Is the Philippines ready for Duterte?

By Antonio Montalvan II

The question must be asked in the light of a movement now in progress. The movement seeks to field Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte as a presidential candidate in 2016. There is, of course, some doubts about the movement. No mayor has ever made the long jump from City Hall to Malacañang. In fact, no one has yet made a successful leap from Mindanao to the presidential palace by the Pasig River, not to this day.

duterte for presidentWhere this advocacy is coming from does not astonish. It is not difficult to see that it is coming from a groundswell of despair over the systematic thievery by government officials of pork barrel funds. It may also be coming from chronic fatigue from the endless, divisive bickering among politicians.

The issues currently hounding the Binays of Makati only add fuel to the fire. The use of dummy companies is standard operating procedure among many local executives who—no mystery here—bask in the lifestyles of the rich and famous. In many town and cities, local government does not function effectively.

What people see in Davao City is the exact opposite. Out there, even ordinary citizens reprimand those violating the smoking ban. And the mayor’s daughter gets apprehended for violating the city’s speed limit regulations.

Davao City is perhaps the only city in the country that has effectively prohibited firecrackers on New Year’s Eve. How Duterte is able to do that without diminishing his popularity (a commodity many mayors are deathly afraid to lose) amazes people no end.

In Davao City, bars close at one in the morning. An hour before midnight, waiters inform habitués that it is time for the last order. It is a functioning regulation that appalls many, especially the young. But no one blames Duterte.

At the end of the day, many are impressed that the law can, after all, be “unbelievably” enforced. And no brawls ever take place there.

Davao taxi drivers see the speed limit as actually limiting proceeds—the slower the speed, the less time to carry riding passengers. Yet not one of them voices any protest. They don’t blame Duterte. They see the need to enforce the law.

Those who advocate the Duterte for President movement agree on this: Political will is an extreme, desperate necessity in public governance in the Philippines.

The irony is, Duterte earns more points in the public imagination each time he says he will kill the person who started this movement. Each time he says he will abolish Congress (or at least suspend it?) wins him more support, never mind that it is an “explosive” constitutional issue.

There actually is a precedent to the “Duterte movement.” Noynoy Aquino was not a presidential nominee in 2010. He was in fact reluctant to run. Are we seeing the same shades of that 2010 out-of-the-box phenomenon? Has the absence of ambition now become a criterion for choosing the Philippine president?

Should the Duterte movement gain momentum in the next few months, Mar Roxas and Jejomar Binay better do a reality check.

To be sure, the issue on the so-called Davao death squads will hound Duterte. But there are those who deliberately gloss over that issue. Is it because they do not necessarily want a strongman president? There is a paradox here. It appears that the greater desire is for the rule of law, for a no-nonsense style of governance. But should it take a Duterte to accomplish all that? The movement advocates do not seem to see that angle.

Urban legends about Duterte abound. The guy has a weakness for big bikes. Shown a friend’s new one, Duterte test-drove but forgot himself in the process and rode through with abandon. Before long, a Davao traffic cop flagged him down. It was evening and the mayor was incognito. Asking for the speeder’s driver’s license, the cop was shocked to realize it was Duterte. Apologizing immediately to the mayor, the police officer got a dressing down instead. True to form, Duterte insisted he violated the law and thus should be arrested. Do your job, he told the shocked police officer.

Duterte is said to drive a taxicab at night to prowl Davao city’s streets as a hands-on vigilante. One can safely walk Davao City at night.

A sense of security—perhaps that is the minimum people want the next president to assure them. In these times it is an easily understandable wish. But is this enough to crowd-source and catapult Duterte? The Duterte movement would be a curious test.

But test it we should. The Philippines has become one huge carcass of failed governance. It must search new devices for choosing leaders, especially because the price of vote-buying has soared beyond shame.

A Binay versus Roxas contest in 2016 is getting to be boring in the public imagination. Same faces, same show, ho-hum. Will Duterte lift us out of the doldrums?



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