By Conor Cronin & Norashiqin Toh —
Voters in the Philippines went to the polls for a general election on May 9. Although official results will not be available for several days, unofficial tallies for the presidential race show a resounding victory for the provocative mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte. His win is a major loss for the ruling Liberal Party, and analysts fear it could threaten much of the progress achieved in the last six years under President Benigno Aquino.
Q1: Why did voters flock to Duterte?
Duterte’s success is difficult to attribute to any one factor. The mayor ran a straightforward campaign centered on combatting inequality and corruption in the Philippines, two problems of serious concern to the average Philippine citizen. Although Aquino shepherded the nation to significant economic growth and avoided the corruption scandals which plagued many of his predecessors, little of that growth translated to opportunities outside of Manila.
Duterte’s image as a “man of the people” in contrast to his rivals—who included a former Wall Street investment banker and the graft-tainted current vice president—lent his anti-corruption platform an air of credibility that survived late-coming accusations of undisclosed wealth. Voters in Duterte’s home region of Mindanao also provided a bulwark of support, based on his promises to bring the wealth and development of Manila to the southern island which has long lagged economically behind more urbanized regions.
Duterte is well known for his success in stamping out violent crime and drug abuse in Davao City. The policies of support for vigilante “death squads,” which brought condemnation from international human rights organizations, bring praise from many Filipinos who think only the guilty have reason to fear a Duterte presidency. His seven terms as mayor provided a track record of “success” in contrast to the ineffectiveness of Liberal Party candidate Mar Roxas and the inexperience of independent candidate Senator Grace Poe.
Duterte also benefitted from a divided opposition. There is little doubt that both Roxas and Poe — an erstwhile ally of the Liberal Party and their original choice for vice president before she broke ranks—pulled votes away from each other. Whether a unified focus from Liberal Party supporters and allies would have been enough to prevent Duterte from winning is debatable, but their combined 45 percent of the vote beats Duterte’s 39 percent.
Q2: What will a Duterte presidency look like in the Philippines?
The vagaries and contradictions of Duterte’s campaign rhetoric make it difficult to predict his domestic policy. Though his presidential campaign was full of outrageous threats and promises, it is unlikely that his presidency will be as radical. While Duterte portrays himself as anti-establishment, many of his domestic policy proposals—when stripped of their bombast—do not veer very far from the current administration or those of his fellow candidates. Duterte’s anti-corruption vows echo the “straight path” promises of Aquino’s 2010 campaign. Duterte says he is open to taking sound policies from the platforms of his rivals, and, in areas such as economics where he lacks expertise, will consult with key advisers such as former finance minister Cesar Virata. Like Aquino, Duterte said he would consider joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and wants to cut bureaucratic red tape to attract foreign investment and improve the ease of conducting business.
Two areas stand out for potential breaks with establishment politics. Duterte’s unrelenting focus on crime as Davao City mayor is likely to carry on in his presidency. In a May 7 interview with local media agency Philstar, he said that his first executive order would be “[declaring] criminality as an issue of national security and calling [the] military into the helm.” There will likely be a harsh crackdown on crime and drugs soon after he assumes office. Whether this will take the form of his repeated threats to dump the bodies of 100,000 criminals in Manila Bay or some more tenable anti-crime platform remains to be seen.
Duterte has also long been an ardent supporter for a federal system of government in the Philippines. Duterte maintains that establishing federalism is essential to stamping out the Manila-centered culture of corruption. As president, Duterte has said he would immediately create a commission to educate people about federalism, and assess after six months whether the nation is ready for a constitutional convention to introduce the system.
Q3: What will happen in the peace process in the southern Philippines?
Duterte was a tepid supporter of the ill-fated Bangsamoro Basic Law, the Aquino administration’s attempt to end the decades-old conflict in the southern Philippines by creating an autonomous political entity for the ethnic Moro people in Mindanao. Though he ultimately backed it, he expressed misgivings over some provisions in the bill, calling it “too much too soon… the product of government peace negotiators who are not from Mindanao.” He pushed for federalism as the better alternative, believing that only self-governance would bring lasting peace.
His proposal is likely to meet major resistance. The other presidential candidates roundly criticized the idea, with Poe arguing that it would support political dynasties and Roxas claiming that it would lead to more taxes. Many citizens are afraid that federalism will eventually lead to secession.
In response, Duterte has highlighted the unequal distribution of funds between the local and national government, whereby the national government claims a large portion of income at the expense of local governments. Duterte argues that federalism would allow regions to retain most of their income for their own development. This would help address the gap between Manila and the other provinces, including resource-rich Mindanao.
Q4: What are the implications for Philippine relations with China and the United States?
The new administration will face some key international relations tests almost immediately which could prove a bellwether for foreign policy under Duterte. Observers of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague expect a decision to come by mid-summer on the Philippines’ case against China’s nine-dash line maritime claims. Whether that decision comes out before the departure of Aquino, who has been an outspoken critic of Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, or under Duterte, who has expressed greater willingness to negotiate with China on joint exploration for economic concessions, could make a tremendous difference in international reactions to the decision. At the same time, China’s recent moves to begin land reclamation on Scarborough Shoal, just 140 miles from the Philippine coast, defy Duterte’s nationalistic persona and would be hard to overlook for a man who claimed he would ride a jet ski out to the disputed islands and plant a Philippine flag there.
The greater difference between Duterte and Aquino will likely lie in Philippine relations with the United States. Aquino was a steadfast friend for Washington in ASEAN, and during his six-year administration cooperation between the treaty allies grew deeper than at any point since the Cold War. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed in 2014 is a manifestation of the renewed defense relationship and a key component of the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific rebalance.
But the decidedly less pro-Washington Duterte—who has turned down invitations to meet with the U.S. Embassy—could put the brakes on further implementation of the agreement, slowing down the approval process for U.S. use of additional facilities. He is unlikely, however, to revoke EDCA outright; in his own words, “we need it because of China.” Duterte will likely be a less cooperative partner to the United States than Aquino, but his awareness of the need to balance the two powers suggests there will be a place for the U.S. military in the Philippines for years to come.