Column: Duterte’s path to victory

The last of the “path to victory” series, published on September 8, 2015. 

I think Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte is genuinely conflicted about running for president. His “big announcement” yesterday afternoon categorically renouncing a presidential bid must have dismayed his emerging network of supporters; at the same time, he must have been acutely aware that a genuine draft is extremely rare in Philippine politics. Did he do the right thing?

Last month, I tried to assess the election prospects of Mar Roxas and Jojo Binay: two declared candidates for whom not running is not an option. (It is a mistake to think that Binay will avoid a presidential campaign to ease the political and legal pressure on his family; becoming president is the vice president’s best defense.) I also tried to weigh the chances of a reluctant Grace Poe; as a first-term senator, she has the option to run again for the Senate in 2019. Duterte falls in this second category; he is on his seventh term as city mayor. Having taken a break from running Davao City in 1998 by serving in Congress (where he says he was bored beyond tears) and then again in 2010 (when he served as vice mayor), Duterte can look forward to two more terms in City Hall.

Also, and even though he doesn’t look it, he is already 70; he is just a few years younger than Binay. When he visited the Inquirer several days ago, he was forthcoming about where the strongest resistance to any presidential plan lay: his family. The summary he offered of his family’s main argument was in metaphorical Bisaya: Why are you even thinking of running, when you’re starting to walk with a limp? When he left the newsroom past midnight, after more than three hours in the hot seat, he did seem to have a slight but detectable kink in his walk.

He also had a philosophical argument against running. Contrary to the widespread notion that the presidency is an office of extraordinary power, he said the presidency was not in fact powerful enough, to do what he says needs to be done. Hence, his startling idea of establishing what at one point he called a revolutionary government and at another a constitutional dictatorship.

But, assuming he will find a plausible reason for contesting the presidency after all, can he win? His recent surge in the last two rounds of surveys suggests that he is the first politician from Mindanao with a fighting chance to win Malacañang. Will he win? That may depend on whether his appeal to the Visayan bloc outweighs the aversion of the human rights and rule-of-law vote.

As with Poe, the possibility of running for president is for Duterte a matter of popular pressure. There has been no shortage of endorsements from political personalities, including the grand old men of Mindanao politics like former senator Nene Pimentel who see in the controversial mayor their brightest hope for federalism. But, as with Poe, the response of the public has been unexpected, unfeigned and unstinting. There is a genuine receptivity to the idea of a Duterte run.

His audiences respond to him in a way that suggests higher office. What explains his appeal?

There is the Visayan bloc. Perhaps because of his long exposure in politics (for a time he even served as a consultant on police matters to President Gloria Arroyo), he is a local government official with whom many people are familiar. But he is especially well-known among the Bisaya-speaking. Why will more of this bloc vote for him than, say, for Lito Osmeña in 1998, when the Cebu grandee ran under the promising Promdi banner? I will go out on a limb and say it is Duterte’s just-us-folks personality. He has actually the pedigree of a veteran political family, but handles himself like an ordinary person. (He talks proudly of riding his motorbike or driving his taxi at night or using a pickup truck as his main vehicle, as he has always done.)

There is what we can call the peace and order vote. Many people, fed up with story after story, anecdote after increasingly hairy anecdote, of ordinary victims of petty crimes, respond to the reputation of Davao City—for safety, for personal security—with a kind of longing.

There is, lastly, the outsize personality: the ready embrace of a risk-taking reputation, the carefully cultivated image of a politically incorrect rabble-rouser, the strategic revelations of womanizing (coupled with a candid confession of having “only P4 million” in his bank account). This is not so much the Donald Trump of the Philippines as the pre-impeachment Joseph Estrada of Mindanao.

Can he lose?

He is from Mindanao, and in the end may not have an established bailiwick in places outside of that great island’s urban centers. He is surrounded by personalities identified with ex-president Gloria Arroyo; during his visit to the Inquirer, he was accompanied by his “strategist” Lito Banayo, his supporter Pantaleon Alvarez, his choice for national security adviser ex-general Hermogenes Esperon. Not least, he has an atrocious human rights reputation. In the long road to Malacañang, these handicaps may be worse than a mere kink in his walk.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics

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