How Does Someone Like Philippines’ Duterte Get Elected?

Between seeming to compare himself to Adolph Hitler, telling Obama to “go to hell” and his lethal war on drugs Philippines’ newly elected president surely is a ‘colorful’ politician. But that raises a question, how did Rodrigo Duterte get elected to head a nation of 100 million in the first place?

1. First past the post election system

The first thing you have to know is that in Philippines presidential elections there is no run-off round. Whoever captures the most votes in the first round becomes president. Thus the populist Duterte was able to capture the presidency with a 39% plurality of the vote, but it would have been far harder for him to win 50% in a run-off round where establishment factions combined against him.

It wouldn’t have necessarily taken a very broad coalition either. The second and third-placed candidates alone won 9 million votes each — together that’s more than Duterte’s 16 million.

2. Firebrand

As everywhere else the voters in the Philippines are fatigued and cynical. They want change for the better but after election after election fails to bring any improvement they cease to believe government can ever be reformed.

Until someone like Duterte walks in. The vigilante killer of drug users isn’t everyone’s idea of a reformer but to others willingness to use drastic and draconian measures signals hope.

The reasoning is if a guy who dispatches death squads against drug dealers won’t rid the government of chronic corruption then who will? And besides the voters have already tried everything else. What’s the harm in voting in a nutter like that and seeing if this time it’s gonna be different?

The lethal war on drug users Duterte promised and is pursuing was important to his success but it’s really the expectation he will be similarly radical in tackling other chronic problems — as he promised — that got him across the finish line.

3. Outsider

Also important is that when Duterte — just like every other candidate — promises to end corruption that sounds more believable because he is a relative outsider. Aside from being famously corrupt the politics in Philippines are famously incestuous.

The guy who Duterte replaced as president (Benigno Aquino III) is the son of a former president (Corazon Aquino), and the guy who came in second in the election (Mar Roxas) is the grandson of a former president (Manuel Roxas).

Duterte’s father had been a provincial governor and he had been the mayor of the Philippines’ third city for 20 years — but paired against the Roxas-Aquino bunch he could pass for a “man of the people” with ease.

Moreover Duterte has no connection to any of the establishment parties. He comes from a leftist party (PDP–Laban) which is very weak on the national scene and therefore not implicated in any of the national scandals.

This also meant he had no powerful party machine working for him but he successfully overcame that by A.) grabbing the headlines by being outrageous and B.) animating grassroots campaigners from among those who had never been involved in politics before.

Duterte’s success really was a personal one — in the simultaneous Congressional election his party won just 2% of the popular vote and captured just 3 seats of the 238 total. In fact even his vice-presidential pick (Cayetano) only finished third with 14% of the vote.

3. The ethnic dimension

The official “national language” of the Philippines is Tagalog spoken on the northern island of Luzon where the capital Manila is located. This is true even though the 33 million Visayans — speakers of the various Visaya dialects — who dominate the central and southern islands actually outnumber the 28 million Tagalogs.

Traditionally the intellectual, economic and political elite of the country has been drawn from the Tagalogs, as have been virtually all of its presidents.

As it happens Duterte is a Visayan and has been in part elected because of this fact. A glance at the electoral map reveals Duterte came in first in the central and southern islands where Visayans are the majority, and in Manila and its surroundings which are home to many Visayan migrants — and almost nowhere else.

It isn’t the case that there is a great deal of rivalry between Philippines’ linguistic groups — in fact the opposite is the truth (with divisions actually revolving around sect). At the same time it is clear that the idea of a Visayan president appealed to its speakers, as did Duterte’s electoral promise of instituting federalism and decreasing competencies of Manila.

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