The threshold I speak of lies between having the unmistakable chance of a peaceful and prosperous future and exorcising the interminable ghost of an underachieving, degraded past. Having entrusted the presidency to Rodrigo Duterte, a solid plurality of Filipino voters are attempting to put the past in its place and go all out on a limb for real change. Duterte for them, represents the cure for the once seemingly-incurable malady that is a rigged, monopolistic, and kleptocratic socio-economic and political system.
To his supporters, Duterte is a transformational force imbued with an overarching spirit of vigor and of being what in the Philippines would traditionally be considered a “real man”: a semi-alpha male who talks tough and forthrightly in the perfect freedom of an unfettered vernacular, and who is not afraid to take decisive action. This translates into Duterte’s effective ability to connect with the Filipino voter. In turn it has made it easy for people to identify with “Digong”.
Many common readings of Duterte’s election have suggested that if we were to follow the trail of his victory, we would see that it leads to the psychological breaking point of the low information, deficiently-educated, disillusioned Filipino who understandably has had enough of unprincipled elitist politics. Now, as a clear-cut alternative, Duterte has been chosen to relieve Filipinos’ capacity for division and hardship at the hands of a self-referential elite.
But the story of Rodrigo Duterte’s election entails more than a rich/poor, common folk/elite dichotomy. Basking in the respect and admiration of his supporters, Duterte has spun a narrative that he comes from a modest and unassuming background. As compelling as that narrative appears to be to many, the deeper truth of the matter is that Duterte hails from a family that has made its historical mark as a political dynasty in the southern Philippines. In other words, the president-elect’s talk about being a natural foil of the political elite comes with a qualification, one that beset Corazon Aquino and her administration’s efforts to deal with agrarian reform. Can Duterte take the lead in cleaning up the excesses of the elite when his family background exudes elitism?
Skeptics questioned Corazon Aquino’s ability to implement bold agrarian reform during her tenure. She was after all, a member of the same privileged landowning class whose properties her government was ostensibly out to reform. Duterte likewise is, behind his unpretentious, down-to-earth exterior, a proud lion of an elite legacy. As the streetwise, enfant terrible of Philippine politics, Duterte has never forgotten his family’s privileged political heritage even as he has taken stinging potshots at the country’s ruling elite. He has gone so far as to assert that the elite are a “threat to democracy.”
So how are we to reconcile Duterte’s political lineage with his contentious comments on the elite? To put it in some perspective, Duterte has expressed a vision for the Philippines that is potentially at odds with the local hegemons and power brokers that fill out the upper rungs of political and economic life. He has proposed major changes ranging from some form of meaningful wealth redistribution to resolutely eliminating corruption at the highest levels of society and government. Duterte has also sent a loud and clear message that he would terminate the Philippine Congress—an institution rife with elitists—if they do not pass his legislative agenda. At what point will the ruling elite give in to their darkest instincts and defend by all means necessary their core interests against Duterte’s advances? Are Duterte and his detractors among the elite on a collision course? Are there elitist elements who are conspiring to dramatically unseat a President Duterte if they believe that things aren’t going their way?
Which all leads us back to Bongbong Marcos’s heads-up of a planned overthrow of Duterte. Although we should take Marcos’s warning with a serious grain of salt—the son of the former dictator is hardly the last word, or the first for that matter, on the veracity of such intrigue—even so Filipinos seem serenely unaware that such a drastic scenario as a government takeover could take place and thereby reverse the results of the 2016 presidential election.
However, a scenario that would force Duterte into abandoning his electoral victory is not beyond the realm of possibility. For some, such a move defies logic for it would mean the overt subversion of democracy in the Philippines. When Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was removed from office in an extra-constitutional action in 2013, one of the primary excuses—an excuse condoned by many Egyptians as well as by the West—for his being unseated was that Morsi was allegedly paving the way for Islamic sharia rule. An extra-constitutional change of government in the Philippines lacking a similarly convincing pretext would earn the punitive ire of the international community and cause a frontal breach in the already-strained relationship between democracy and order, as well as between the powerful and the governed in the country.
Filipinos like to pride themselves on their cultural heritage, on their general sense of optimism, and on their ubiquitous bonhomie and geniality. But they also pride themselves on their post-authoritarian democratic ethos and system of government, notwithstanding its ethical perversions and moral compromises and repertoire of financial scandals and popular uprisings. Ever since the demise of the Marcos dictatorship, Filipinos have drawn a line in the sand when it comes to protecting their democracy whenever it has come under duress. They are not about to be indifferent if either the Philippine elite or Rodrigo Duterte or other actors in positions of power and authority attempt to rein it in for their self-serving motives.