What Sustains Duterte’s Populism

By Eunice Alexcy Senadosa                  

A recent Social Weather Station survey showed an 18 point drop in President Rodrigo Duterte’s net rating, declining to “good” from a previous “very good.” This might be the start of the Filipino  people’s disillusionment to the kind of politics and rhetoric that Duterte has shown during the campaign period.

Or is it? To answer this question, it’s important for us to understand the source of Duterte’s popularity and what does it mean for people’s disposition to liberal democracy.

We may remember the controversial speech he delivered in the Amoranto Sports Complex in Quezon City wherein he recalled the story of a prison siege in Davao City 27 years ago. He recalled the fate of a 36 year-old Australian missionary named Jaqueline Hamill. During the siege, the woman was raped and brutally murdered and in Duterte’s usual rambling, he said, “l got angry. That she was raped? Yes, that too. But it was that she was so beautiful – the mayor should have been first. What a waste.”

Such remark may have ended the race for Duterte but the electorate was undeterred. He may have drawn the ire of human rights advocates but it did little to hurt his popularity. Such popularity is sustained by the narrative he created.

Duterte espoused a kind of populism that relies on the people’s frustrations with the previous administration and use them to paint a vision of progress that is hinged upon the crushing of an unseen enemy. His populism was shrewdly constructed to create an antagonism between “the people” and what he perceives as the “dangerous other.” In our case, it’s the drug addicts and drug peddlers.

Duterte has demonized them and stripped them of character and humanity. He painted them as plagues that kill and rape our daughters, they corrupt our sons, and they deserve swift and unforgiving retribution. Reports of drug busts and criminals caught while high on shabu were already part of the popular imagination, folded into the Filipinos everyday reality but they were not the focus of political conversations.

 When he put the issue of drugs at the center of discourse, it resonated with the people because it confirmed a latent problem that was rendered invisible by the country’s main concerns. Duterte was the only presidential candidate who tried to address this issue, which fueled the absolution of his crass behavior and speech. “No matter that he’s disrespectful to the pope and to women, he said that he’s going to eradicate crime in 3-6 months and solve our drug problem.”

This narrative of intolerance to drugs is consistent with Tatay Digong’s machismo and misogyny and the people’s forbearance of it. These are central to the populist performance of crushing the “dangerous other” in order to save the nation. We have to be tough on crime. We must punish the scums of our country swiftly and harshly even if it means compromising our due process. Praise Tatay Digong for bringing the change we desperately needed.

Then, the dead bodies started to fill our morgues. Some of them were kababayans, some of them were people our friends knew, our neighbors, our relatives. The deaths are getting nearer and more frequent and suddenly, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to sentence the addicts and the pushers to death instead of sending them to jail. Fourteen thousand bodies and the death toll continues to rise.

More and more innocent people are reported to have been a case of mistaken identity, a case of being in the wrong place in the wrong time.

This isn’t just about the fallibility of police officers. It’s also about the culture of impunity that Duterte has created, his willingness to vouch for erring officers. This is what his rhetoric created.

And while it’s possible that the drop to Duterte’s satisfaction rating is an indication of us “seeing the light” as Senator Antonio Trillanes IV interprets it or it could just very well be what Senator Win Gatchalian calls a “cycle of politics” wherein ratings of newly seated Presidents drop after their first year. If ifs the latter, we’re in a very grim situation. [P]

Disclaimer: The following article was originally published on Volume 44, Issue 4. To access the entire issue, click here.

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