The Philippines and the Politics of Failure

May 16, 2016

COMMENT: Let us respect the choice of the Filipino people, although we may not agree their choice. Donald Trump too  can be chosen as the next US President over Hillary Clinton. I prefer the former Secretary of State, but Mr. Trump who is blunt and business like could be the first Republican President after 8 years of Obama’s liberal politics. So let the American voters decide on the man or the woman they want.

It is just a reflection of the times. Everywhere we look today be they be in France, Poland, Austria, Sweden and even Germany, right wing politicians are increasingly popular because voters expect leaders to be tough on law and order, ISIS terrorism,  and national security. Governments with liberal agendas have failed and that is why The Bern is giving Hillary a rough time in the primaries.

Both articles are negative about the Filipino President-elect.  Both tend to judge what Mr. Duterte on the basis of his past as Mayor of Davao City when both Asia Sentinel and Bunn Nagara know that running a country is not the same as being a city mayor.

The role of the President of the Philippines is demanding since it means defending the national interest and pursuing a foreign policy that emphasizes the Philippines’s role in  ASEAN, and managing its relationship with the United States in connection with the  South China Sea dispute, and  his country’s handling of the Sabah claim visa-a-vice Malaysia. Mr. Duterte should also worry about the need to fight rampant corruption, terrorism and piracy, and manage the economy which has benefited from the policies of President Benigno Aquino III .

Bunn Negara (above), Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, he conveniently comments–even in his personal capacity– on the politics of the Philippines.  It is easy to write about it but he is unable to proffer his views critically on what is happening in Malaysia where the Najib administration, his UMNO kleptocrats and public officials have been mismanaging the economy  since 2009. Bun Nagara should be asking Najib what kind of country he is running.

Prime Minister  Najib Razak achieved the rare distinction in ASEAN and around the world for politics of race and religion, rampant corruption–The Economist recently ranked Malaysia as the second most corrupt nation in the world–and abuses of power including being caught red handed transferring public money into his personal bank account (some RM2.6 billion)  and  messing up the financial affairs of 1MDB, the national sovereign fund, which has defaulted on some of its Malaysian Government guaranteed bonds.

Like all analysts associated with the Najib Administration, he is afraid to speak the truth about Prime Minister Najib’s corruption and abuses of power. Yet he has the audacity to comment on the new Philippine administration whose President has yet to be inaugurated.–Din Merican   

The Philippines and the Politics of Failure – Asia Sentinel | Asia Sentinel


President Rodrigo Duterte. If this is the next leader of the Philippines, as early results from Monday’s election portend, one has to wonder how it came to this. The country seems condemned to dwell on the past in the form of both leaders and issues while its political elite – in this case the blah figure of Mar Roxas – clings to an egotistical belief in itself to the detriment of common sense.

If, as is possible with the race too close to call, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., son of the former dictator,  triumphs for Vice President over reform-minded Leni Robredo, the country would have confounded reason.

 Vice President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Duterte, an ailing and bizarrely misogynistic advocate of vigilante justice, built his reputation in the years after Davao City emerged from a dirty war between communist rebels and the government that turned the metropolis into a frightening ghost town after dark. Duterte became the avenging mayor a generation ago, apparently allowing the killing of rebels and criminals in staggering numbers. He now promises to do the same for the entire country, only targeting crooks rather than communists.

This may tap into a well spring of public anger not unlike the voters following Donald Trump in the US, but the reality is that murder with impunity has long been a hallmark of the Philippines system, with Police often backing the assassins on behalf of powerful politicians. One shudders to think what sort of hit list Duterte may have in mind.

And in an even stranger instance of impunity and mass amnesia, Bongbong Marcos is contending for the Vice Presidency (the two posts are elected separately in the Philippines, a strange constitutional anomaly that adds to an already dysfunctional political system) almost exactly 30 years after his thieving father and mother were ousted from power. Bongbong, a man whose chief accomplishment is his last name, has the once-reviled Marcoses back in the center ring, continuing a Marcos versus Aquino family battle that dates back to the 1950s.

All this is happening after six successful years of President Benigno Aquino III, whose father was murdered while President Marcos was in power and whose mother pushed the erstwhile dictator and his flashy wife out the door. Investors like what has been happening under Aquino, growth rates are robust and the country has seemed, yet again, poised to fulfill a portion of its potential.

Bad boys all

But it is the same old Philippines apparently, where politics is a blood sport among families and demagogues like Duterte can inflame the anger of the perennially disenfranchised majority.

There seem to be three main reasons for the sad news from the polls. First, the unelectable Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, darling of the Aquino camp and a dull elitist in the eyes of the public, refused to give up his guaranteed-to-fail quest for the presidency, thus splitting the “sane” vote with Grace Poe, who may be a largely unknown quantity but at least appears reasonable and fairly clean. “Everything good they did, they have ruined with their egos,” said a Filipino friend in summing up the failed political instincts of Aquino and Mar.

Second, Aquino’s Liberal Party, seemingly convinced that only it can lead the country, also massively underestimated Duterte by focusing instead on bringing down current Vice President Jejomar Binay, who became an also ran in Monday’s voting. But even the scandal-riddled Binay is at least an adult, a brilliant tactical politician who would likely have made a competent, if ethically challenged President.

