Twilight of the Duterte era?

Some excitement in the media over the weekend with the announcement by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte that he would not be a candidate in next year’s election, scheduled for May.

There’s less to this than might appear, for a few reasons. Most obviously, Duterte is ineligible to run again for president anyway: presidents are constitutionally limited to a single term. He had previously signalled an intention to run for vice-president, and that is what he says he has now decided against, saying that it “would be a violation of the constitution to circumvent the law, the spirit of the constitution.”

Duterte has not previously been known for his concern for the spirit of the law. Nor, however, has he been known for reliability in his public statements, so this one too could be a blind, designed to conceal some elaborate manoeuvre. The candidate whose running mate Duterte had proposed to be, his long-time assistant senator Bong Go, has now himself nominated for vice-president.

So the presidential nomination from Duterte’s faction (part of the ruling PDP-Laban party – there is also a dissident faction hostile to Duterte) would seem to be wide open: possibly for the president’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, the mayor of Davao City. Dynastic politics are common in the Philippines, and the Dutertes are adepts at it; Duterte-Carpio succeeded her father in the job, and her younger brother is her deputy.

Duterte-Carpio has said she would not run at the same time as her father, but with that obstacle removed she would seem to be the obvious candidate. She already has a clear lead in the opinion polls, although there’s time for a lot to happen between now and next May.

Commentary on the wave of Trumpist leaders who have come to power in recent years often presents it as a democratic phenomenon, representing the populist masses against the elites. To the contrary, though, it’s striking how many of them were the product of bad electoral systems. Donald Trump was nearly three million votes behind Hillary Clinton in 2016; Narendra Modi won a big majority in 2014 with less than 40% of the vote; and Boris Johnson won a mandate for Brexit at an election where most people voted for parties opposed to it.

But the Philippines has one of the worst. Duterte was elected in 2016 with 39.0% of the vote – there is just a single first-past-the-post nationwide ballot. The fact that his two nearest rivals, both hostile to his policies, had almost two and a half million more votes between them counted for nothing. No president has been elected with a majority since the restoration of democracy in 1986.

So it’s a little ironic that now Duterte, if he were able to run for re-election, would quite probably win a landslide. Covid-19 has produced the usual boost to incumbency, his opponents are (not unreasonably) seen as a disorganised rabble, and his approval ratings, although down from last year’s highs, are extremely strong.

Although it will be little consolation to the thousands of victims of his lawless campaign against the drug trade, Duterte’s rule has not, at least so far, involved any general assault on Philippine democracy. Unlike some of his counterparts he has made no moves towards setting himself up as president for life or turning the clock back to the days of Ferdinand Marcos.

Perhaps at the age of 76 he is looking forward to a quiet retirement, with his daughter entrusted with the task of defending his legacy (and, importantly, keeping him out of jail). Or perhaps Duterte still has another surprise up his sleeve.


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