RODRIGO ROA DUTERTE — the gun-toting, tough-talking, Mayor of Davao City was nothing like anyone Imperial Manila nor the rest of the Philippines had ever seen before.
In 2016, his bravado and foul-mouthed rhetoric actually seemed refreshing for millions of Filipinos. His accomplishments, as well as the countless urban legends that surrounded the man, seemed like exactly the change the country needed, and that ‘it’ was finally coming.
Under Duterte’s leadership, Davaoeños watched as their beloved city transformed – purged of crime, of insurgents, and of drugs.
During his term, discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, and religious affiliation was outlawed in the city. Other ordinances on health and safety were passed. Urban development became a priority, and the city saw economic growth, as well as development in education and community life.
All this happened under the watchful eye of the beloved ‘mayor,’ who patrolled the streets at night on his motorcycle – sometimes, even incognito, driving a taxi.
From Mayor to President
With all of this, he seemed like a shoo-in for the 2016 elections, and all his supporters, mostly volunteers, were pushing him to run for the highest position in the land. Mayor Rody, however, denied having any plans of running.
When he finally withdrew his Certificate of Candidacy for mayor, and submitted one for president, people were ecstatic.
Critics, however, questioned if he really had the qualifications to run a whole country, as all his experience was just at the local level. Some were put-off by the very traits that endeared him to his supporters – his brashness, his unbecoming conduct, and his promise of killing 100,000 drug dealers and criminals, which will fatten the fish in Manila Bay and fill the funeral parlors of Metro Manila.
“Tapang at Malasakit” (“Courage and Compassion”), Duterte’s campaign slogan, was the perfect summary of his political will. He cared, and he vowed never to be afraid to use his power, all else be damned.
He convincingly won the 2016 elections and became the first president from Mindanao. And despite the lack of a political war chest, he made it because of his character, drawing numerous volunteers and supporters, who carried him to victory using social media.
On the third year of his presidency, Duterte has been able to sustain high approval ratings, ending 2018 with an 81% approval rating, according to Pulse Asia.
Yet, with this high approval also comes continued opposition, as the controversies that surround him never seem to end. His many vocal critics continuously disapprove of his rhetoric, coupled with the misfortunes that his staunchest critics seem to find themselves in.
The “Duterte Effect”
It’s too early to claim it, but Duterte is probably the most polarizing of leaders in the country’s history. And this reputation extends to the global stage, as he gets both supporters and critics all over the world.
It would seem that everyone and their mother has an opinion on what is happening to the Philippines, all thanks to the effect that he has on people.
When an infrastructure project is completed, or a bill is signed into law, people say claim it to be “The Duterte Effect.”
Critics, on the other hand, would tag his worst moments, his off-hand jokes, as his effect on them.
Taking both sides into consideration, what exactly is this “Duterte Effect,” and what does it mean for the Philippines, and the average Filipino?
Duterte’s “Tapang”: Heroic or Reprehensible?
Duterte is often criticized for his brash demeanor, cursing, and misogynistic remarks. However, despite all the offensive statements he has made, his supporters remain loyal and accept him, flaws and all. His courage and strength are reflected in his rhetoric, and he is not afraid to curse out those who oppose him.
He is unwavering, and his strong political will for pushing for the war on drugs and all that it takes to win it seems to endure up to this day.
Duterte made the drugs crackdown the cornerstone of his presidential campaign, and he kept his word. Thousands died, from official government records and other sources, with the numbers varying depending on who’s counting. Many Filipinos believe that this is the only way to eradicate drugs in the country.
This strong political will is also reflected in his other achievements, most notably the push for Boracay’s rehabilitation. It all started with his comment wherein he called it a cesspool. It ended up closed for six months, to no shortage of clamor from his critics. But looking back, it’s evident that “Mayor” made the right call, and now other tourist destinations across the country are following suit.
Duterte’s “Malasakit,” and the caring side of this stern leader
Duterte’s strong political will seems to go hand-in-hand with a deep sense of “malasakit.” All this brashness seems to be coming from a place of genuine concern.
As the first Philippine president from Mindanao, Duterte was able to bring much-needed focus on the country’s war-torn south. The Bangsamoro Organic Law, which many were clamoring for, was passed last year, and was met with overwhelming support.
Duterte has also been vocal about his support for minorities, and is very visible in relief efforts to disaster victims. No doubt, this tough-talking president has a caring side – as he is also often portrayed as a family man, and one who understands the plight of the ordinary Filipino.
The Duterte Effect on the Global Stage
Duterte has received so much flak when it comes to foreign relations. His crass remarks have caused tension with other leaders, most remarkably with former US President Barack Obama.
Nevertheless, he has maintained a good relationship with Japan. He also had friendly visits with leaders of Malaysia, India, and Israel. And of course he has famously cozied up to China. While that relationship remains contentious, it is one his supporters welcome as it’s portrayed to provide financial aid for the government’s widely embraced infrastructure program.
The issue over the West Philippine Sea is also another heated topic, as many remain concerned about China’s infrastructural and military development of islands in the region.
Most interesting of Duterte’s moves on the world stage, though, has been his pivot away from the United States. Duterte has slowly moved the Philippines from being one of the major US supporters in the Asia Pacific into a Chinese ally. Despite this, he still remains diplomatic with US President Donald Trump, who is a known supporter of his drug war.
Meanwhile, Duterte’s effect on OFWs mirrors the effect he has on the people back home. Filipinos who are spread out across the world are divided into supporters and critics, but one can say he’s also won that split.
Despite all the controversies of this administration, one thing that Duterte has undeniably done is to bring back the focus of all Filipinos to home. People are talking, arguing, and have become more passionate than ever for what they believe is best for our country.
The Duterte Effect on Filipinos
His effect, from the very start, was emotional. His emotional platform won him this presidency, and his demeanor and decisions continue to get people very emotional.
One could argue that uniting Filipinos isn’t his strongest suit, as he has most likely caused many friendships and relationships to sour ever since he came into office. But one thing no one can take away from him, is that he gets everyone riled-up. And as previously mentioned, talking about the things that matter, about the place that matters to us the most: the Philippines.
While we can and should be inspired by him and all the good things that this administration has done, and be angry at him and learn from all the mistakes that this administration has committed, the fact of the matter remains that President Duterte won’t be around forever.
The ‘Duterte Effect’ should not end at celebrating the completion of a new bridge or signing of a new law, but should be a promise that what he’s started will continue through all of us.
All that is happening now goes beyond this current administration and beyond personality politics. At the end of the day, we have to learn from all of this. Let’s take from it, and pass values and practices down to future generations.
Taking a page out of Duterte’s playbook, maybe what we all need is a little bit of both “tapang at malasakit.”
Strength to fight for what is right, and care to actually do something to make the change we want to happen.