Philippines: Controversial populist's win a sign of crisis

Rodrigo Duterte.

The May 9 election of controversial populist Rodrigo Duterte as president of the Philippines is a sign that capitalism is in crisis in the Philippines, chairperson of the left-wing Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM) Sonny Melencio told a conference in Sydney on May 14.

Melencio told the Socialism for the 21st Century conference: “People were fed up with the old 'trapo' [traditional politician] and elite forces that have long ruled the government since the overthrow of military dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

“There has been a growing disenchantment in succeeding democratic regimes that many believe are worse than before.”

Human rights abuses

Duterte is the trash-talking, maverick Mayor of Davao City, in the southern island of Mindanao. His 20-year rule in Davao City is most well known for his “tough on crime” policies and informal style.

Amnesty International estimates about 1220 killings of criminals by death squads in Davao between 1998 and 2009. Far from denying involvement in extrajudicial executions and vigilante violence, Duterte has often boasted of it, revelling in the nicknames “Duterte Harry” and “The Punisher”.

For example, he told a 2005 crime summit in Manila: “Summary execution of criminals remains the most effective way to crush kidnapping and illegal drugs” while in 2009 he said: “If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination.”

In 2012, he held a press conference where he offered a cash reward for anyone who brought him the decapitated head of an alleged local gang leader.

In his expletive-laced presidential campaign, Duterte promised to reproduce his vigilante anti-crime policies on a national level, threatening to kill 100,000 criminals and “fatten the fish in Manila Bay”.

He has cited figures showing a decline in crime during his tenure, although Human Rights Watch has said the fall reflects a decline in petty crime while the murder rate has risen.

Duterte's tough on crime image has gained him support from both the affluent elites and urban poor majority. The Philippine's rapid urbanisation and deindustrialisation has led to widespread urban poverty, allowing street crime to flourish.

Pitching left and right

However, Duterte's successful election was based on more than his “tough guy” image. Melencio pointed out he had come to power with the support of elements from both the far left and right.

On the right, this support was most apparent from the supporters of vice-presidential candidate Bongbong Marcos, son of the ex-dictator. Support for Bongbong is based on the illusion that endemic corruption, nepotism and poverty has only flourished after the Marcos dictatorship ended.

That a high proportion of Filipinos are too young to remember life under Marcos helped promote this illusion. However, it also reflects the degree to which the country's political elite are oblivious to the concerns of the masses, who despise them in return. The Liberal Party of outgoing President Benigno “PNoy” Aquino and the Cojuangco-Aquino dynasty are particularly despised.

However, in the vice-presidential race, Bongbong narrowly missed out to the Liberal Party's Leni Robredo.

During the campaign, Duterte described himself as a “socialist” and put forward some pro-people policies, such as an end to outsourcing jobs. Duterte's links with the far left go back to his student days in the 1970s. He studied under Jose Maria Sison, the now-exiled leader of the National Democratic Front associated with the underground Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and New People's Army (NPA).

During his rule in Davao City, Duterte held regular talks with the NPA. He has also been involved in talks with armed nationalist groups representing the oppressed indigenous Lumad and Moro populations of Mindanao. As mayor, he set a precedent by appointing representatives of the Lumad and Moro communities as vice-mayors.

Duterte has also promised talks to end Mindanao's numerous and long-running leftist, nationalist and Islamic insurgencies.

Duterte's presidential campaign included some extremely sexist outbursts, but under his administration Davao City instituted the Philippines' only Women's Development Code. This code aims “to uphold the rights of women and the belief in their worth and dignity as human beings” and eliminate discrimination against women.

He is also on record supporting unrestricted access to contraception and LGBT rights, including equal marriage rights.

Rejection of the elite

The key factor in getting elected was a spontaneous rejection of the ruling political dynasties and the devastating results of their neoliberal policies.

Left-wing senate candidate Walden Bello noted in : “In city after city, thousands attended his rallies, waiting patiently in sweltering temperatures to hear the man despite 6 to 7-hour delays before he showed up.

“Travelling throughout the country during this period in my own campaign for the Senate, Duterte fever was palpable.

“I encountered the same story everywhere, and it was not apocryphal: as one campaigner put it, 'People are making their own posters and tarpaulins. Dirt-poor tricycle drivers are paying for Duterte stickers. I've never seen anything like it.'

