust in his leadership. That his promises struck a chord with voters is unsurprising. While the Philippines enjoyed six years of robust economic development under the leadership of outgoing president Benigno Aquino III, 90 per cent of Filipinos are still classified as lower or working class. About half of the population live on less than US$2 (Dh7) a day. While the country’s gross domestic product has improved, a significant number of Filipinos remain jobless. Social services and infrastructure are substandard.
Many have been forced to seek better opportunities in distant lands, resulting in the destruction of the fabric of home in a country where the family is considered the
Presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte (in white, centre), in Manila on his campaign trail. Duterte, the toughtalking mayor of Davao City, was the surprise pre-election poll favourite, pulling away from rivals despite controversial speeches and minimal...