The past revisited

But the factor that seems to stand out the most is the alienation of voters from power in the Philippines. These citizens, still largely ruled by a clutch of feudal families with Spanish surnames like Roxas, may vote for the name “Aquino,” as they did six years ago, because it is familiar and Corazon Aquino was widely seen as a woman of almost divine virtue. But they may also swing to the promise of vengeance for unspecified grievances as they appear to have done in the case of Duterte and as they did the last time this kind of thing happened, in 1998, when movie star and populist drunk Joseph Estrada succeeded the country’s last competent President, Fidel Ramos.

That this time around the rise of the thuggish Duterte is accompanied by the almost surreal return of the Marcos family to near the pinnacle of power, is as dismal a result as one could conjure up for the Philippines. One might think back thirty years and imagine this could have been different had the justice system functioned with enough courage and professionalism to convict the elder Marcos of one of his many apparent crimes. But Cory Aquino had no desire to see Marcos punished other than by exile and in the Philippines crime usually goes largely unpunished, especially when it is committed on a grand enough scale by a powerful family.

And now what? In the case of Estrada, the elites of Makati were so deeply embarrassed by his shenanigans with women and the bottle that they helped engineer a church-backed coup to put him in his place in 2001. That led to nine years of instability and decline under Gloria Arroyo’s scandalous presidency. With Bongbong potentially waiting in the wings under a President Duterte, just getting the military to help back yet another “People Power” may not be so simple.

Given that the Philippine ruling class – and it is a ruling class, make no mistake – sees elections as nothing more than an inconvenient distraction, we can now brace ourselves for conspiracy theories and dire scenarios. If activist and lawyer Robredo, whose late husband was a rising star in the Aquino cabinet when he died in a 2012 plane crash, hangs on to her slim lead for the No. 2 spot, it will be seen as a victory of sorts for reason and the drums will start beating for her to replace Duterte.

 It did not have to be this way and if blame has to be apportioned, it lies pretty squarely with Aquino and his bestie Mar. Now the world will again look on in disbelief at all this, wondering what the heck is wrong with the Philippines. We also wish we knew the answer to that question.

Bunn Nagara: Let Real Test Begin for The Philippines

FROM almost nowhere, a dark horse candidate sweeps past his fancied political rivals to surge towards the coveted national leadership.

Loud, brash, crude, insensitive but irrepressibly popular, his unorthodox manner and disturbing pledges threaten as much as excite. Clearly, he has touched enough raw nerves to ensure constant media focus on him and his campaign.

Defying simple and standard labelling, allegations of financial impropriety, including tax evasion, fail to faze the defiant and abrasive candidate who continues to accumulate grassroots, anti-establishment support.

The apparent success of his campaign is a test of both his political acumen and the democratic system that had enabled it.

Thailand had that moment with Thaksin Shinawatra, and the US is undergoing it with Donald Trump. One week ago the Philippines embarked on that path by electing Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte as President.

Exactly what kind of government will such a personality make? Is his bite really as bad as his bark, and is that as bad as others have said it to be?

The answers are still imprecise as the political character of the new President himself continues to evolve, not least in relation to the realities of the day.

There has been no shortage of warnings and alarm over Duterte’s pronouncements, or casual comments, on due legal process and democratic accountability. Along with many others, outgoing President Benigno Aquino III has sounded those warnings. But since Duterte’s detractors include his political opponents, the warnings lack the credibility they need.

How has a once-unfancied candidate turned voters around so much while defying virtually all conventions? Such “mysteries” will remain unresolved and unresolvable as long as the political establishment itself refuses to take stock of the underlying realities.

Duterte’s popular appeal to get tough on crime and criminals resonated with the people. If previous Presidents had been as convincing in the task, or his rivals as persuasive in promising to do it better, his candidacy might have been in the balance.

Another important aspect of Duterte’s popularity is his direct and unabashed style. His loudness and unpolished manner only helped to authenticate the apparent honesty of his content and delivery.

In contrast, the middle-class special interests that his rivals had become identified with were a disabling liability. So when Duterte championed the poor, in a society where the poor still needed championing, he came away with greater credibility than the other aspirants.

Yet another edge that he held over his rivals as a candidate was that he was an outsider. As with Trump and Thaksin, that made his attacks on a gridlocked establishment weighed down by sleaze more plausible.

In time he may develop his own brand of sleaze, especially after he concentrates power at the expense of independent critiques and accounting, but voters have decided to leave that for another day.

On polling day itself, Duterte could still have been stopped if his two closest rivals, Mar Roxas and Grace Poe, had joined forces. Aquino had said as much in a last-ditch effort to derail Duterte’s campaign.

Opinion polls had placed Duterte some 10 percentage points ahead of Roxas, and slightly more in front of Poe. With their popularity combined in a joint campaign, they could have defeated Duterte by up to 10 percentage points instead.

Philippine election campaigns are typically rich in the personal character of the candidates, with little difference in ideologies. They also bear a trademark personal scramble for votes at the expense of virtually everything else.

