The Philippines today is a divided country.
President Rodrigo Duterte has divided the country with his style of governance, throwing his weight around like a feudal lord. He has turned off a lot of Filipinos. But, ironically, he still enjoys a high rate of public approval.
Every speech Duterte makes is without exception laden with profanity, curses against people he doesn’t like, and full of threats against his peeves of the day.
In so doing, he has polarized the people and made enemies of former allies and friends. It wouldn’t be surprising if some quarters are planning something drastic against him. He himself has speculated that people who don’t like him may be plotting against him.
But does Duterte have no redeeming qualities as a leader? Any non-partisan observer would say that there are things Duterte does or pledges to do that are commendable.
He has made moves to lift the burden of the oppressive bureaucracy on ordinary citizens who have to deal with the government machinery. He has railed against red tape that strangles common citizens whose needs are as simple as getting a signature on a trivial document or straightforward license or permit.
He has vowed to raise the salaries of civil servants like teachers, soldiers, policemen and bureaucrats. He has promised to end “endo,” Filipino shorthand for “end of contract,” that bedevils daily-wage earners who are dismissed or required to reapply for their work after five or six months.
Duterte has shown empathy and fellowship toward the lowly and victims of life’s everyday trails. He has promised not to steal from the nation’s treasury.
He has cursed the oligarchs and their enablers, the real bane of society, although his animosity toward the rich has been limited to curses so far. The oligarchy is unmoved, for to them sticks and stones may break their bones but words will never break them.
Duterte’s fans like him because he is down to earth, feels for the common people, and even looks like them. The 16 million people who voted for him last May 2016 fell for his style and they are Duterte’s source of strength and, unfortunately, hubris. He’s become overconfident because of the rousing welcome he gets when he visits assemblies of common people. He’s not bothered that organizations like the ritzy Makati Business Club are lukewarm toward him or that business chambers flatter him to remain on his good side.
But these are acts that any leader with enough resources can do, just like the dictator Ferdinand Marcos did with roads. And many of Duterte’s promises remain promises so far.
The downside for him is that Mr. Duterte has shown an uncanny ability to turn off people. He curses like he never got any tutoring on manners from his elders. He threatens people and organizations seemingly just because he’s in a position to do so. He betrays his insecurity by being brusque and threatening.
Mr. Duterte himself has said he likes to pick a fight. He has related how, when he was mayor of Davao City, he would cruise the city streets to look for ne’er-do-wells whom he could accost and inflict injury upon simply because he felt like it. He has also boasted about having killed people.
From the beginning of his coming out on the national scene he badly offended people’s sensibility when he cursed criminals for raping an Australian missionary without waiting for him to be first in line to inflict the abuse. What kind of human being is capable of such a statement?
And then his campaign to rid society of drug addicts through summary killings. No pretense of coating his words lately to evade outrage and possible prosecution before international bodies will mask the fact that he has encouraged the police to go after drug suspects and inflict extreme prejudice on them. Indeed, a complaint has been filed against him at the International Criminal Court.
That complaint may or may not proceed, but it has already given Duterte critics a lift. If a trial at the ICC does proceed, that obviously would give Duterte a big headache and a bad reputation.
Is destiny catching up with Mr. Duterte?