How to introduce Duterte in Southeast Asia ?

Mong Palatino explores the many sides to the Philippines’ new President, revealing there is far more that meets the eye than Trump comparisons alone can offer.

The landslide victory of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte in the recent Philippine presidential election has been reported already across the world. Perhaps many in Southeast Asia are asking : Who is Duterte ?

The reaction is understandable. After all, it was only five months ago when Duterte announced his bid for the presidency.

Duterte’s electoral success is historic and politically significant for the Philippines. Not only did Duterte receive the most number of votes in the history of the Philippines, he is also set to become the first president from Mindanao.

Mindanao is the country’s second biggest island known for its rich natural resources but plagued by poverty and numerous local conflicts. When Mindanao people speak of historical injustice, they are referring to the state-sponsored displacement of Muslims from their homeland and the continuing plunder of the island’s wealth by corrupt politicians from ‘Imperial Manila.’

Duterte’s victory suddenly gave hope that the national government will start to prioritize the needs of Mindanao. Duterte, who claims to understand the history of the Muslim struggle for self-determination, also promises to pursue the peace process in Mindanao.

That a politician from Mindanao will assume the presidency on June 30 is unprecedented in Philippine politics. It’s like a Buddhist mayor sympathetic to the self-determination struggle of Thailand’s ‘Deep South’ becoming prime minister.

Unfortunately, Duterte’s anti-crime platform is given more attention by the mainstream global media. Because of his aggressive methods to rid Davao of crimes and his plan to kill all drug lords once he becomes president, he is called the ‘Punisher’ and Dirty Harry’. Perhaps he deserves the nicknames and he has no one to blame but himself if the world thinks his only crusade is to enforce discipline and order in society. He is like Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha who believes that reforms can be achieved through extralegal and even authoritarian means.

Like Prayut, Duterte’s scandalous statements ridiculing women and the LGBT sector often attract wide condemnation. Both Prayut and Duterte think that crass talk can make them more popular among ordinary citizens. But when commentators condemn Duterte’s behaviour, most fail to mention his similarity with Prayut. Right or wrong, Duterte is often compared to American presidential candidate and business tycoon Donald Trump.

The comparison is inaccurate and unfair to Duterte. First, he is not a billionaire. Second, he does not mouth anti-Muslim statements. Third, he is proud of his so-called Leftist background. And fourth, he has been serving the country as an elected leader for three decades already.

If making politically-incorrect pronouncements is the measure for comparison, Duterte’s image is closer to Prayut or Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. The latter is like Duterte, a veteran politician who uses obscene language to ridicule his critics and political enemies.

But perhaps matching Duterte with Trump can also help to make the Filipino leader realize that his public antics are increasingly being viewed by many as offensive and divisive.

Persuading Duterte to abandon his ‘Trump’ reputation is easy. He only needs to remember his record as a politician who has consistently worked well with progressive groups and NGOs in drafting social welfare programs for the poor. Unlike Trump who is part of America’s traditional elite, Duterte is seen as an ‘outsider’ who challenged the rule of oligarchs and big landlords in the Philippines.

In many ways, Duterte is like Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo. Both made a name by being effective city mayors before running for a national position. Both gained popular support among the poor and the youth. And both tapped into the widespread frustration of ordinary voters against the inefficiencies and inequities of the bureaucracy.

The Philippines today is like Indonesia in 2014 after the electoral victory of Jokowi. There’s high expectation that Duterte will deliver change and uplift the conditions of the poor and marginalized.

Duterte is no democracy icon like Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi but many Filipinos now see him as a leader who will lead the struggle against elite oppression, criminality, and corruption.

The defeat of the military-backed party in Myanmar remains the most meaningful political event in Southeast Asia in recent years but Duterte’s rise to power is a political phenomenon that deserves serious attention too. Indeed, Duterte has cultivated a strongman image like Hun Sen and Prayut ; but unlike the two, he gained power in a more democratic way similar to how Jokowi and Suu Kyi’s party won a convincing mandate to lead in their countries.

There’s a persistent anti-communist bias in the Philippines, and in the whole Southeast Asian region as well, but here’s an incoming president who introduces himself as Leftist or socialist. If Duterte turns out to be a real socialist, will this start a trend in Southeast Asia ?

Will he become a genuine reformer or will he degenerate into a conservative populist ? He has six years to establish his true legacy but this early he is already facing corruption allegations. It’s noteworthy to mention that his rivals are suspicious about his bank transactions. The issue is quite similar to the ‘political donations’ received by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in his dollar bank accounts. Although, to be fair to Duterte, Najib’s corruption scandal is definitely far worse.

Duterte’s detractors want to unseat him already even if he has not yet taken his oath as president. His supporters, however, expect him to bring change in three to six months which is part of his election campaign pledge. Of course substantial change is difficult to achieve in six months but he must try to show some concrete results during this period if he wants to retain the support of the majority who voted him to power.

Duterte is more than just the Trump of East Asia. To understand his politics, it’s useful to compare him to other leaders in the region. And once we see the many sides of Duterte, he appears less scary ; although he remains an enigmatic political figure who can either strengthen or destroy democracy in the Philippines.


Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.