Letter from Manila – The sun had not yet risen on May 9 when voters started lining up at Santa Lucia school in San Juan, Manila, awaiting the 6 am start of voting in national elections. Inside the school, television crews and photographers had staked out a spot an hour earlier, kicking off what turned out to be a sweaty five-hour vigil before presidential candidate Grace Poe arrived to cast her ballot.
When Poe finally showed up, a throng of voters whooped and applauded. “Grace Poe, Grace Poe, Grace Poe,” they chanted, as cameras and microphones swirled and jostled around the diminutive senator.
But for some of those same San Juan residents who waited all morning in the near-100-degree heat for a glimpse at the would-be president, cheering was one thing, voting another. Hernando Diodoro, a 66-year-old retiree, sat with several buddies of a similar vintage on a bench along the narrow lane through which Poe’s motorcade edged toward the school entrance.
Diodoro said he knows Poe’s driver—“a nice guy”—and that the 47-year-old Poe, elected a senator for the first time only in 2013, is popular in this part of Manila.
All the same, Diodoro—and all bar one of the bench-load of old codgers lined up in the shade—said they opted for another candidate. “I like Duterte, he means new rules,” said Diodoro, referring to Rodrigo Duterte, who just a few hours later would be so far ahead in the unofficial election results that Poe herself would concede.
Poe, the adoptive daughter of Fernando Poe Jr., an actor who ran for the presidency in 2004, had for weeks been one of four front-runners in opinion polls. But like the other leading candidates, including Vice President Jejomar Binay and former minister Manual “Mar” Roxas, Poe fell behind in the final days of the campaign as Duterte, the cussed and voluble mayor of Davao, on the southern island of Mindanao, stretched his lead in the polls into double digits.
In the end, Duterte’s 16 million votes, or 38 percent of the total, put him six million ahead of Roxas, who edged out Poe for second place, with Binay a distant fourth with just over five million votes. In one of the world’s most notably Catholic societies, the self-styled lothario and braggart, who cursed Pope Francis during the pontiff’s 2015 visit to the Philippines, ended up winning at a canter.
For more than two decades, the 71-year-old Duterte ran Davao with—as his presidential campaign T-shirts suggested—an iron fist. Alleged criminals and drug pushers were hunted down and executed, with Duterte himself a rumored participant. In the eyes of the public, the accused were simply getting what they were due. According to supporters, Duterte, known as “the Punisher,” was doing what was needed in the face of a corrupt and lax law enforcement system.
In March, I caught up with Duterte as he took to the stage in Angeles City, two hours north of Manila. The town’s lewd nightlife made it an appropriate campaign stop for a candidate who boasted regularly about his sexual exploits with younger women—all propped up, as it were, by his regularly knocking back of a tablet or two of Viagra.
Asked if he planned to run the Philippines as he ran Davao, Duterte, whose wiry frame belies his age, retorted almost incredulously. “Of course, yes, the same,” he said, before turning to greet the crowd with his customary raised-fist salute.
Back then, Duterte was in a take-your-pick four-way race for the presidency, but by the time an estimated half million people, many of them donning garb emblazoned with Duterte’s iron fist, roared and laughed with the mayor during his final campaign event in Manila on May 7, the contest looked a foregone conclusion.
The other candidates held their own closing rallies at the same time, but the combined attendances amounted to less than the hundreds of thousands of “Dutertards”—an opposition slur gleefully appropriated by Duterte supporters—who hollered their approval as Duterte pledged to execute criminals in front of “bleeding heart” human rights activists.
Barbaric? So what, said supporters. The end justifies the means. “If you go to Davao 15 years ago it was a wasteland,” roared one supporter in the crowd, giving his name as Manuel. “I’d rather kill one guy who is a criminal than let him affect a million other people.”
Thirty years after dictator Ferdinand Marcos fled to Hawaii after the army refused to quell massive street protests in Manila, it looked as if Filipinos were opting for another leader with a fondness for skirting the law; the historical echo was amplified by Marcos’s son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., running a close second in the vice presidential race.
Even Duterte’s most inflammatory campaign speech—a necrophiliac lament that he was not the first to rape an Australian missionary who was gang-raped and murdered during a prison riot in Davao in 1989—did not undermine his appeal.
Polite society was aghast. But for Duterte supporters, it mattered little. “It is just words that came out of his mouth,” said Carolyn Escudero, who attended the mammoth May 7 rally. What mattered, in the end, was that Duterte found a niche to work with—an opening that allowed his maverick shoot-from-the-hip persona to stand out from the slick, conventional campaigns run by Poe and Roxas, his nearest rivals.
While many voters I spoke with had good things to say about Poe and Roxas, they nonetheless described them as too close to the big business and political dynasty establishment that has long dominated Philippine politics, candidates who perhaps did not have the same appeal as Duterte among the quarter of the population who are defined as poor.
