How come the “celebrity maverick” has proven so successful with his unconventional, violent and vile approach? Why does Duterte’s populism attract so many voters and enabled him to become President?
Rodrigo Duterte was elected President of the Philippines in May 2016. A former state prosecutor, he has been mayor of the southern city of Davao for more than 22 years. Duterte is not a member of the private club of established political families in Manila – but he is not new to politics either. His daughter is the current mayor of Davao, his father war the former mayor of Davao, but most importantly, he has close ties to former cronies of the famous dictator Marcos, who ruled the Philippines under martial law for almost a decade.
A “celebrity maverick” with a brutal political programme
During his presidential campaign, Duterte stuck to one major topic: cracking down on crime. In Davao, a city which had major safety issues, his “law and order” approach brought relative safety – but for a price. Duterte was nicknamed “The Punisher”, as his method to ensure safety was simple and effective: the extrajudicial killing of criminals. He went as far as to arm civilian militias, which became “death squads” to murder anyone who seemed a threat to public order.
This violent approach also seemed to have worked at the national level: Duterte has scarcely been able to make a campaign speech without threatening to kill someone. He openly acknowledged that you need to be willing to kill to be president. At the end of August 2016, after a terror attack on a night market in Davao, Duterte even played with the idea of reintroducing a “state of lawlessness”, which effectively means reintroducing martial law. The last time the Philippines were ruled by martial law, the military ruled the country, and rights under the Constitution were suspended for nine years, from 1972 to 1981.
But how come the “celebrity maverick” has proven so successful with his unconventional, violent and vile approach? Why does Duterte’s populism attract so many voters and enabled him to become President?
Three attempts to explain Duterte’s success
First of all, Duterte feeds on the fears of many working class Filipinos, who believe crime is spiralling out of control, an impression given by the media’s sensationalist tone. But Duterte is also very popular amongst the wealthier parts of the population, who are attracted to his promise to eradicate street crime. Indeed, the Philippines struggle with criminality, corruption and poverty – something that hasn’t changed since the end of the Marcos rule. Thus, many Filipinos might want to oppose what seems to be a corrupt political elite remotely interested in their citizens’ struggles. Duterte tapped right into this ground with his “anti-establishment” rhetoric.
Secondly, Duterte pretends to be authentic and “close to the people”. But what does that mean in 2016? Apparently, it includes vulgarities, misogynistic jokes and profanity-laden speeches in a country where over 80% of the population are practising Catholics. But beyond the obvious, this behaviour allows Duterte to polish his image as an “ordinary guy”, who does not belong to the political elite. This also means he rejects what politicians tend to stand for: fact-based political debates based on thorough research. This leads to mocking political intellectuals, as for instance during an election debate with presidential candidate Roxas. Interestingly enough, the little appreciation shown by Duterte for an intellectual debate reminds of the scepticism towards experts during the Brexit campaign in the UK.
Thirdly, campaign promises play an important role in the success of Duterte, especially when the political and economic situation of a country is far from ideal. Above all, Duterte stands for something different than its predecessor Benigno Aquino III, mostly due to his behaviour and style. Some of his campaign promises also contrasted with the usual proposals: For instance, he stood for a more decentralized and federal system of government, responding directly to those who feel neglected and exploited by what they call “imperial Manila”. Further, he supported autonomy for Muslim Filipinos, thus looking for the important support of minorities.
Duterte as charismatic leader?
Charisma is known to be one of the strongest weapons of populists. Campaign style and language matter in politics – but personal attitude is especially relevant in order to win elections. Strong, powerful and vile male politicians attract voters in a patriarchal society, as they embody the ideals of many. Duterte represents a figure who protects but also punishes his inferiors, a man who takes action and decides what is right and what is wrong. He thus appeals to those in the population who believe that law enforcement is not carried out properly, and that the rest of the population “lacks discipline”. Proposals such as the nationwide curfew for minors, a smoking ban and a limit to the sale of alcohol all fit this mentality – that the state needs to be more paternalistic to “protect” its own citizens, not only from others, but also from their own vicissitudes.
Looking at the Philippines under Duterte’s rule, one thing is clear: Populists speak to the worst emotions in humans, and tap right into a breeding ground where people feel left aside, where corruption, crime and poverty are pervasive, and in a patriarchal society which idolises fearless and strong male persona such as “celebrity mavericks”. However, his success is also the proof that emotions in politics should not be left aside by sensible politicians. In the political game, passions are as important as reason. But rather than promoting a politics of fear, sensible politicians should give their citizens hope – for a better future, and for better politics.