International reports about the recent election in the Philippines invariably refer to its result as a “political earthquake.” The metaphor is accurate.
A year ago, few believed that Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao, would be the next president of the Philippines. Duterte had achieved a reputation as a Filipino “Dirty Harry,” a strongman who boasted that he got rid of criminals and drug pushers by wiping them off the face of the earth. When questioned about the 1,000-plus extrajudicial executions alleged to have taken place under his watch, he simply growled that criminals had no human rights and were not entitled to due process.
He was the outlier in Philippine politics, the one who didn’t buy into liberal values and liberal democratic discourse. He seemed to take perverse delight in peppering his talks with curses like putang ina (“son of a bitch”) and calling people who irritated him bakla (gay) or cono (cunt)—his special term for people coming from elite families.
Not surprisingly, many have likened him to another political outlier: Donald Trump.
A year ago, the contest seemed to be between Vice President Jejomar Binay and Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, the secretary of the interior who was outgoing President Benigno Aquino’s anointed successor.
Aquino’s Liberal Party machine felled Binay by exposing the various ways Binay’s family had siphoned off billions of pesos from their bailiwick, the city of Makati. It may have been a political demolition job, but it was all true.
Next to suffer the ruling Liberal Party’s wrath was Grace Poe. A neophyte senator, Poe was thrust into the presidential race by people who thought her name would translate into political gold. Poe’s father was Fernando Poe Jr., a beloved action star widely believed to have been cheated out of the presidency during the 2004 elections. In the Liberal Party’s calculation, a Roxas-Poe tandem would be unbeatable.
When Poe refused to run as Roxas’s vice president, her candidacy became the object of legal challenges. One disputed her being a natural-born Filipino—a qualification to run for the presidency—owing to her being a foundling. Another asserted that Poe, who returned to the Philippines after living in the United States, did not meet the necessary period of residency in the country. The cases against Poe went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which—after a bitter struggle—refused to disqualify her. But the damage had been done, and the fingerprints of the presidential palace were all over the place.
Meanwhile, Duterte’s star was on the rise.