The Philippines has just elected the tough-talking mayor of Davao, Rodrigo Duterte, to be its next president. Labeled the “Trump of the East” by many, Duterte said just days before the vote that once in office he would execute 100,000 criminals and dump their bodies into Manila Bay.
Such comments are the typical rhetoric of this politician, who goes by many other nicknames, including “The Punisher” and “Duterte Harry,” a play on the ruthless police inspector played by Clint Eastwood. He claims to be a “socialist” while threatening to kill trade unionists and courting big investors at the expense of the poor in his home city.
Duterte, aged 71, captured nearly 39 percent of the vote in a six-candidate race, carrying the Philippine Democratic Party-People’s Power (PDP) to victory over both Manuel Roxas from the centrist Liberal Party of outgoing president Benigno Aquino III and independent candidate Grace Poe.
A local strongman goes national
Like Trump, the U.S. Republican Party nominee to whom he has been compared, Duterte adopts such a variety of positions on public policy issues that it is difficult to categorize him using the traditional ideological or political labels of Filipino politics.
He rails against corruption and criminality, exhibits caution when it comes to free trade deals like the TPP, opens new public chemotherapy centers for cancer patients, and supports LGBT equality in this mostly Catholic nation.
In a country where more than a quarter of the population still lives below the poverty line and crime and crooked politicians are a part of everyday life, Duterte’s promise to go after gangsters and clean up society have found support among segments of a weary public. Inequality in the Philippines remains among the worst in Asia, with the 40 richest families accounting for 76 percent of GDP growth as of 2011. Many of the top family names are the same ones that have dominated the economy since the days of Spanish colonialism.
This is part of the reason why so many Filipinos are poor and why many of those who are able to choose to emigrate. The country is being strangled and held hostage by the elite; Duterte’s lack of connections to them probably explains at least a part of his mass appeal. His reliance on folksy humor and “plain talk” have endeared him to many people who have grown tired of the political and economic establishment.
Proposing to beef up the security apparatus, he says he will not allow bureaucracy, rule of law, or due process to get in the way of making the Philippines a safer and more orderly place.
“Forget the laws on human rights,” he proclaimed recently, “If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug-pushers, hold-up men, and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’d kill you.” With Amnesty International estimating that up to 700 extrajudicial killings have taken place during his time as Davao mayor, many people take his promises seriously. (For what it’s worth, it should be noted that Duterte corrected Amnesty International, saying the number of extrajudicial executions is closer to 1,700, not 700; he didn’t want to lose credit for his accomplishment.)
Pledges to do away with Congress if it blocks his plans have prompted many to draw parallels with Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator who ruled the Philippines from 1965-86 after also coming to power in a democratic election. “Duterte’s also got blood on his hands,” Dan Pineda, a Filipino-born Canadian living in Toronto told People’s World. “I worry that if he has to be removed, he won’t go without bloodshed. His administration could be responsible for lots of people dying and disappearing.”
On the gender equality front, Duterte brandishes his record of instituting a protective code for women and sex workers in Davao as well as his ban on swimsuit competitions. Yet simultaneously, he angered Filipino women’s rights groups over his comments about the 1989 gang rape of an Australian woman during a prison hostage situation. Duterte said that he was angry the woman was raped, but that she was so beautiful that, as mayor, he should have had the chance to be first in line.
Populism conceals anti-labor agenda
Also like Trump, Duterte rose to prominence largely on his own, without assistance or support from much of the political establishment. He also took over a party, the PDP, in which he had not previously been considered a leading figure.
On top of his brash showmanship, this lack of a clear political orientation has been very effective at creating an image of Duterte as someone who will upset the status quo. Duterte, for instance, courts the trade unions with promises to do away with “contractualization,” or hiring workers for only six-month contracts so as to avoid the job security and benefits requirements of the labor code.
Furthermore, he attempts to prove his credentials as a leftist by hinting at a final peace agreement and future cooperation with Maoist rebels. His strategy paid off; he has received the backing of the Marcos-linked Trade Union Congress of the Philippines and the blessing of the Maoists.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Duterte was in the late 1960s a philosophy student under the Maoists’ leader, Jose Maria Sison, who has lived in exile in the Netherlands since 1987. Sison believes that there will be space for negotiation between his “New People’s Army” and a Duterte Administration.
The non-establishment and non-sectarian segments of the Filipino workers’ movement are warning, however, that despite his supposed reservations on issues like the TPP, Duterte’s program for the economy is actually quite clear. For although the international media sensationalizes Duterte’s promise to throw 100,000 criminals into Manila Bay, little attention has been paid to his pledge to do the same to activist trade unions.
He has ordered struggling unions in the special export zones to take a 10-year break from activism or else he will kill all their members. Julius Cainglet, vice president of the Federation of Free Workers, told the press, “All unions and workers should be outraged by Duterte’s threat to kill unionists.” Filipinos may have been amused “when he declared war on drug lords and vowed to kill them,” Cainglet said, “but to threaten to kill workers…is just a direct attack on workers’ and human rights.”
At an Asia CEO Forum last summer, Duterte pledged to business executives that he would guarantee a stable investment atmosphere, keep the elected legislature from interfering with economic priorities, and declared that “good governance is good business.”
With Duterte in the presidential palace in Manila, Narendra Modi in power in India, and the threat of a Trump victory in the U.S., there now arises the possibility of a new axis of right-wing authoritarianism spanning the Pacific and beyond.
Such a development would represent a significant expansion of the right-wing populist phenomenon that has been spreading globally over the last few years. In country after country, the authoritarian right has seen its social base expand, its organizational strength increase, and its ideas spread into the mainstream. Though they rely on the economic insecurities of globalization’s losers and show off their supposed blue collar credentials, in almost every case, the right-wing populists have pursued a reactionary anti-labor agenda once in office.
Earlier this week, representatives from trade unions in the U.S. and Europe met in Washington to begin discussions on strategizing against the right populist danger. While this is a positive first step, democratic forces must step up the pace if they are going to keep up. In addition to Europe and the Americas, it is now clear that the Asia-Pacific region must be part of the discussion.
With implementation and oversight of the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the line, as well as the continuing push for a U.S.-India Free Trade Agreement, the danger of right-wing populism at home and abroad should be even clearer.
Photo: Presidential candidate Mayor Rodrigo Duterte holds a Philippines flag as his campaign motorcade makes its way through the streets of Malabon, Philippines. | AP