Philippines Election Coverage and Context

I work with a very nice guy from the Philippines.  I find that when I say that, everyone responds the same way – they too work with or know a very nice person or persons from the Philippines. Anthony Bourdain’s recent show on the Philippines was all about how cheerful and generous, sacrificing and enterprising the Filipino people are. It seems like half the Filipinos in the world are somewhere other than the Philippines working diligently somewhere prosperous to send money back to their impoverished homeland.

That nice guy I work with was telling me a few weeks ago about the election that occurred today. He was looking forward to the election of Rodrigo Duterte, who did indeed win today.  He said that this guy was the Filipino Bernie Sanders.

So okay, the Filipino Bernie Sanders if as mayor of Burlington, VT he’d used “death squads” to clean the streets. But that’s really a moralistic cheap shot based entirely on our American context and that’s the point.

A tough-talking mayor, known as “the Punisher” for his lax attitude to extrajudicial killings, looks set to clinch the presidency in the Philippines with unofficial tallies giving him a big lead.

Rodrigo Duterte, a 71-year-old ex-prosecutor, has 38.6% in an initial tally of 80% of the vote, nearly 16 points ahead of the next candidate. The five-person race does not need a majority candidate to win – the outgoing president Benigno Aquino won in 2010 with 42%.

My friend said flat out weeks ago that this guy was no angel.  As a prosecutor and the 20 year mayor of Davao City, a very large and very successful South East Asian city, Duterte has been a kind of real life Charles Bronson (actually they call him “Duterte Harry”)  in an area of the world that is an analogue to New York in the 70s.  He’s done and said some things that Americans would find very disturbing. On his May 8th show, John Oliver, who is usually more nuanced in his attention to context, did a segment about Duterte only focusing on the candidate’s controversial comments and involvement in extrajudicial crime fighting.

But the context is something else.  Duterte is a regular guy from the streets, a democratic socialist by policy and corruption fighter by reputation who is vehemently opposed by the 40 or so ruling families of the Philippines. The Philippines are an oligopoly run by family dynasties that have been in power in each state since colonial times. They systematically suck  up the wealth of the country because they run it. The local and federal governments have been dominated by family dynasties as much as their economics have. Duterte is not of these dynasties, he’s vowed to destroy them and they hate him.  His election in the face of their enmity is an unquestioned victory for the average people of the Philippines.

But none of that context got into John Oliver’s piece, or in any of the cursory pieces about Duterte that I’ve seen in the last few weeks here in America.

Moreover, his history as a prosecutor and mayor and his violent rhetoric craves the context of the reality on the ground in Davao City. It’s huge, clean and prosperous, one of the safest cities in the region despite it’s history of having been the nexus of drug trade throughout South East Asia.  Heroin from China was routed to the west through Davao City.  It’s was the meth capital of the country.  But it’s ranked as one of the most progressive cities in the world now and the 9th safest.

“As the long-term mayor of Davao City, he has turned a rebel-infested, crime-plagued community into one of the country’s safest,” added Mr Lavina. “People in the rest of the Philippines want that chance too.”

In an election with 5 candidates, to get 38.6% is pretty impressive. The Filipino people have embraced Duterte as a hope and change candidate in a place that needs much more hope and fundamental change than America in 2008 did.

His presidency will bear watching to see if the people continue to back him against the dynastic families that have held dictatorial sway over the country, but desperately warn that he’s a potential strongman who must be defeated.  But if Duterte sounds more like a combination of Clint Eastwood’s “Harry Callaghan” and Rudy (“a noun, a verb and 9/11”) Giuliani, it is the context that matters.  I would argue that both Dirty Harry and Rudi Giuliani were fictional characters fighting fake bad guys that in one case were the broadly drawn caricatures that movie audiences could root against and the other was Clint Eastwood. Giuliani put up fake window decals on the burned out buildings of the South Bronx, had cops hassle black and Hispanic kids and took credit for crime rates that had already been going down steadily for years. Nothing more fictional than that. But some places are real beyond all comprehension and require more than politically motivated cosmetic half measures.

During the election, there has been violence, which is common in Philippine politics. On Saturday, a mayoral candidate was shot dead in the south by a gunman. And just hours before polls opened on Monday, seven people were shot dead when a convoy of vehicles was ambushed in Rosario, just south of Manila.

The Filipino people deserve some respite from violence and corruption.  Duterte has vowed to clean up crime, spread the wealth of the country a bit wider than it is currently distributed and fix the crazy corruption that makes doing business in a banana republic rather unpredictable in order to attract more business to come there and employ Filipinos in their home country.  I hope their faith in Duterte is rewarded. It’s just not as simple as that to call him the “Trump of the East,” because he’s not rich (he’s fighting the rich), he’s not a racist (he’s a fervent pluralist), and he has a record of achieving positive things for the people who elected him.

  • Just to be clear, not advocating “death squads”, but like “Sling Blade said “some folks just need killin'”.

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