Rodrigo Duterte and Philippine politics
Rodrigo Duterte and Philippine politics

The main outcome of the Philippine elections on 16 May was the victory of presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte. His win is another reflection of the country’s deep economic and social problems and the failure of democratisation, after the end of the Marcos era in 1986, to address these issues.

Duterte’s campaign and previous role as mayor of the city of Davao built on his reputation for “plain talking”. He has promised to fight crime and the drug trade, and to “continue to kill criminals in accordance with the law”.

The caveat “according to the law” has done little to allay the fears of human rights groups that his administration will intensify the frequency of extrajudicial killings, which became rife during his time as Davao’s mayor.

There are some parallels between Duterte’s election and Joseph Estrada’s campaign in 1998. Like Estrada, Duterte campaigned on the basis of coming from outside the Manila-based political elites of the “trapos” (traditional politicians). Yet, like Estrada’s, the basis of his power has been a network of local capitalists and warlords.

His victory was also a major defeat for and a signal of the electorate’s disillusionment with the outgoing administration of Benigno Aquino. Aquino’s Liberal Party was hoping its candidate, Mar Roxas, could claim the mantle of the old administration’s Daang Matuwid (“Straight Path”) rhetoric of honesty and transparency. It ignored that Aquino’s policies had achieved little social or political reform.

Duterte’s main appeal was arguably his “strong man” approach to crime and corruption, which went far beyond the Straight Path moral rhetoric. He presented a few progressive measures, such as reversing the trend towards labour contracting.

Yet his central economic and development policies represent continuity with those of previous administrations. These are centred on “further improving ease of doing business in the country; ensuring attractiveness to foreign direct investments; and speeding up infrastructure to address bottlenecks in the Public-Private Partnership Program [privatisation]”.

Although promising to help the country’s rural and urban poor, at most he will continue the modest and rather ineffectual social programs of previous administrations. Foreign policy featured little in the campaign. Although Duterte offered some criticisms of the behaviour of visiting US marines after the murder of a local woman, he is unlikely to do anything to disrupt the visiting forces agreement and other measures that bind the country’s elite to the United States.

Although advocating a more independent stance in negotiating with China over disputed territory in the South China Sea, he said he would take the bizarre approach of personally taking to a jet-ski to ward off Chinese vessels.

He is likely to continue Aquino’s tactics of negotiations while continuing military action to limit the conflict between Manila and Bangsamoro independence groups in the country’s south.

It is rumoured there was considerable cooperation in Davao between Duterte and the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Duterte was also a former student of and supports the return of Communist Party leader Joma Sison, who is in exile.

That sordid alliance notwithstanding, it is unlikely that any major progress will be made in negotiating a cease-fire with rebels or implementing substantial social reforms that the NPA insists are prerequisites for peace.

Leftist organisations that are widely regarded as sympathetic to the NPA achieved considerable electoral success in the country’s “party-list” reserved seats. Gabriela scored over 1 million and Bayan Muna half a million votes.

Other groups on the left had mixed results. Akbayan – part of the old government’s alliance – scored a Senate position. Walden Bello, who resigned from his Akbayan party list seat after falling out with Aquino, ran a high profile independent campaign. His more than 1 million votes were not enough to be elected.

Other groups on the left scored small but not inconsiderable votes. Sanlakas and Partido Manggagawa (Labour Party) received 86,000 and 42,000 votes respectively.

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