Column: From wimp to pimp?

Published on May 17, 2016.

IN A wild, improbable campaign with many twists and turns, here is the final, improbable twist:

Rodrigo Duterte is Benigno Aquino III, part two.

The 2016 presidential election turned out to be the 2010 vote all over again. Duterte comes to the presidency with the same mandate, the same level of popular support, that Aquino enjoyed in 2010: Like Aquino, he rode a genuine groundswell to capture 15 million votes; like Aquino, he is comfortably ahead of the second-ranked candidate’s 9-million total; like Aquino, he led a field with at least four strong candidates. (Mar Roxas as the Joseph Estrada of 2016: another improbable turn.)

At this point, the reader who believed that the change-is-coming rhetoric of the Duterte campaign was code for anti-Aquino sentiment would be almost apoplectic. How can the tough-talking man-of-the-people be compared to the mild-mannered, out-of-touch elitist? Surely they are complete opposites!

Not in terms of electoral mandate, they’re not.

To be sure, Aquino had a larger share of the vote: 42 to 38 percent. And Ferdinand Marcos’ nominal vote total in the sham 1981 presidential election (which Marcos called after Pope John Paul II’s first visit to the country; he polled 18 million votes against ex-defense secretary Alejo Santos) remains the highest on record, at least on paper. But there is no denying that, given a system without a second or run-off round, Duterte’s mandate is as robust as Aquino’s—or that of any post-Edsa president except Fidel Ramos.

Indeed, we can argue that Duterte, the first president from Mindanao, had much shorter coattails than Aquino. He won almost all of Mindanao, except for Misamis Occidental and Agusan del Sur. But it was only in Region XI, which groups Davao City and the Davao provinces, where his running mate Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano emerged as the leading candidate. In 2010, Aquino helped Roxas, his candidate for vice president, to victory in parts of Central Luzon and Western and Central Visayas.

Duterte’s political party, PDP-Laban, has only one notable congressional winner: Pantaleon Alvarez, who intends to build on such a slender base a coalition large enough to get him the speakership of the House. But in 2010, the Liberal Party, then in the opposition, won over 40 seats; this year, it must have won over a hundred. (I haven’t had the chance to count them all.) To show the difference between Duterte’s personal popularity and his relative lack of a down-ballot effect, let’s talk about the country’s richest electoral prize. He won over 1.4 million votes in the island of Cebu, but he could not stop the governing Liberal Party from dominating the local races.

But political party association is the loosest of relationships, the reader might argue. By the time the 17th Congress convenes in July, the majority in the House of Representatives will be a coalition supportive of the Duterte administration. It has ever been thus, and this year does not promise to be any different. Besides, all this talk of party affiliation will be swept away by the new president’s popularity, which will be based in part on his refreshing candor. (Note his expansive monologuing at his first daytime news conference yesterday as president-in-waiting.)

Fair enough, except that we went through this exact same stage six years ago. Aquino, the president-in-waiting then, spoke candidly and in Filipino; the public took to the refreshing new style immediately. In an unprecedented display of candor, he expressed displeasure with Gen. Delfin Bangit as chief of staff of the Armed Forces, an appointee of President Gloria Arroyo; Bangit retired, and the public welcomed the show of decisiveness. According to the same polling organizations which tracked Duterte’s rise and predicted his victory, Aquino has remained a popular president throughout his term.

Change is coming? I think it is fair to say that many of Duterte’s supporters voted for him because they wanted something different. The catchphrase, however, is more slogan than program. When we strip the Duterte voters’ expectations down to their common denominator, we will find notions, mostly, of political will.

That was the main impression his articulate running mate left on me when I and Inquirer.net’s chief of reporters interviewed him for our live INQ&A series on the vice presidential candidates. Cayetano, a long-time politician, surprised the viewers with a bleak view of Philippine society he had helped give shape to; it was the kind of social analysis a candidate offers when his platform essentially consists of shock therapy. And his unarticulated point was: His standard-bearer WAS the platform.

Over 15 million voters would agree.

The root cause of any upsetting comparison between Duterte and Aquino, then, lies in the Duterte voter’s perception that, despite Aquino’s personal popularity, he was simply not decisive enough. He did not have the political will to fire political partners who had failed at their jobs; he did not have the political will to fix the MRT problem or the power crisis in Mindanao; he did not have the political will to prevent the massacre of police troopers or the abduction of more hostages by the Abu Sayyaf. For this voter, Duterte’s self-confessed shortcomings as a womanizer, his “bugal-bugal” braggadocio, even his disdain for human rights, were needed to pimp the presidency.

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