By Richard Javad Heydarian —
After months of grueling and highly polarizing election campaigning, the Philippines has finally chosen its next set of leaders. Rodrigo Duterte, the firebrand and highly controversial mayor of Davao City, appears to have won a landslide victory, beating the closest runner-up, former interior and local government secretary Mar Roxas, by a whopping five million votes.
The Commission on Elections, which was at the receiving end of countless criticisms ahead of election day, managed to pull off one of the most credible and transparent presidential elections in Philippine history. There was relatively little election-related violence, and few irregularities or delays, with more than 99 percent of vote counting machines functioning successfully. With the exception of the tightly-contested vice-presidential race, where Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., has raised doubts about the credibility of the vote, the election results have been largely welcomed by all major candidates.
Mar Roxas, the anointed successor of President Benigno Aquino, made a conciliatory concession speech, wishing Duterte success. The president-elect’s fiercest critics, including the Catholic hierarchy, have also extended an olive branch. After months of anticipation, during which the Philippine peso became a regional underperformer, markets have responded positively to the election outcome, with Philippine stocks hitting their highest mark in 9 months.
Duterte, who is currently assembling a cabinet filled with seasoned technocrats, has promised to become more statesmanlike and oversee a pragmatic and competent administration. Crucially, he has also expressed his willingness to reach out to China and find a modus vivendi vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes. For him, development rather than deterrence is the way forward.
A New Era
Only a few months ago, Duterte was considered a political outsider and a loose canon with little chance of capturing the presidency. He was up against major establishment candidates such as Vice President Jejomar Binay, a populist who built a massive network of support across the country, and Mar Roxas, a seasoned technocrat who benefited from the gargantuan machinery of the incumbent administration. The race, however, was mostly dominated by neophyte senator Grace Poe, who combined a reformist platform with a populist aura, thanks to her late father Fernando Poe, Jr., who was long considered the king of the Filipino movie industry.
But several factors helped Duterte to outmaneuver his opponents. These included his social media blitzkrieg, which presented Duterte as having singlehandedly transformed the Hobbesian city of Davao into one of the safest and most prosperous in the country as mayor, and an emerging zeitgeist of grievance politics against poverty, crime, corruption, and poor public infrastructure.
Duterte also benefited from the pitfalls of his opponents. Binay was hobbled by corruption scandals. Roxas made the crucial mistake of presenting himself as essentially a referendum on the Aquino administration, which has suffered from declining popularity in the national capital region and other parts of the country. As for Poe, she struggled with a lingering legal ordeal regarding her eligibility, while seeming to pander to specific interest groups and associate with reviled oligarchs.
Though lambasted for his foul-mouth and off-the-cuff comments, Duterte managed to convince a large plurality of voters that he was the only “authentic,” independent candidate in the race with the requisite political will to address the country’s profound challenges.
Foreign Policy Recalibration
Despite his foul mouth and off-the-cuff comments, Duterte is no Donald Trump. Unlike the American real estate mogul, Duterte, a former prosecutor, boasts more than two decades of experience in government. Despite some of his Trump-like foreign policy statements, particularly the suggestion the he would drive a jet ski to and plant the Philippine flag on contested islands in the South China Sea, Duterte is widely expected to adopt a pragmatic posture in foreign affairs, particularly toward China.
Throughout his interviews and speeches, Duterte has signaled his willingness to have direct dialogue with the Chinese leadership and, if possible, even negotiate a joint development agreement in contested waters. This pragmatic rhetoric reached a crescendo when he openly said of China, “Just build [the Philippines] a train around Mindanao, build me a train from Manila to Bicol…build me a train [going to] Batangas. For the six years that I’ll be president, I’ll shut up [about sovereignty disputes].”
Duterte is considering appointing to his cabinet former officials from the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-2010). These reportedly include former defense secretary Gilbert “Gibo” Teodoro and former armed forces chief General Hermogenes Esperon. Though Duterte, who came of age during the Vietnam War years, is known for his affiliation with leftist groups, he is expected to adopt a strategy of balancing relations equally between China and the United States.
Dispensing with the Aquino administration’s counter-balancing strategy against Beijing, Duterte is focused on inviting large-scale Chinese investments and avoiding conflict in the South China Sea. He has shed doubt on the utility, if not wisdom, of the Philippines’ arbitration case against China, and it is possible that Duterte will simply treat the likely favorable verdict as an advisory opinion and, in exchange, demand China show good will in the disputed waters. For instance, he might expect China to refrain from building military facilities on Scarborough Shoal and allow Filipino fishermen and troops to enjoy unrestricted mobility across the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Relations with the United States, meanwhile, are expected to remain robust, particularly with respect to counter-terrorism. Given the United States’ huge favorability among the Philippine security establishment, media, and populace, no Filipino leader can afford to alienate Washington without suffering significant political backlash.
Yet it is possible that Duterte, whether out of “nationalistic” convictions or based on prospective negotiations with China, may not dramatically expand U.S. access to Philippine bases under the newly approved Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). He could be expected to drive a harder bargain with the United States compared to the incumbent administration. Lamenting a lack of full-fledged U.S. support for the Philippines against China, a Duterte administration could demand greater clarity on the extent of the U.S.-Philippines mutual defense treaty.
Despite all the commotion over the U.S. pivot or rebalance to Asia, the level of foreign military financing the United States proves to the Philippines is actually lower than in 2010, and minuscule compared to what it sends to Middle Eastern and European partners. So one could expect Duterte to bargain for greater assistance from Washington. In short, a Duterte presidency could mean playing the United States and China against each other without necessarily siding with either camp. Depending on the issue at hand, he will also explore greater cooperation with other external powers.
Having only garnered a plurality of the votes, however, Duterte doesn’t enjoy political carte blanche. In fact, it is doubtful whether he could have won in a head-to-head contest with his closest opponent. If he wants to stay in power, and avoid any major backlash from his legions of critics, including the outgoing president, Duterte will need to make sure that he does not dramatically depart from the status quo, both on domestic and foreign policy.
Mr. Richard Javad Heydarian is an Assistant Professor in political science at De La Salle University, and a policy advisor at the Philippine House of Representatives (2009-2015). He is the author of the forthcoming book Asia’s New Battlefield: The US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.