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HORIZONS

Why is Duterte still so popular? (2)

President Duterte’s name is not on the ballot, but the 2019 midterm elections are very much a referendum on his controversial, disruptive and yet very popular presidency.

In 2016, a large plurality of Filipino voters opted for “real change.” In many ways, the last presidential election was a “protest vote” amid widespread discontent and popular grievances against the uneven growth and structural hypocrisies of the dominant liberal-democratic order.

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Three years hence, the question is: Are we going to reaffirm that protest vote, or are we going to reject it in favor of an alternative—whether a return to the ancien régime or a new political synthesis?

Instead of serving as a break on the President’s authoritarian populist march, however, the elections are even strengthening his grip on state institutions. A similar phenomenon was observed under the populist reigns of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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Elections are a double-edged sword: They can either check the concentration of power or, alternatively, legitimize its centralization in a singular charismatic figure.

From all indications, Mr. Duterte could expect a resounding victory for his allies, who are set to dominate the 18th Congress. And it’s in the upper chamber of the Congress where the future of Philippine democracy will be decided in the coming months and years.

In fact, as of this writing, it’s even likely that the administration will pull off the greatest electoral landslide in Philippine history, with Mr. Duterte’s allies and (soft) independents winning all available seats in the Senate.

The opposition might struggle to get even a single seat. These midterm elections are the most important in a generation, precisely because an enervated opposition means the potential transformation of the Senate, long a bastion of opposition to an imperial presidency, into a de facto rubber-stamp.

Were she to top the Senate race, Cynthia Villar could become the next Senate president. The young and charismatic Sonny Angara, also a Duterte ally, is another potential new Senate leader were he to finish on a good note.

In the new Senate, Mr. Duterte’s special assistant and former “utility man,” Bong Go, will serve as the ultimate pivot. He will be the whip, who will ensure that the Senate backs Malacañang’s legislative agenda, including the push for Charter change, which requires the support of a supermajority.

Historically, throughout almost a century of electoral experience, the opposition won only three times against the administration in the midterm Senate elections.

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This took place when Carlos Garcia (Nacionalista Party) led the opposition against President Elpidio Quirino, in 1951; when Gerardo Roxas (Liberal Party) led the opposition against an unpopular Ferdinand Marcos presidency in 1971; and in 2007 when the Genuine Opposition decimated Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s allies.

In all three cases, the opposition ran against an increasingly unpopular president. Marcos, however, overcame this problem by going for the martial law option, which allowed him to stay in power for the next 15 years.

As for Mr. Duterte, he is experiencing his highest approval ratings yet. The latest surveys show that 8 out of 10 Filipinos approve of his presidency so far. What accounts for his enduring popularity?

As discussed in the previous column, this is largely a function of the new zeitgeist in the Philippines, with authoritative surveys showing that only 15 percent of Filipinos show a categorical commitment to democracy. In other words, Filipinos seek a decisive, single-minded leader who can overcome, even coercively, gridlock as well as institutional checks and balances.

But Mr. Duterte is also popular because he does what he says, including his campaign promise to unleash a bloody drug war; his call for warmer ties with Asian powers such as China; and, later into his term, shutting down Boracay for some time for environmental reasons.

While many may disagree with his methods or the results of such policies, a greater number appreciate the fact that he, at the very least, appears to be doing something. This is what the late philosopher Umberto Eco termed as “cult of action.” Mr. Duterte wins because he is a “doer,” even if wrong and misguided in implementation.

Above all, Mr. Duterte is popular because of what I call the “asymmetry of responsibility.” As the President, he gets credit for every positive thing that his administration, filled as much with competent and patriotic officials as with inept and corrupt ones, achieves. But when things go wrong, he and his supporters are quick to pass the buck and avoid responsibility altogether.

rheydarian@inquirer.com.ph

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TAGS: Horizons, Richard Heydarian, Rodrigo Duterte
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