An Asian Trump?


“I will solve drugs, criminality and the corruption in the government and I will do it in three to six months.”
Rodrigo Duterte, President Elect of the Philippines

Many of us have been puzzled by the blunt, populist campaign and likely nomination of Donald Trump as the US Republican Party’s standard bearer this year. Although a litany of historical comparisons have been made regarding the orange hued narcissist, there is a more contemporary one that has some parallels with his rise. Like most comparisons of this sort, it’s really more about style than substance.

The President-elect of the Philippines is a former Mayor named Rodrigo Duterte and, at least in terms of his outspoken public comments, he’s drawn this comparison from a number of journalists and pundits in his home country and beyond. Like Trump, he has his own online army ready to troll and attack his political opponents rather than engage in honest debate.

Right-wing populism, because it usually has roots in the trials of working people, often draws some of its talking points from the left. This is something we’ve seen time and again in the case of Trump, who has stolen several of his attack lines from Bernie Sanders, all the while while dismissing the Vermont Senator as a “communist”. Duterte seems to draw a little more on this than the Republican nominee and, in fairness, has been more outspoken than Trump or any Filipino politician opposed to him in favor of LGBTQ rights.

Other similarities are pretty obvious though. Trump has called for a “big, beautiful wall” at the southern border of the United States to keep “drug dealers” and “rapists” out, while Duterte has demanded that those involved in crime, including drug addicts, be killed by police and vigilantes. He has gone so far as to say he, “will give them a medal,”for doing so.

In terms of the press, the Trump campaign just revoked the press credentials of the Washington Post, following up previous bans on, among others, the Spanish language television network Univision. Not to be outdone, Duterte went even further in his war with the media recently, saying many of the 176 journalists killed in the country since 1986 had “done something wrong” and threatening to not engage with the press at all.

The key to Duterte’s successful presidential run was his ability to draw from a large law and order constituency in urban areas, especially Manila, and identify with the aspirations of southerners who have never been fully represented in the country’s politics. This, along with promises to tackle corruption, secured more than 35% of the vote in a crowded field. It remains to be seen what percentage of the vote Donald Trump can take in the US but sadly, it may be higher.

Less noted in English language press accounts of the Philippines’ election is that Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the country’s former dictator, came very close to being elected Vice-President.

The political right in most places has a tendency to imagine a heroic past and it appears that some Filipino voters, both those who were there and those who were not, look back fondly on the Marcos regime that declared martial law in 1972, leading to widespread abuses by the military and other security forces, including torture and the murder of political opponents. In my opinion, it speaks to the feelings of insecurity shared by voters that they would elect a serial human rights abuser and come out in droves for the son of an even worse one in a national election.

Socially, outside of his tough law and order policies, Duterte has, as mentioned, has shown progressive tendencies unusual in the deeply conservative Philippines. This is one of the most alarming things about the new right populism rearing its head in many places throughout the world. Rodrigo Duterte seems to have his finger on the pulse of some of his fellow citizens in a similar way to a Trump or a Nigel Farage and combating this kind of selective progressivism will be one of the most important projects for the internationalist political left in the coming years.

Order at a Cost

We should be careful about dismissing someone like Duterte too quickly. He’s extremely popular especially in his home city of Davao where, unlike Trump, he has a record of success both politically and in fighting crime and corruption, even if many observers including human rights groups have shown his methods are deeply flawed, not to mention illegal under both Philippine and international law..

According to Human Rights Watch, during his decades long reign as mayor, the man some in the media have dubbed ‘Duterte Harry’  has encouraged death squads implicated in at least 1,000 extrajudicial killings.

According to reports from the city, the vigilante groups worked like this: “Their handlers, called amo (boss), were usually police officers or ex-police officers who provided the gunmen with training, weapons and ammunition, motorcycles, and information on the targets… After the killings, police stations were tipped off, ensuring that officers would respond slowly, and enabling the death-squad members to escape the crime scene.”

An interesting documentary on Al Jazeera English shows that Davao is a remarkably peaceful city on the country’s southernmost island Mindanao, where the military has been fighting a low level insurgency since the late 1960s. This was not the case before he took office, when it was considered one of the most dangerous in a country filled with dangerous places.
Surprisingly, the President Elect found a way to make peace with a variety of insurgent groups, including Islamists, who literally surround his city and are in conflict with the country’s military. One of the ideas put forward by Duterte of interest to some of these insurgent groups is increased federalism, which will allow local governments more control over their resources.

As explained by Calixto V. Chikiamco of the Institute for Development and Economic Analysis (who is not in favor of the idea) a federal system would “let autonomous zones experiment and let the nation see which vision – the statist one perpetuated by the politicians and the Left or a more market-friendly government, succeed.” It should be noted that in researching this I couldn’t find exactly what kind of federalism Duterte favors, an important issue if he is going to hold a constitutional referendum to strip the elected Congress of some of its powers.

As for foreign policy, like a true maverick, Duterte has been mostly silent except to say in regard to a long running dispute with China over a number of islands that, on taking office, “I will ask the (Philippine) Navy to bring me to the nearest point in South China Sea that is tolerable to them and I will ride a jet ski. I will carry a flag, and when I reach Spratlys, I will erect the Filipino flag.”

Seemingly retreating from this earlier bluster, he has since called for bilateral talks with the Chinese leadership.

In terms of economic policy, it looks like not much will change and Duterte has been clear that this kind of policy making is not his forte. As reported in the English language Philippine Star, the transition team for the President, which includes Carlos Dominguez, a cabinet secretary under two previous presidents, “…will continue and maintain the country’s current macroeconomic policy.”

There is no denying that the Philippines has some of the best growth rates in Asia, above six percent during the previous President’s six year tenure. Questions remain however, how much policies like these, allowing for increased foreign ownership and privatization of state industries, have actually helped the poor and working classes in the country.

Lessons for Elites

Rarely remarked upon by Duterte and his proxies is that he is a scion of a political family, his father was governor of Mindanao and, controversy aside, he’s a deft politician.Duterte’s presidential victory provides another demonstration of the repudiation of local elites and the ‘business as usual’ attitude of neo-liberalism in the global south. It’s worth quoting at length from the Economist, itself no defender of left wing values, as regards the 1% in the Philippines:

“The elites in Manila are in shock at the defeat of their candidates. But they only have themselves to blame. They always found it more pleasant to take the case for liberalization to Davos than to the millions of Filipinos, especially in the provinces, who have missed out on the fruits of growth. And, in their gated communities in the capital, they failed to grasp how much petty corruption and gun violence blight ordinary life. The mayor of Davao understood.”

I must admit that I began writing this piece with a strong bias based on what I read in the mainstream press about the man nick-named ‘The Punisher’. As someone who regularly excoriates the English language, western media for its inability to handle any kind of nuance, I found myself falling into a similar trap. The problem I have is that almost every strong man who comes along, whatever the country, manages to find undesirables to target: anarchists, indigenous people, communists, criminals, homosexuals, Jews, Armenians, Tutsis… and the results are uniformly tragic.

Having looked at his record, the good and the truly awful, I am left with more questions than answers in terms of what Rodrigo Duterte will do once in office and more importantly, how Filipinos and the country’s neighbors can trust in the good intentions of a President implicated in over 1,000 murders.


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