Will May’s midterm elections signal the beginning of the end for Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte?

Photo: Facebook screengrab/ Rody Duterte

Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, who was elected by an overwhelming number of votes in 2016, may have already become a “spent force,” according to one academic writing for East Asia Forum. While surveys still attest to his popularity, Duterte’s resuscitation of former political clans may actually be instrumental to the end of his rule.

Duterte himself said publicly last year that he was considering resigning, should it become a certainty that his replacement would be the son and namesake of former dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, who in 2016 challenged the victory of Vice President Leni Robredo, claiming electoral fraud. Robredo, who was elected separately from Duterte, is a vital figure in the opposition against him.

In East Asia Forum, David Camroux notes that Duterte has not developed a mass-based organization that could keep him in power since the two movements he started have not caught fire. One of these movements, Masa Masid, even had its funding curtailed by the President’s own allies.

One paramilitary group, the National Citizen Militia, boasted being 25,000 strong two years ago. However, as the group is mainly composed of the ex-military, its loyalty may be more grounded in the Armed Forces instead of in Duterte, since the President’s vocal stance against the United States does not go over well with high ranking officers of the Armed Forces.

Duterte has also succeeded in alienating the country’s leftist forces, after having ceased talks with the Communist Party’s armed wing, the New People’s Army.

Perhaps the biggest source of the loss of support of the once extremely popular president has been due to the thousands of extra-judicial killings, casualties of the war on drugs that Duterte promised in his campaign, and began waging from the very beginning. While some experts tally the death toll at 20,000, the police have claimed that at least 5,000 have died in the bloody campaign, with the majority coming from the poorest of the poor in the country’s capital, Manila.

And, while Duterte has won the support of and helped refurbish the tarnished images of the disgraced political families Gloria Arroyo, Joseph Estrada, and Ferdinand Marcos, Camroux writes that the support he has gained from them is “transactional, rather than demonstrating ideological commitment or even personal loyalty.”

Hence, this year’s midterm polls in May may possibly signal the end of Duterte’s rule. With 152 candidates vying for 12 senatorial seats, loyalty to the President matters little, since there is no primary system leading up to the elections. Camroux observes, “In short, the solidity and local rootedness of Filipino political dynasties are formidable obstacles to Duterte’s continued survival.”

Duterte may also have a hard time extending his rule due to changes to the country’s constitution that he himself backed. He has pushed for creating a federal system after 2022, and last month, Speaker of the House, former President, and Duterte ally, Gloria Arroyo, led the House of Representatives in voting in the elimination of term limits, as well as banned the President from seeking re-election under an amended constitution.

Another factor in Duterte’s loss of support is his ‘bi-aligned’ foreign policy, with its favor towards Beijing. The opposition has been able to use this against him, while uniting under pro-Filipino, anti-Chinese sentiments, under Vice President Robredo. Duterte’s anti-US stance has also been unpopular with many, given that the United States was instrumental in helping recapture Marawi in 2017, as well as the long historical ties between the US and the Philippines.

However, one scion of the Duterte clan may prove to have sticking power. Sara Duterte Carpio, incumbent Mayor of Davao city, enjoys a strong approval rating that all but secures her political future. She has teamed up with Marcos daughter Imee and is in the process of building support across regional groups, in part to ensure that her father will not be prosecuted after stepping down from office in 2022.

Herein lies the biggest irony. Duterte ran his campaign vowing to fight against the elite dynasties primarily in the country’s power-heavy capital, but while in the process of his rule, has only helped strengthen the very same dynastic politics, even reinstating disgraced political families. Many supported Duterte on the premise that the People Power Revolution of 1986 had failed lower middle class and poor Filipinos, only to see those in power during that time remain in, or regain, power.

As Camroux writes, “In the most inegalitarian society in Asia, there is a need for democracy to be accompanied by a degree of economic equality by strengthening the role of an impartial, just and redistributive state. Otherwise, another strongman savior may well re-emerge in the future.”

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