Rodrigo Duterte: A new era in the Philippines

No one knows for sure whether the election results will lead the country to a better future or worse.

A woman takes a selfie with a cut-out image of leading presidential candidate Duterte at a restaurant in Davao city
Duterte's election was a polite, democratic slap on the face of the oligarchic establishment, which has ravaged a highly promising nation for decades, writes Heydarian [Reuters]

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born,” Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci once said. Three decades after the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship, which left deep and lasting wounds on an impoverished nation, the Filipino people are once again clamouring for “change”.

Amid a zeitgeist of “grievance politics“, a significant number of Filipinos have voted for “outside the box” candidates who have openly questioned the utility and wisdom of existing democratic institutions in the country.

Fed up with empty promises, and suffering from one of the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in Asia, the Philippine electorate has voted into power a curious mixture of political outsiders (PDF).

Exit polls suggest the country has elected its first self-described “socialist” as a president. Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-talking and iconoclastic mayor of the provincial city of Davao, has claimed a landslide victory by capturing more than five million votes over his nearest rival in the Philippines’ single-round presidential elections.

It was a polite, democratic slap in the face of the oligarchic establishment, which has ravaged a highly promising nation for decades.

After having raised expectations to stratospheric levels, however, the incoming Duterte administration faces an uphill battle in satisfying an impatient, exhausted, and polarised citizenry.

The Philippines has entered a new period of uncertainty, with hopes of radical change flying along fears of democratic backsliding.

National reconciliation

Without question, this has been the most polarised election campaign in modern Philippine history. Until the final hours of the campaign period, leading candidates, during their speeches, adopted a highly pugnacious language against their opponents.

The Duterte camp, which effortlessly managed to gather hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic supporters, saw the firebrand mayor promising radical change and an end to oligarchic rule.

His closest opponent, former interior secretary Mar Roxas, the anointed successor of the outgoing President Benigno Aquino, promised to fight for democracy against the supposed impending threat of dictatorship under Duterte.

Contrary to the Western media coverage, Duterte is no Donald Trump, although both of them have gained international notoriety for uttering highly controversial statements.


No less than the incumbent president called upon reformist camps, led by Mar Roxas and neophyte Senator Grace Poe, to unify against Duterte, who hasn’t been shy about mentioning dictatorship, abolishing of congress, and a whole host of controversial statements in the past months.

It was a clash of narratives, raising fears of massive election-related fraud and violence.

To the delight of everyone, however, the Commission on Elections, which has always been a favourite target of media critics and opposition candidates, managed to pull off arguably the most peaceful, credible, and transparent elections in Philippine history.

The only wrinkle in the picture could be the vice presidential race, which is separately contested.

It has been neck-and-neck between Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr, the sole son of the former dictator, and Leni Robredo, the widow of one of the most revered statesmen in Philippine history, Jesse Robredo.

READ MORE:The contradictions of Rodrigo Duterte

Most experts believe that Leni Robredo, who has been described as a social-democratic legislator, is tipped to become the second most powerful official in the country.

Unwilling to concede, Marcos has flirted with the possibility of launching a formal complaint after shedding doubt on the credibility of the elections.

A new era

In many ways, the Philippines is poised to elect its first left-leaning government, led by two former provincial officials, Duterte and Robredo.

Though extremely different in their demeanours and views on democracy, both figures are political outsiders par excellence – reflecting the depth of popular discontent with mainstream candidates.

Similar to Latin America in recent decades, the Philippines, a former Spanish colony, seems to be lurching to the left, with voters booting out conservative-centrist candidates from the upper echelons of power.

In the senate race, for instance, Risa Hontiveros, a long-time leftist activist, managed to make it to the “magic 12” circle of new incoming upper-house legislators.

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Contrary to the Western media coverage, Duterte is no Donald Trump, although both of them have gained international notoriety for uttering highly controversial statements.

But unlike the real estate mogul, Duterte is not just some “reality show” star. For two decades, he oversaw, with an “iron fist”, the transformation of the Hobbesian city of Davao into one of the safest and most prosperous in the country.

Starting with limited resources, but overseeing an astute social media blitzkrieg, Duterte gradually managed to outgun his well-heeled opponents by presenting himself as the only “authentic” candidate with requisite political will to end decades of incompetent and corrupt leadership in the country.

He captured the imagination of peripheral regions such as Mindanao and Visayas by promising an end to the reign of “imperial Manila”, giving more political autonomy and fiscal resources to the provinces.


He built a strong base among the upper and middle classes by promising a swift end to crime and corruption, not to mention Manila’s grinding traffic.

The challenge for Duterte, however, is to make a speedy and steady transition from a campaign-trail candidate, loose cannon on rhetoric and bumper sticker in policy proposals, into a sleek and “statesmanly’ president with tangible solutions to the country’s myriad problems.

Bringing together a cabinet filled with seasoned technocrats and new faces, Duterte seems to be beginning to rally support and sympathy from both markets and the civil society.

Amid ongoing disputes in the South China Sea, he has also sought better relations with powerful neighbours such as China. A new era awaits the Philippines, but no one knows for sure whether it is for better or worse.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.