The Duterte dissonance: One leader, two Philippines?

President Duterte's critics say he's paving the way for the demise of democracy and human dignity. In the eyes of Filipinos who have long felt politically impotent, though, he's launching the country toward prosperity and stability, with a brash but welcome authority. Part One of Two. 

Romeo Ranoco/Reuters
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reviews honor guards upon his arrival during the 121st founding anniversary of the Philippine Army (PA) in Taguig city, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 20, 2018.

The first time Margie saw Rodrigo Duterte was on the hit Filipino talk show “Gandang Gabi, Vice!” (“Good Evening, Vice!”)

President Duterte – still mayor of the southern city of Davao – sat before a live audience and opened up about his political and personal life: He conceded that he did things others wouldn’t do, like using brute force to wipe out crime. He bantered over his extramarital affairs. He danced to a pair of American pop songs. 

Margie, a factory worker, was struck by Mr. Duterte’s candor and humility. Here, she thought, was a man grounded in a culture she recognized – a foil to highbrow politicians with their foreign degrees and lofty speeches. Duterte, she says in Tagalog, “seemed genuine.”

Less than a year later, Margie counted herself among 16 million Filipinos who handed Duterte the presidency. Today – despite his reputation abroad as a misogynist and despot – Margie (whose last name has been omitted for privacy) stands by her president.

“I know he’s got a lot on his mind, because it’s hard to be the father of our government,” she says. “But I know he will help us.”

Duterte is a source of deep dissonance among Filipinos today. Either he is leading the Philippines to ruin, paving the way for the demise of democracy and human dignity; or he is carving a violent path out of the mire of crime and corruption that has corroded the nation’s soul for more than three decades, and shattering status quos along the way. In each side’s eyes, the other lives in a fantasy wrought of malice, ignorance, or some warped combination of both.

The grounds for the West’s condemnation of Duterte are already familiar: that his most notorious acts – joking about rape, cursing world leaders, commanding an anti-drug war with thousands of casualties – are an affront to democratic ideals like civil discourse and human rights. Not all of his supporters contest that. But in the president’s coarse, authoritative manner, they see order, competence, and authenticity in a country where red tape makes a nightmare of getting a driver’s license or starting a business; where cab rides could quickly become robberies; and where the ruling philosophy has long been that everyone – from local traffic cop to head of state – can be bought. 

It is a vision defined by fear, many of Duterte’s critics argue, and that fear is ripe for exploitation. But if the president’s rise was powered by a “politics of anxiety,” it is intertwined with a “politics of hope,” sociologist Nicole Curato argues in a 2016 article that pushes against simple interpretations of his popularity. Duterte’s message confronts many Filipino voters’ concerns in a way that they see as both aggressive and empowering, giving voice to the “agency, esteem and collective aspirations” they feel mainstream politics has denied them, she writes. 

Supporters like Margie speak of Duterte as an avatar for hope and change in a country buckling beneath three decades of weak and corrupt leadership. His allies among the upper classes say he has the backbone to stand up to powers, both foreign and local, that have long exploited the country’s people and resources. And his aversion to bureaucracy and self-proclaimed penchant for blunt solutions have been salves to a swath of citizenry that has felt politically impotent for decades. 

“In all the years I’ve been alive, and I’m old now, nothing has changed. Things just got harder,” says Margie. “So when I saw [Duterte] on ‘Gandang Gabi Vice!’ I said: Let’s give this guy a try.”

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Factory workers Gina and Margie explain why they support President Rodrigo Duterte on Feb. 26, 2018, at the offices of the Associated Labor Unions-Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (ALU-TUCP) in Quezon City.

Near midday on a Monday, Margie and a colleague sit side by side on a small gray couch at the national offices of the Associated Labor Unions-Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (ALU-TUCP) in Quezon City. Posters exhorting, “Jobs for all” hang on the whitewashed walls. A window air-conditioning unit labors to dispel the humidity.

The two women have suffered through the three-hour trek from their homes to get an update on a wrongful termination lawsuit they had filed against their former employer, an electronics company. (The company contends the layoffs were due to financial pressures, but the women claim it was because they formed a union.) For months, they had waited for the government to process paperwork that would allow them to receive two years’ worth of back pay from the firm, Margie says. 

Then, in early February, they called the president’s 24/7 grievance hotline. Less than a week later, the papers were released. “It was so fast!” Margie says, leaning forward in her seat, wringing the small pink towel in her hands. 

The administration has yet to produce evidence that the hotline has made a dent in dismantling institutional red tape. Still, Margie’s story points to a key part of the president’s sustained appeal, says Louie Corral, ALU-TUCP vice president. Headlines have for years trumpeted that the Philippines has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, he says, but the working-class Filipino hardly ever sees windfall from this progress. In 2016, the nation’s 50 wealthiest individuals were worth nearly a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. Meanwhile, more than 20 percent of the population makes less than $2,000 a year.

“A Filipino worker, looking at all these high-rises going up and seeing the new car shows putting on their products for display, understands the kind of lifestyle he will never have,” Corral says. “Duterte spoke to that as candidate and still, now, as president. He speaks to that sense of frustration in that they’re helping create this wealth, but they’re not sharing in it at all.”

What something like the grievance hotline provides is a sense of agency in the midst of that helplessness. “The politics of hope opens up spaces for citizens to visualise better conditions within their lifetime,” writes Curato, a research fellow at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra in Australia, in her 2016 article.                                 

