Published on May 10, 2016.
Is support for presidential frontrunner Rodrigo Duterte a protest vote, against the Aquino administration? Yes, but also no. The idea that one single factor explains the surge of the controversial mayor of Davao City in the last six to eight weeks of the campaign period—a surge that as of this writing looks powerful enough to bring Duterte all the way to the Pasig River and into Malacañang—is (to borrow the language that critics of Duterte supporters like to use) lazy, even self-indulgent. This reductionist reading tells us more about the analyst than the phenomenon under analysis.
If the plan is to show disapproval of or outrage at the way the administration has mismanaged the MRT system in Metro Manila, or misjudged the immediate response to Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in Tacloban, or mishandled a secret operation that led to the death of 44 Special Action Force troopers in Mamasapano, the candidacy of Vice President Jejomar Binay would have served as an appropriate or adequate vehicle.
When Binay finally resigned from the Cabinet after failing to win President Aquino’s endorsement, he declared himself, in unmistakable terms, the leader of the opposition. In fact, he used the SAF 44 as literal backdrop, and called out the administration (correctly, in my view) for its many blunders.
Not really, because (it bears repeating) no one single factor explains everything.
But there is also the matter of President Aquino’s continuing high ratings. If the Duterte surge is explained solely by revulsion at anything associated with Mr. Aquino and his “Daang Matuwid,” why does he remain the most popular president of the last 20 years—that is, since surveys became a regular feature of the political scene and could track public satisfaction and popular approval with increasing precision?
A closely related matter: Rep. Leni Robredo started as a candidate for vice president with 1-percent support nationwide; going into Election Day, she was in a virtual tie with Sen. Bongbong Marcos for first, with 28-30 percent of voter support. (A quick point, channeling Nate Silver: There’s no such thing as a statistical tie. A lead is a lead; and in two of the three main surveys conducted several days before May 9, Marcos is the leader—that is, there is a higher probability that he will come out the winner. But the race is also tight, and often enough real, substantial shifts take place between the last day the surveys are conducted and the day the voters head to the polls. Hence, not a statistical tie but a virtual one.)
But Robredo has been campaigning as a cochampion of Daang Matuwid. Take a look at her posters and other campaign paraphernalia; the phrase is there, part of the appeal. Surely, if the Duterte surge is only a protest vote, and the underlying resentment is there waiting to be tapped, Robredo’s candidacy would have foundered well before the day of reckoning.
But, one might argue, Robredo is an attractive candidate, with clear, relatable strengths. (This was the gist of Sen. Serge Osmeña’s analysis-endorsement, tendered even before the 90-day campaign began.) Wouldn’t this saleability thing undercut the clear cochampion interpretation?
No, not really, again because no one single factor explains everything.
Duterte himself is a maverick (indeed, dangerous) politician, but he is an attractive candidate: approachable and down-to-earth, entertaining and in fact an excellent mimic, with undeniable stage presence (which he used to great effect in the three official debates) and a gift for people-pleasing or outright populist rhetoric. If the protest-voters merely wanted a vehicle for their frustrations, Binay’s candidacy would have sufficed. That of Duterte, however, promised not merely to convey their frustrations, but to do it with swagger and laughter, lots of it.
He also ran an unorthodox campaign that caught both his rivals and the mainstream media off-guard; like Donald Trump, he rode a wave of so-called free media, simply because he organized his belated campaign in such a way that people continued talking about him even after it was time to move on—remember the “Duterteserye”?
On the other hand, President Aquino’s chosen candidate, I’m sorry to say, proved to be a hard sell. Mar Roxas is a good man, of that I have no doubt, but he was unable to overcome the way many people had come to define him, as damaged goods. His weakness as a candidate, then, must be considered part of the Duterte surge; if Duterte had run against someone stronger—a well-prepared Gov. Vilma Santos, or a Leni Robredo who had won a seat in the Senate rather than the House in 2013—perhaps the outcome would be different.
In that sense, the shortcomings of a slow-moving, self-regarding administration, and especially its failure to prepare for the 2016 elections early enough (see previous paragraph), are truly part of the explanation.