“Spontaneity and improvisation and grassroots momentum have been the hallmarks of the Duterte campaign … Duterte, more by instinct rather than plan, simply set fire to emotions that were already just below the surface … It is, simply put, a largely spontaneous electoral insurgency.”

Melencio explained the source of this anger, using data he got from a Filipino researcher-writer: “Under PNoy's Daang Matuwid (Straight Path) Development Plan, the Filipino economy is based on extractive industry, special economic zones, urban construction, the service industry and OFW remittances.”

“OFW remittances” refers to money sent home by Filipinos working on temporary visas overseas. About $30 billion was sent through such remittances last year. Labour has become one of the country's main export commodities.

“There are at least 288 special economic zones in which industries pay a rent of 5% of their gross income and no taxes — 178 are dedicated to IT parks and call centres. Casual and contractualised labour has become the norm throughout the economy,” Melencio said.

“The 17 'Agro-Industrial' zones are actually ports and warehouses. At least one is dedicated to bio-fuel.

“There is no food security. The country has gone from rice exporter to rice importer. The El Niño phenomenon and climate change are causing hunger.

“There is not enough rice, or there is enough rice but people cannot afford it. There is a 38% poverty rate among farmers, who are constitute 40% of the labour force.”

The attitude of the ruling Liberal Party and the elite to this poverty was illustrated on April 1 when police and soldiers opened fire on farmers protesting for food aid in Kidapawan, Cotabato Province, Mindanao. Three were killed.

No coherent alternative

The victims of neoliberalism have flocked to Duterte, but his policies offer no coherent alternative.

Melencio said that while Duterte was not from a national political dynasty, he represented a local political dynasty. Another factor in his success was regionalist sentiment and the interests of regional elites, who would like the Philippines to adopt a federal system to raise their status in relation to the Manila-based national elite.

“Duterte's economic program is to continue the current macroeconomic policies of the Aquino government,” Melencio explained. This was combined in the election campaign, however, with the promise to end outsourcing and other pro-worker and farmer promises.

The extent to which the maverick mayor elected president will be swayed by the competing demands of the business sector and his grassroots base remains to be seen, but if he does not deliver, his huge popularity could quickly evaporate.

The PLM ran in the elections, which were also for municipal and city councils, mayors and both houses of congress, to put a left-wing alternative.

Bello stood for the senate as a PLM-endorsed independent. As Director of Focus on the Global South, an internationally known academic and activist, a member of the House of Representative for the centre-left Citizens Action Party (Akbayan) — until he resigned last year to protest Akbayan's alliance with the Aquino administration — Bello was one of the highest-profile PLM-supported candidates.

Another high profile PLM-endorsed Senate candidate was General Dado Valeroso, a member of the dissident Young Officers' Movement during the Marcos regime.

The PLM's election campaign was both based on, and aimed at, consolidating grassroots base-building work. This election saw the largest ever geographical spread of PLM candidates, reflecting recent efforts at expanding their influence outside Metro-Manila.

An April 27 PLM statement said: “PLM candidates for national and local positions … are all leaders of various people's campaigns and issues, ranging from resistance to the neoliberal policies, contractualisation, graft and corruption, human rights violations, non-implementation of agrarian reforms, neglect of OFWs, anti-women policies, and others.

“The local candidates are leaders of the anti-mining movement, anti-water privatisation, and anti-local corruption in their own areas.”

PLM candidates won five positions: the mayor and vice-mayor of Marakina City in Metro Manila, municipal councillors in Sibonga, Cebu and Indang, Cavite Province and the mayor of Quinapondan, Eastern Samar. PLM involvement in anti-mining campaigns was reflected in the results in Cebu and Eastern Samar, where foreign-owned mines, many Australian-owned, play havoc with the environment and local peoples' livelihoods.

The opposition to these projects is so great that some mining operations remove the ores extracted by helicopter because local farmers and indigenous people regularly blockade the roads.

The election of PLM candidate Raffy Asebias as mayor of Quinapondan built on grassroots networks the party established in Eastern Samar while delivering aid donated by urban poor communities in Metro Manila after Typhoon Yolanda devastated the area in 2013.

[You can also read Walden Bello's article "Created by crisis: Rodrigo Duterte and his unorthodox quest for the Philippine presidency" can be read at .]
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