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The Philippines Election: Maintaining Momentum

The Filipino people went to the polls on 9 May and have given Mayor Rodrigo Duterte a clear mandate to be the 16th President of the Philippines. Will he be able maintain his momentum and deliver the promise of a sustainable democracy?

With over 95 per cent of votes counted from the highest voter turnout in decades, the feisty local politician from Mindanao in the South of the Philippines defeated the administration candidate Mar Roxas by a wide margin. The election result is perceived to be unusual by Western press, which only painted a picture of a rough and vulgar candidate capitalising on the anger and frustration of Filipinos. However, it came as no surprise to the domestic audience in the Philippines that Duterte would emerge victorious after the exit polls demonstrated a clear preference for him, despite last-minute vicious campaigning against him.

The 2016 Philippine elections have taught the Philippines – and the greater democracy-loving countries in the world – some lessons to ponder. First, democracy is better appreciated when its promise of equality is realised in practice. In this election, the discourse had focused on inequality between rich and poor, between urban and rural areas and between Manila and everywhere else. The presidential outcome is partly a rejection of the Manila-centric and oligarchic hegemony that has dominated Philippine politics since independence. Never before in the history of Philippine politics has such a broad range of citizens engaged in debates about the persistence of clientilist politics and oligarchic rule.

On one hand, it was also a protest against the incumbent government that, despite delivering unprecedented economic growth in the past five years, has nevertheless inadequately addressed ordinary people’s concerns of law and order, corruption and low quality of basic public services. Manila, the capital city and where Duterte’s largest support lies, became the unintended showcase of government inefficiency in addressing worsening concerns over public transport, airport, slow construction of needed public infrastructure and high incidence of crimes. Social media, particularly Facebook, became a platform for this protest – and broad participation in the electoral discourse – by unorganised Duterte supporters who parodied mainstream media as mouthpieces of the establishment.

Second, democracy needs to be securely anchored by the rule of law. The Filipinos, however, articulated an aspect of rule of law that Western democracies ignore or take for granted. Law enforcement is as badly needed as law’s function to restrain government powers. That law is enforced fairly to all and in all aspects of governance has resonated deeply among the electorates. Inequality is not only the function of economic inequality; it is aided and sustained by an unfair and ineffective legal system. The inability to deliver responsive public services is attributed to the failure to apply the law not only in the poor and corrupt judicial processes but also in the bureaucracies. While reforms have been progressively introduced to strengthen the capacity of government agencies and institutions – many of which can be seen in faster delivery of government documents like passports – there is a wide clamour for the government to do more, with a particular focus on professionalisation of government personnel.

The demand for greater accountability of public officials has been an election frontier. The past administration of Benigno Aquino Jr waged battle against prominent public officials. There has been dissatisfaction with this measure as many people viewed this either as being selective in order to trounce its rivals or doing little to make the accountability mechanisms work. Many perceive that there is weak leadership in accountability and thus the need for decisive leadership to be shown. This perception was emphasised even more as the current administration was seen as lacking empathy and avoiding responsibility when confronted with tragic calamities and crises such as those involving typhoon Haiyan and massacres in Mamasapano and Kidapawan.

Duterte has thus appealed to a broad spectrum of Philippine society despite allegations of condoning the use of extrajudicial killings in Davao, which is discordant with the rule of law. He is also not a “myth” as he had shown leadership in transforming Davao from a crime-ridden city to one that is seen as peaceful, orderly and progressive by his constituents. Beyond the fiery persona in the campaign, Duterte’s message has been clear: he is the one that can implement laws fairly for everyone. If his early pronouncements post-elections are any indication – from imposing liquor and smoking bans, signing an executive order to initiate freedom of information in the executive, to starting talks with the communist insurgents and making his first state visit to Indonesia – then this is the man that has a well-grounded and pragmatic understanding of many issues facing the Philippines domestically and in the region.

Contrary to views that his appeal has exploited the anger or frustration of an unthinking sector of society, his was one that resonates with many elites, the middle class and educated which pushed him to electoral victory. This was the group that urged him to run and spread his message to a broader audience and convinced the masses to vote for him. This is the sector that benefitted from the economic growth but which demands better public services, a bigger share of the pie, a greater voice in the political process and a level playing field for all. This is the same class that has driven episodes of past people power revolution, the engine of democracy in the Philippines.

The new president-elect therefore faces a colossal task of sustaining the momentum of economic growth but also in ensuring that democracy and the rule of law deliver their promise of equitable distribution of wealth, fairness of the justice system and responsive and accountable bureaucracies. However, the task remains for Filipinos to ensure that democratic processes remain open and that the law balances the exercise of government power.

Dr Imelda Deinla is a postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Regulation and Global Governance at the Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific. This is an updated version of her piece that appeared on East Asia Forum on 4 May. This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. It may be republished with attribution.

Published May 12, 2016