Among the allegations against Duterte during the campaign was his alleged link to “Joma” (Jose Maria) Sison, the former university professor and head of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

That could have worked to cut the appeal of his pro-poor message, or so his rivals seemed to have hoped. But again, the allegation failed to work.

So an almost “teflon” Duterte continued to campaign effectively and won. Once more, his defeated rivals need to reflect on how they had also been culpable in neglecting the plight of the poor.

Now that Duterte’s victory has become a fait accompli for the rest of the country, critics and opponents alike are resigned to pondering his, and also their, next moves.

There is a universal assumption that however radical a candidate may be, as incumbent he tends to mellow. Already Duterte and his team have encouraged this thought.

Soon upon becoming the “Presumptive President,” Duterte indicated that he would model his Cabinet after the politically correct line-up of arch-liberal and conservative target Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada.

Trudeau’s Cabinet is described as gender-sensitive and ethnically diverse, the supposed antithesis of Duterte’s rough and chauvinistic image. The mellowing of Duterte had begun.

And what of the hardened criminals for whom Duterte was supposed to be the worst nightmare? The President-elect would now consider building maximum security prisons for them as in the US.

It is a far cry from the random mass murder of suspects and convicts he is said to have promised, or threatened. More mellowing can be expected on other fronts, along with protrayals of Duterte as a flip-flopper.

The market seems to have picked up on signs of a maturing Duterte presidency to be. Confidence is returning to the incoming political leadership after a brief period of doubt, as the peso remains strong.

Besides, how could any business community be averse to promises of heavier doses of law and order? Businesses would be ecstatic if a leader could make good on pledges to make the proverbial “trains run on time.”

On his part, Duterte is smart enough to understand that the national economy is the make-or-break factor for any leadership. Brazil, among others, is a showcase of how economic fortunes can determine the fate of leaders regardless of anything else.

However, Duterte and all that he represents is still untested on foreign relations. He has so far issued conflicting signals on how he would deal with an assertive China on disputed territory in the South China Sea.

For the Philippines, the issue concerns more than China as it also involves the US and Manila’s security treaty with Washington. Adding weight to the matter is a Duterte presidency’s inheritance of the legal tussle that the country has brought on with China.

Dealing effectively and satisfactorily with the issue demands a degree of perspicacity, nuance and sensitivity that has seemed elusive to Rody. But stumbling over it can also spell disaster for the new government.

It cannot be an issue that Duterte’s government would want out of choice, as an additional burden to having to tackle various domestic challenges at the same time. Yet it is something that no government in Manila’s position can avoid addressing.

This, and how the Philippines will now position itself on the claim to Sabah territory among descendants of the erstwhile Sulu sultanate, will test Duterte’s statesmanship to the hilt. It can be assured that such matters will be watched closely by much of the rest of the world.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.


6 thoughts on “The Philippines and the Politics of Failure

  1. Duterte record shows his ideas for economics is not great ideas but he does not push crazy economic ideas. Rather he focusses on implementation of projects railroading things if he must.

    For Duterte, the challenge may be external. Between China and possible global slowdown, luck is not on his side external wise.

  2. His Excellency President Marcos stole the future of the people of the Philippines 40 years ago. Now his running for Vice. They would need a massive injection of capital, much more than the Marshal Plan to get bac on even keel. It is not an easy tasdk when your population is 100million and growing at a healthy rate. Neverthelss, Iwish the new president and his Vice from the pat all the best.

  3. ” amplifying the notion of a good cat, black or white “…Lets cut the long story short.

    Despite the many unpredictabities the writers and media like to speculate, mellowing and what not, or for some vested reasons/interests, the key to the president- elect Duetert’s success, is his honesty , “amplifying the notion of a good cat, black or white as long as he catches the mouse “.

    He is ” targeting crooks rather than the Communists”.. meaning not excluding crooked politicians.
    Also, the people in Philippines and around the world, including those in Malaysia, are fed-up with the rampant hypocrisy of the establishment politicians.

    The message is clear.
    Measure up or be kicked out.
    So, wake up Umno Baru leaders and some from the oppositions.

  4. A leader that is tough on crimes is any time better than the Bugis pirates which commits crime and seemingly get away with it.
    Don’t blame the Bugis just because we have someone like Najib Razak as Prime Minister in Malaysia. He is a mutant in the most negative sense of the world. Frankly, if the grand old man were alive today, Tun Razak would have disowned him. –Din Merican

  5. Man is basically a product of his envronment. If you can park your Bently behind a car legally parked in one of the bays in front of the Manila Restaurant and get away with you will do it over and over again. While the sea creatures can swim the sea of the Phi;ippines and not taste salty ( in defense of humans if you swim in the sea of Philippines corruption you will end up drinking salt water too)human will eventually drink salt water and take in more and more. I have done nothing wrong will eventually rule the Philippines.

  6. “Cory Aquino had no desire to see Marcos punished other than by exile and in the Philippines crime usually goes largely unpunished”, How about the 901 cases filled against the marcoses during her administration, i guess this is misleading,..

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