“I like Poe, but she has too many advisors,” said Jun Abram, another voter at San Juan. “Mar, he’s a smart guy, but the is the administration candidate,” said Pablo Bernardo, an 84-year-old former metalworker who was among the crowd waiting for Poe on voting day.
Despite Duterte’s landmark win, democracy in the Philippines has more often worked more like a moneyed oligarchy since the fall of the Marcos dictatorship three decades ago. Duterte railed against the system—his bawdy, foul-mouthed speeches setting him apart, in the voters’ minds, from the chasing pack.
Duterte knew how to capitalize on public disenchantment with elites, and played up his bad boy, or rather bad granddad, image, to sway the crowd. During one of his campaign boasts about his wives and girlfriends, Duterte told voters that if they did not like how he spoke, they could vote for someone else. It turned out they liked it. Similar to how Donald Trump’s louche, schoolyard irascibility helped him blitz all comers in becoming the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Duterte’s penchant for crassness and sexism won him fans.
But aside from both men going out of their way criticize the pope, the resemblance to Trump only goes so far. Trump’s gilded business and celebrity background is worlds apart from Duterte’s long experience as mayor, while Trump’s seeming dislike for Muslims contrasts starkly with the support Duterte received from the Muslim population of the southern Philippines.
What also helped Duterte was the inability of his rivals—Roxas and Poe in particular—to come up with a deal to undermine Duterte’s surge. The weekend before voting day, outgoing President Benigno Aquino compared Duterte’s looming ascent to the presidency to the rise of Hitler—hyperbole that came far too late to have any impact, as did Aquino’s call for “unity” among Duterte’s rivals.
That unity call translated into Roxas, Aquino’s anointed successor, asking Poe to step aside. Poe said no, an echo of her earlier refusal to run as Roxas’s running mate before declaring her own candidacy. “We’re disappointed in the sense that we thought she would at least be more open. Talk of unity should be always something that someone who wants to be leader of the nation should be open to,” said Barry Gutierrez, spokesman for the Roxas campaign, when asked about Poe’s refusal to play ball. For her part, Poe said she had “no regrets” about the failure to form an anti-Duterte alliance, in response to a question I put to her as she edged through the paparazzi to vote in Santa Lucia school on May 9.
With the election over, attention is turning to what kind of president Duterte will be. Will he be less bastos (rude)—as he suggested—now that the crowd-pleasing campaign exigencies are but a memory?
There have been signs that Duterte will retreat from some of his lurid campaign promises. Perhaps attempting to purge the ribald misogyny of his speeches, he asked Senator Pia Cayetano, a feminist and the sister of his running mate Alan Cayetano, to advise on ministerial appointments.
In a tacit nod to some of the Aquino government’s successes, which saw economic growth top six percent per year and allowed the Philippines shed its old “sick man of Asia” moniker, Duterte has come up with an economic plan that emulates the pro-investment measures of previous governments, in particular Aquino’s internationally lauded six years in office.
There will be other links to the outgoing administration. Although Aquino-led growth did not help his man Roxas win the presidency, running mate Leni Robredo was elected vice president after a close race with Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Robredo said in a post-election press conference that she would work with Duterte, despite the often-vicious election campaign and whispers that the new president could push to have Aquino prosecuted over corruption allegations connected to a social welfare fund. “He deserves my 100 percent support. It will not benefit the country if I will not give him the support he deserves,” Robredo said, when I asked whether the bad blood between the respective campaigns would stymie her relations with the president-elect.
But the conciliatory noises from the president-elect did not last long. He accused the country’s Catholic bishops of seeking favors from the government and of keeping women on the side, pluralizing his “son of a bitch” dismissal of the pope. Duterte also said he wanted to give Ferdinand Marcos a hero’s burial, causing anger among the many Filipinos who suffered for their opposition to the Marcos regime.
A self-described “socialist,” Duterte has offered ministerial jobs to communists who have waged a deadly, decades-old insurgency against the government—a move that could see an end to a seemingly intractable war but might not go down well with the Army or the country’s business leaders.
But Duterte raised another symbolic middle finger at what he often calls “imperial Manila” by refusing to decamp from Davao since his election win—even refusing to attend his proclamation as president in Manila on May 30. That stubbornness echoes the president-elect’s campaign pledge to decentralize power from the capital to the regions, and share power more evenly across the 7,000-plus-island, 100-million-population archipelago.
But where the new president may stand out from his predecessor is in international affairs, particularly regarding the disputed South China Sea, which Filipinos call the West Philippine Sea (and which Vietnam, another country with territorial claims, calls the East Sea).
Whereas Aquino sought international arbitration and regularly lambasted China at international summits over alleged encroachments into Philippine territory, Duterte told me that Aquino was too confrontational and suggested that if China built a few railways across the Philippines, he would soften Manila’s position on the territorial standoff, which has drawn in the United States, a long-standing ally of the Philippines.
“We cannot go to war, it will be a mismatch. I will not sacrifice the lives of soldiers to fight China,” Duterte said.Show