President Rodrigo Duterte takes his oath as the 16th President of the Philippines at the Rizal Hall in Malacañang Palace on June 30, 2016. Malacanan News and Information Bureau
Culture Spotlight

The decade in politics: The rise of Rodrigo Duterte and the search for a new boss

In this second of a two-part analysis of the Philippine political universe in the last decade, journalist Felipe Salvosa II traces the rise of the incumbent president — and identifies what he possesses that his predecessors did not 
Felipe Salvosa II | Dec 24 2019

December is the last month in the tumultuous 2010s, a decade that saw the rise of new political heroes and villains, a changing of the guard in different sectors of society, the growing concern for climate change taking a more desperate turn, and an unending cacophony of opinionated people screaming into the Facebook void. In "The Last 10 Years," a series of pieces scattered over these last 30 days, we look back at what happened to try to figure out what comes next. 


If disenchantment over Gloria Arroyo explains the election of Noynoy Aquino, disillusionment over Noynoy Aquino explains the rise of Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte, the president who prefers to be called by his old title, “Mayor,” closes the decade as the strongest among post-Marcos leaders, and rivalled only in Philippine presidential history by Ferdinand Marcos, whom he unabashedly idolizes.

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As Palace overlord, Duterte holds most, if not all the missing elements of power that eluded his predecessors. Cory Aquino had the popular mandate but was weak and did not have political will. Fidel Ramos and Gloria Arroyo were strong leaders backed by the military and the elite, but did not have broad-based support and were hobbled by internal or external crises. Noynoy had both popular and elite support, but could not get things done despite considerable resources at his disposal.


Political capital well-spent

In addition to the above, Duterte built his own brand of populism and assembled an almost cult-like social media-based following, before which he could do no wrong. Such popularity has not been seen since Marcos, his idol, whose loyalists have also become fervent Duterte devotees.

The more outrageous his pronouncements or profanities (“Pero napakaganda, dapat ang mayor muna ang mauna”; “Who is this stupid God?”), the more popular he became. His approval ratings are in excess of 80 percent, unheard of in politics anywhere in the world.

This is why Duterte has never hesitated to spend political capital. He has become friends with Beijing, Moscow and Donald Trump, and could afford to scrap peace talks with the communists.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shake hands after the Chinese leader signed the guest book at Malacañang Palace, November 20, 2018. Mark Cristino, pool via Reuters

In the most shocking, hair-raising score-settling of the entire decade, Duterte authorized the burial, with full military honors, of late dictator Marcos at Libingan ng mga Bayani, just five months into his administration. Duterte’s support for the Marcoses, who had helped his campaign, has been unqualified. He has openly endorsed the protest filed by the late dictator’s son, Ferdinand Jr., over the 2016 vice-presidential contest won by Leni Robredo, who is a pariah in the administration. In the May 2019 elections, he endorsed Imee, who ranked eighth in the Senate race.

When Duterte ran after Roberto Ongpin, whom he marked as an “oligarch” up for destruction, Ongpin’s online gambling business fell into the hands of a Marcos in-law, Greggy Araneta.

New House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo shouts from the plenary hall rostrum ahead of President Rodrigo Duterte's State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, July 23, 2018. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News


Marcoses, Arrroyo

If the Marcoses could be rehabilitated, so could Gloria Arroyo. The ex-president was acquitted of plunder and walked out of jail in July 2016 even before Duterte could warm his seat in Malacañang. She clawed her way back to power and proceeded to engineer a hostile takeover of the House of Representatives from rival pro-Duterte factions in July 2018.

Arroyo, who credits Duterte for “providing the atmosphere” that led to her exoneration, and who had been chairwoman of both Lakas and the Liberals, led the political class in jumping to Duterte’s PDP-Laban, once so small the entire party (as Joker Arroyo once also famously quipped) could fit in a Volkswagen Beetle.

If the Marcoses could be rehabilitated, so could Gloria Arroyo. She was acquitted of plunder and walked out of jail even before Duterte could warm his seat in Malacañang.

Like Noynoy Aquino, Duterte, with the help of Arroyo appointees to the Supreme Court, kicked out the Chief Justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, invoking the wealth-disclosure standards applied during the Corona impeachment.

Arroyo’s jailer, Leila de Lima, will soon mark her third year in detention over what she describes as trumped-up drug-related charges to silence her criticism of Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, which has claimed thousands of lives.

President Duterte with his trusted aide, now Senator Bong Go.

Duterte unlike his predecessors was able to extend his superabundance of popular support to his aides Bong Go and Bato Dela Rosa, who, along with other pro-Duterte candidates like Imee Marcos, Cynthia Villar and world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, shut out the opposition “Otso Diretso” Senate slate in the May 2019 elections. This political calculus has allowed what was heretofore unthinkable, the Senate presidency of Vicente “Tito” Sotto III.


Unable to cha-cha

To his credit, Duterte’s successful alignment of competing political and economic interests yielded major legislation: the first package of tax reforms, free college tuition, free healthcare, and wider autonomy for the Bangsamoro.

With Marcos and Arroyo forces by his side, what could Duterte not do?

There’s still one major item left in the agenda — charter change and the shift to a federal system of government, a major Duterte campaign promise. A consultative committee to review and propose changes to the 1987 Constitution, led by ex-chief justice Renato Puno and the late senator Nene Pimentel, submitted a draft to Duterte in 2018. Arroyo produced her own draft just before bowing out as speaker.

This political calculus has allowed what was heretofore unthinkable, the Senate presidency of Vicente “Tito” Sotto III.

Despite his enormous popularity and demonstrated political will, Duterte, like his predecessors, is unable to convince the ruling classes to dance the cha-cha.

Perhaps they’d like to keep things as they are, as they know fully well that while Duterte is the undisputed overlord, he keeps the title for now.

Duterte may yet decide to try his luck anew, or field his feisty and politically astute daughter Sara, who helped secure Arroyo’s speakership. There are others waiting in the wings, like the incumbent speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, who had no qualms using the country’s SEA Games hosting to prop up his image; Cynthia Villar who could yet avenge her husband Manny’s bitter defeat in 2010 in the hands of Aquino forces; and Leni Robredo, who is doing the rounds of the provinces.

Angling for the top? Senator Ping Lacson and Manila Mayor Isko Moreno. Photo by George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Sen. Panfilo Lacson is also angling for a second crack at the presidency, 15 years after his unsuccessful bid to unseat Gloria Arroyo in 2004. The Facebook-savvy new mayor of Manila, Isko Moreno, who ended the political career of Joseph Estrada, seems to be testing the waters by building on the Duterte model of using a huge social media following as a catapult to the presidency.

In the next political decade, the search for a new boss, a new viable contender for the presidency, begins.