Money and prestige might afford the middle and upper classes a more comfortable vantage point, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t also yearned for transparent, efficient government. Rey Joseph Nieto, a writer who runs the pro-Duterte political blog Thinking Pinoy (slang for “Filipino”), recalls his shock when he moved to Davao in 2007. By then, Duterte had been mayor for five terms, was on his way to six, and had developed a reputation for turning the city around by being tough on crime.

“You know that feeling when you come from the Philippines and you go to Singapore for the first time?” Nieto asks, in a mix of English and Tagalog, during a phone interview. “Everything works. If you need something, you can get it.” That’s how he felt in Davao, he says. “I didn’t have to worry about safety, about paperwork.” 

“If he does [in the rest of the country] just 20 percent of what he did in Davao,” Nieto adds, “he’s golden.”


In mid-March, Duterte announced his intent to withdraw the Philippines from the International Criminal Court, a decision met with global criticism. The ICC – established in 1998 as a way to prosecute individuals accused of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity – is currently looking into the deaths of more than 8,000 people since Duterte began his drug war in Davao City in 1988.

In Manila, the fear and anger about the campaign are real. Hundreds of reports, many from local photographers, have captured the horror and heartbreak families and communities experience when a drug addict – or someone suspected of being one – is shot to death on the street. Media, human rights groups, and the Roman Catholic Church (the Philippines is a majority-Catholic country) have all denounced the killings.

“Killing civilians, killing as a solution, is not a solution,” says Raymund Villanueva, a local reporter and director of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. “That’s a failure of governance.”

How then to explain Duterte’s satisfaction rating, which in the last quarter of 2017 averaged at just above 70 percent among Filipinos across most ages, class, and gender?

Critics of the president – who often dispute the validity of such surveys  – tend to see his support, in part, as a commentary on human nature. Empathy fades in the face of hunger and poverty, they say, and the value of life diminishes when that life is unfamiliar – when the dead man is not a friend or family member; not someone of the same class; not perceived as a law-abiding or contributing member of society.

“To the ordinary citizen, a life is only valuable when it is close to him,” Rizalito David, a board member of the Pro-Life Philippines Foundation, says in Tagalog. “If he thinks someone is breaking the law, that person’s life is forfeit. ‘It’s good that you’re dead, because you were selling drugs or using drugs.’ ”

The drug war is billed as a war against criminality, which many, both poor and privileged, see as the reason the streets were so dangerous and the country’s progress kept stalling. Margie, for instance, claims she’s never felt safer in her neighborhood. “It used to be very dangerous once you stepped outside,” she says. Anyone out after 10 p.m. risked getting robbed, raped, or killed, she argues. “At least now there are plenty of cops making the rounds. You’re not afraid of the street anymore.”

Was killing really the way to get there? Margie frowns. “To be frank, if that’s what you’re facing anyway, we might as well make sure there are fewer bad people,” she says. “No, really. People have been killing each other [in my community] since I was a kid. Who do you think the victims were?” 


Franco Mabanta strides into the lobby of the swanky Dusit Hotel in Manila’s central business district. He stops to greet some people he recognizes, then commandeers a table at the hotel restaurant. T-shirt peeking out from under a suit jacket; hair in a “man-bun,” sides shaved, Mr. Mabanta, 34, is among the president’s most prominent and controversial advocates online. [Editor’s note: Mabanta and the reporter have known each other for nearly a decade. Their families have long been friends.]

His central assertion: Duterte is unafraid to do what needs to be done to get the country on the right track. 

“I thought that corruption would always be there, that it would be our ubiquitous Voldemort and it would never go away,” says Mr. Mabanta, a social media strategist whose company handles campaigns for a number of politicians, including, he says, pro-bono work for the president. “When I first heard [Duterte] speak, I felt this beaming hope that things could actually be different.”

The way Mabanta sees it, Filipinos are tired: of bureaucracies that don’t work, of social conservatism that stifles innovation and progressive thinking, and of leaders who grovel to superpowers like the United States. For the first time in his lifetime, he says, world leaders seem to recognize the Philippines as a player, not just a pawn. To Mabanta – and, he says, to many supporters – much of that is thanks to Duterte’s willingness to face down the corrupt and the powerful.

“I can imagine the stress knots on his back every day,” Mabanta says. “Yet he does not care.”

The president has Filipinos’ best interests at heart, he adds. “But he also thinks that in order to control a big population he has to function through fear.” 

Duterte’s (not to mention Mabanta’s) critics argue that a society governed by fear is a broken one; that a struggle to disentangle religious conservatism from public policy was already underway; and that cozying up to the likes of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin is a questionable enterprise at best. Corruption and violence against journalists and activists is worse than before Duterte took office, according to the latest report by the non-governmental organization Transparency International.

Above all, Duterte’s opponents say, none of these supposed successes are worth the cost of so many lives.

“We have a president who thinks nothing of killing tens of thousands,” says Mr. Villanueva, the journalist. “A switch has been turned off in the minds of those who can accept that. Something’s wrong.”

If so, it may not last. Since 1986 – when dictator Ferdinand Marcos fled the country – nearly every Philippine president has enjoyed high support in the early years of administration. Eventually, each leader stumbles, along with his ratings, says Leo Laroza, communications director for Social Weather Stations, one of the nation’s top polling institutions.

Back at ALU headquarters, Margie and her colleague wait to close our their case. They want to find steady work, and live stable lives. And they hunger for leaders who will help them do so.

“My goal in life is to be able to pay for my [condo] unit,” Margie says. “That way I know I’ll have somewhere to go when I get old.” Her mortgage is 3,000 pesos, or $60, a month – a far-off dream for someone who, when employed, gets paid about $6 a day.

But she’s willing to hang on “because we know: our president, he will help us,” she says. “I know he will.”

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