Behind the political upheaval in the Philippines

May 23, 2016

Rodrigo Duterte, a right-wing populist whose politics have been compared in the media to Donald Trump won the presidential election held earlier this month in the Philippines, decisively beating Manuel "Mar" Roxas II, the anointed successor of outgoing President Benigno Aquino, leader of the Liberal Party. In the vote for vice president, which is voted on separately from the presidency, the Liberal's Leni Robredo barely defeated Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., the only son of former dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, who was overthrown three decades ago this year.

Duterte, the mayor or vice-mayor of Davao City for all but three of the last 28 years, is best known for his hard-line "tough on crime" attitude. More than 1,000 extrajudicial executions are alleged to have taken place under his reign as mayor. The other major factor in the election was the disarray of the Liberal Party establishment. Its leaders have built their appeal in the post-Marcos era as opponents of corruption, but various government officials were embroiled in scandals or implicated in mismanagement during the run-up to the election.

In this article for the Australian socialist newspaper Red Flag, Ben Reid looks more closely at the backdrop to the election--and at the likely consequences in a country enduring the legacy of poverty and political violence.

THE MAIN outcome of the Philippine elections on May 9 was the victory of presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte. His win is another reflection of the country's deep economic and social problems and the failure of democratization after the end of the Marcos era in 1986 to address these issues.

Duterte's campaign and previous role as mayor of the city of Davao built on his reputation for "plain talking." He has promised to fight crime and the drug trade, and to "continue to kill criminals in accordance with the law."

The caveat "according to the law" has done little to allay the fears of human rights groups that his administration will intensify the frequency of extrajudicial killings, which became rife during his time as Davao's mayor.

There are some parallels between Duterte's election and Joseph Estrada's campaign in 1998. Like Estrada, Duterte campaigned on the basis of coming from outside the Manila-based political elites of the "trapos" (traditional politicians). Yet like Estrada's, the basis of his power has been a network of local capitalists and warlords.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte

His victory was also a major defeat for and a signal of the electorate's disillusionment with the outgoing administration of Benigno Aquino. Aquino's Liberal Party was hoping its candidate Mar Roxas could claim the mantle of the old administration's Daang Matuwid ("Straight Path") rhetoric of honesty and transparency. It ignored that Aquino's policies had achieved little social or political reform.

Duterte's main appeal was arguably his "strong man" approach to crime and corruption, which went far beyond the Straight Path moral rhetoric. He presented a few progressive measures, such as reversing the trend towards labor contracting.

Yet his central economic and development policies represent continuity with those of previous administrations. These are centered on "further improving ease of doing business in the country; ensuring attractiveness to foreign direct investments; and speeding up infrastructure to address bottlenecks in the Public-Private Partnership Program [privatization]."

Although promising to help the country's rural and urban poor, at most he will continue the modest and rather ineffectual social programs of previous administrations. Foreign policy featured little in the campaign. Although Duterte offered some criticisms of the behavior of visiting U.S. marines after the murder of a local woman, he is unlikely to do anything to disrupt the visiting forces agreement and other measures that bind the country's elite to the United States.

Although advocating a more independent stance in negotiating with China over disputed territory in the South China Sea, he said he would take the bizarre approach of personally taking to a jet ski to ward off Chinese vessels.

He is likely to continue Aquino's tactics of negotiations while continuing military action to limit the conflict between Manila and Bangsamoro independence groups in the country's south.


IT IS rumored there was considerable cooperation in Davao between Duterte and the New People's Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Duterte was also a former student of and supports the return of Communist Party leader Joma Sison, who is in exile.

That sordid alliance notwithstanding, it is unlikely that any major progress will be made in negotiating a cease-fire with rebels or implementing substantial social reforms that the NPA insists are prerequisites for peace.

Leftist organizations that are widely regarded as sympathetic to the NPA achieved considerable electoral success in the country's "party-list" reserved seats. Gabriela [a left-wing party that advocates for women's rights] scored over 1 million and Bayan Muna [another left-wing party] half a million votes.

Other groups on the left had mixed results. Akbayan--part of the old government's alliance – scored a Senate position. Walden Bello, who resigned from his Akbayan party list seat after falling out with Aquino, ran a high-profile independent campaign. His more than 1 million votes weren't enough to be elected.

Other groups on the left scored small but not inconsiderable votes. Sanlakas [an alliance of different organizations] and Partido Manggagawa [Labor Party] received 86,000 and 42,000 votes respectively.

First published at Red Flag.

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