Does the Philippines really want Asia’s Donald Trump as its next president?

Edsel Tupaz and Daniel Wagner say Rodrigo Duterte, the front runner in the presidential polls, has neither the ability nor the temperament to build on the gains made over the past six years

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 May, 2016, 2:36pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2016, 3:08pm

Six years ago, the Philippines faced a critical choice in its presidential election, and its voters ended up making the right choice. The election of President Benigno Aquino in 2010 was the smartest thing the Filipino people could have done – for their country and themselves. The country was falling further and further behind other Asian countries in terms of its growth rate, basic economic indicators and perceived desirability as a place to do business. As a result of Aquino’s policies, and many of the changes he has made to the way the Philippines functions, today, it is a better place on many levels – as a place to do business and as a place to live. This month, voters face a similar choice – whether to maintain momentum and continue the path Aquino has set for the country, or change course.

Can the next Philippine president keep the economy growing?

The current front runner for the presidency is Rodrigo Duterte, a tough-talking, foul-mouthed mayor whom many analysts portray as Asia’s version of Donald Trump. Duterte is praised by some as a person with a record of getting things done. The Davao City mayor is known for his approval of (and admitted involvement in) extrajudicial killings as a means of enforcing the law in the city. No doubt, a significant reason why Duterte has such appeal with voters is that the Philippine National Police reported a 46 per cent increase in crime nationwide in the first half of 2015. Crime is indeed a problem, but do Filipinos really want a future in which vigilante justice rules and armed militias are roaming their streets with the approval of the government?

Duterte’s ‘kill the criminals’ campaign cry attracting support for his presidential bid

Philippine presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte insists he is happy to ‘sever ties’ with allies US and Australia

Recent surveys show Senator Grace Poe neck and neck with Duterte, following his publicly joking about a 1989 rape and murder of an Australian missionary, whom Duterte described as “so beautiful” that “the mayor should have been first, what a waste”. After trading barbs with the US and Australian ambassadors to the Philippines following their condemnations of his remarks, Duterte said he would “cut ties” with their countries once he becomes president. Do the Filipino people want to elect a man to the highest office in the land who jokes about rape and threatens to cuts ties with two of its most important allies as a result of their ambassadors objecting to his outrageous statements?

Since the last of the televised debates among presidential candidates, Duterte has offered no coherent foreign policy, no policy for the domestic economy and job generation, and no form of behaviour even closely resembling statesmanship. Indeed, he has a lot in common with Trump, who is also riding a wave of discontent in the US to lead in the Republican polls. Other than a singular conviction to end crime in the Philippines in “three to six months” by “killing all criminals”, Duterte is the least distinguished candidate in terms of original policymaking, and appears to be perfectly content “copying” the platforms of his competitors.

Like Trump, Duterte has succeeded in turning a sense of voter dissatisfaction into a platform for sustained demagoguery. And, like Trump, Duterte has given no meaningful explanation for how he intends to accomplish his stated objectives, while being perfectly happy to prey upon voters’ worst fears. Never before have Filipinos been faced with so many electoral options and viable national-level candidates, yet, contrary to what logic and common sense would appear to dictate, voter preferences cutting across all classes are indicating an unshakeable nostalgia for “quick fix” solutions under a strong man – despite the dangers they must know that implies, following their ouster of Ferdinand Marcos 30 years ago.

Grace Poe’s powerful personal narrative and support among the poor have put her in box seat to become next Philippine president

The Philippines and its people clearly deserve better. Rather than ascribe to abrupt change, the Philippines and its leaders need a balanced mix of continuity and reform. Poe’s platforms are anchored on inclusive growth and compassionate governance, and focus on the development objectives of health and education. Instead of relying on “bullets” and “murderous violence”, Poe proposes to end criminality by ending poverty. She has incorporated many of Aquino’s programmes, such as the conditional cash transfer programme as a vehicle for poverty alleviation, but has proposed to take this a step further by adopting measures aimed at enhancing policies and programmes in place. Given the progress that has been made under Aquino, a “radical” departure is not what is needed.

Between Poe and Duterte, Poe is clearly the better statesperson

Aside from wanting to transpose the gains in the economy into tangible gains in poverty alleviation and inequality (which remains a necessity), Aquino’s successor must be able to translate economic leadership into a more meaningful role in regional politics. Poe believes that the Philippines must be able to balance economic diplomacy with territorial and maritime concerns.

Between Poe and Duterte, Poe is clearly the better statesperson. She is keen to revise the country’s national security policy and formulate a more detailed national security strategy within her first 100 days of office, in addition to establishing credible defence and armed forces modernisation through a combination of pragmatic diplomacy, constructive engagement and managing relations with its allies under existing mutual defence pacts. By contrast, Duterte has displayed an appalling lack of knowledge or interest in international affairs.

This election should not be about demagoguery, manipulating voters’ worst fears, and spewing incendiary rhetoric. Nor should it be about perpetuating lowest common denominators and the fanciful notion that there are quick fixes to big problems. This election is about maintaining momentum, implementing policies with common sense, and having a long-term orientation. The choice for Philippine voters is clear. Let’s hope they make the right one.

Edsel Tupaz is a public interest attorney and legal academic, based in Manila. Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and co-author of the book Global Risk Agility and Decision Making