The incomparable Duterte
THE MOMENT Rodrigo Duterte turned from candidate to presumptive president, defending his foreign image turned from political activity to national responsibility. The Economist has just released a special feature on “The Dangers of Duterte Harry,” and the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, and CNN have all named him “Asia’s Donald Trump.” They do not understand Duterte; they are covering only his language and anticrime measures, not how he transformed Davao into a prosperous, business-friendly city. What has the foreign press missed that 16 million Filipinos have seen?
We Filipinos should let the world know what we see in our incoming president, because positive media coverage is in the national interest. It affects a country’s standing in global affairs as well as the views of credit rating agencies that decide investment grades. When Indonesia elected President Jokowi Widodo in 2014, the international press hailed the action-oriented mayor of Jakarta and compared him to America’s Barack Obama, triggering a wave of foreign investments. Comparisons simplify complex local politics to the foreign press. So, with whom should they compare Duterte?
Definitely not Trump. Trump became the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for US president by dominating media coverage and defying political correctness. He appeals to American voters because he calls a spade a spade and is an outsider in Washington. But that’s where the similarities with Duterte end. Duterte is not a bigot. While Trump has vowed to ban Muslims from entering the United States, to build a wall on the Mexican border, and to reverse the legalization of gay marriage, Duterte supports the most liberal positions toward gay marriage, reproductive health, and autonomy for Muslim Mindanao than any Philippine president before him.
The better analogy is to Trump’s rival, Bernie Sanders, the first-ever socialist to come close to becoming the Democratic Party’s nominee. A 74-year-old senator and former city mayor, he has organized a grassroots movement unprecedented in US history, composed of the youth, liberals, and others disaffected by traditional politics. He is beholden to no elites, having raised all his funds from small-dollar donations, and packs rallies with 20,000 people, all underreported by a media enamored of Hillary Clinton. His social media presence towers over that of his rivals, with supporters spreading viral content in the name of their so-called revolution.
Like Sanders, Duterte has packaged socialism to appeal to the mainstream and adapted to Filipino tastes. The crude language is in fact a distraction: Broken down to the essentials, his speeches are hard to distinguish from those of the Left. He will make peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and bring Communist Party of the Philippines founder Joma Sison back from exile. He will stand up to big business by ending labor contractualization and outlawing monopolistic behavior. He will expand public services like healthcare and education, and increase wages for the working class.
Duterte’s political genius was in charming the people and causing the elite to underestimate him. In so doing, an avowed socialist has made it to Malacañang, a reality that previously seemed impossible. Contrary to the fears of many liberal voters, what should be inspiring about Duterte’s victory is that he is the most progressive and the first non-oligarch and non-show biz president this country has ever elected—the exact opposite of the proudly capitalist, billionaire celebrity Donald Trump.
That’s not the angle that grabs most foreign readers, but just as the American press’ fascination with Trump irresponsibly created the political force that he is today, its refusal to capture the full story of Duterte is a disservice to the country that has elected him.
Viewed in that way, Duterte should be heralded as a departure from our country’s personality-driven politics about which the foreign press loves to write. He is the first Filipino president to be elected in protest of the oligarchy, and can be better understood through the lens of Latin American socialist presidents Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez, or best yet, Lula da Silva.
After decades as a labor leader, Lula was elected president of Brazil in 2002, bringing socialism into the political mainstream. As a candidate, he frightened business elites that he would crash the Brazilian economy with his left-wing ideology, but as president, he preserved Brazil’s business-friendly policies and even appointed a member of the center-right opposition to lead his central bank. Lula used the windfalls of a growing economy to fund his socialist programs, most notably Bolsa Familia, Brazil’s conditional cash transfer program, the inspiration for our own Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program. Before stepping down in 2010, he achieved approval ratings close to 90 percent, making him the most popular head of state in the world.
Duterte seems most fittingly “Asia’s Lula da Silva”: a socialist willing to accept free-market policies, a pragmatic leader who can bring inclusive growth.
Filipinos have long yearned for our own Lee Kuan Yew, the father of modern Singapore and the paragon of benevolent dictatorship. Indeed, not since Ferdinand Marcos have we had a leader who answers that desire like Duterte. But LKY is neither contemporary nor from a large country. Perhaps a better comparison is with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was elected in 2014 over Rahul Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers. Modi is transforming India after decades of dynastic rule, and vows to do for India what he did for his province of Gujarat. His record as a strongman in the world’s largest democracy, along with the US government’s rocky relations with him due to questions over human rights during his term as chief minister of Gujarat, draws many parallels with our presumptive president.
Ultimately, Duterte is incomparable. Easy to caricature, hard to fully capture, he befuddles those who group leaders into categories because he is in a league of his own. But it is the responsibility of respectable journalists to paint a more complete picture. Look beyond his choice of words and iron-fisted rule. Consider that he is the most progressive leader in our history, a socialist with a pragmatic streak, a self-admitted womanizer that advocates women’s rights, a strongman with a sense of humor and a kind heart. None of these is quite as simple as “Asia’s Donald Trump.” But someday, if Duterte becomes the greatest president we have ever had, he himself will be an international name, and the highest compliment for a world leader may not be to be called a nation’s Lee Kuan Yew, but Brazil’s, India’s, Singapore’s, or America’s Rody Duterte.
Leandro Legarda Leviste (firstname.lastname@example.org), 23, is the founder of Solar Philippines and a Forbes 30 Under 30.
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