, March 01, 2024

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Duterte Dusts Off His Populist Rants. Will It Work This Time?


  •   4 min reads
Duterte Dusts Off His Populist Rants. Will It Work This Time?
Rappler | Bongbong Marcos Facebook page
By Joey Salgado

In political and military warfare, whoever occupies the high ground enjoys an advantage over his enemies. While former president Rodrigo Duterte may have fired the first shot in a bold declaration of war on President Marcos Jr., he does not enjoy the advantage of terrain. He does not own the high ground.

If this were 2015, Duterte’s profanity-laced attacks against the incumbent president would have earned him outsider credibility, a swaggering anti-elite from Davao who can bring real change. 

He promised just that and more. But the promises were not kept. After a six-year reign, Duterte’s rhetoric is tired and tiresome. The fighting mood borders on caricature, animating only his most rabid believers. The message and the messenger may no longer resonate with the public. 

Duterte’s opposition to the President does not emanate from a place of sincerity or deeply-held convictions, with fealty to China perhaps the only exception. It is fueled by conceit and self-preservation. Duterte feels ignored. He has been humiliated. His daughter is being pilloried by a disloyal House. His son the congressman’s pork has been cut. And he does not want to go to jail. 

He invokes once again the people’s welfare and frames the current situation through the lens of “us versus them” to gain public sympathy. Duterte’s frayed populist coat is again on display. 

During his term, communists, drug lords, and the political opposition were the enemies of the people who needed to be crushed. This time, the enemy is the Marcos administration and the President himself.  

Duterte threatens a restoration, with all the malevolence that a return to power implies. But the people do not want a return to the past. They have elected a president in 2022 who, despite his family’s tainted past, represents the opposite of Duterte in many ways. They want to look ahead, not backwards. 

Even the critics of President Marcos Jr. concede, some reluctantly, that the advent of a new administration brought a sense of relief, a liberating air. It is a fresh space that Duterte is not comfortable with, yet he exploits it, polluting it in the process, for personal ends.

But when Duterte accuses government of corruption and failing to improve the lives of the people, he is indicting not only past administrations but his own. Blame cannot be laid on the feet of an administration that has been in office for less than two years. On the contrary, Duterte’s six-year tenure is now ripe for reckoning, and his legacy a target of rightful review. It is a reckoning that administration operators seem willing to oblige.

Duterte and his family style themselves as defenders of the 1987 Constitution. But as president, Duterte aggressively pushed not only amendments, but a revision of the Constitution; not a makeover, but a complete overhaul of democratic institutions. He presented federalism as a cure all for chronic poverty, even when his economic managers advised caution. The undertaking, however, masked an intent to extend his grip on power. According to reports, there were draft resolutions in the House that sought to abolish Congress and constitutional commissions, and grant Duterte law-making powers during the transitory period. 

If it were not for the pandemic, Duterte, with a pliant Congress, would have engineered the biggest political heist in history. 

All the fundamental principles and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution - checks and balances, freedom of expression, civil liberties, the presumption of innocence - came under intense assault during the Duterte administration. And these assaults were carried out either with the implicit approval or direct involvement - the hearings against then senator Leila de Lima, the Anti-Terror Law, and the revocation of the ABS CBN franchise - of a captive House under the servile leadership of now Senator Alan Peter Cayetano.

The Duterte period was a period when politicians who styled themselves in the past as moralist crusaders served as enablers of intolerance and incivility.

The pandemic also exposed a regime of poor governance, of inefficiency, ineptitude, and lack of compassion. The Duterte-era bureaucracy, infused with clueless appointees, mirrored their principal patron’s management style of quick fixes, with no room for informed decision-making. Favors were dispensed even at the height of the pandemic lockdown, including generous servings of  pork barrel such as the P51 billion reportedly given to the former president’s congressman son at a time when government declared it had no money to dispense more ayuda to the poorest of the poor.

To the surprise of many, President Marcos Jr. responded directly to Duterte’s allegation about his supposed drug addiction. It breaks an unwritten rule that the President does not respond directly to critics since his words carry the weight and the dignity of the office. Taking on critics should be the job of underlings. 

If Duterte thought he could bully the President, he thought wrong. The President has pushed back and it could signal a take-no-prisoners counter attack. For all his swagger, Duterte got a reality check: it is the President who wields the big stick.


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