It still remains no mystery why current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte enjoys the full support of a majority of Filipino voters. Duterte comes across as strong. He acts and decides and does not dither in his messaging. He has exhibited this character from Day One of his campaign in the lead up to the 2016 elections and has remained consistently in character throughout his presidency since then. That sort of consistency can only be sustained when one is bent on real leadership and not just on mere politics. And, as is evident thus far, Duterte has not deferred to the politics of the status quo and, instead, has steered off-course from that status quo to a degree never seen before.
In the process of going about his business, Duterte has steamrolled his way over many sacred political cows notable of which are our deference to Western-styled “liberalism” and the one-way relationship with Western Europe Filipinos have been subject to for so long. We can see the effects of this in the way the Philippine Opposition now helplessly cries out for a lifeline from their Western European “allies”. That quaint separation anxiety that is now inducing those bratty shrill cries from the Opposition had already become an overtold story thanks to the dramatics of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa. However, it should be highlighted that the key feature of this divergence from the edict of Western liberals is a redefinition of the notion of “strongman”.
The term “strongman” has, until now, been regarded as a bad thing from the perspective of Western liberals. That notion had been deeply-ingrained in Filipinos’ minds over the several decades that the “yellow” narrative of the Aquino-Cojuangco clan enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the national discourse. That narrative equated being strong and decisive as “tyrannical” and being soft and forgiving as “democratic”. It seems it wasn’t enough that the ascent to power of Duterte proved that Filipinos had finally gotten sick of all that traditional thinking. Perhaps that recent cover feature published by TIME Magazine and the opposite-to-the-expected effect it had on Filipinos proves it again. To the consternation of the Opposition, many Filipinos regarded the “strongman” label TIME slapped on Duterte as a source of pride — pride in being supporters of a strong leader.
What is interesting is how many “thought leaders” of the Opposition derided Duterte supporters for not “getting” the message TIME cover was trying to convey. In reality it is the Opposition that had, once again, failed to get it and continue to miss what is really going on today. The reality is, Filipinos don’t see Duterte’s “strongman” leadership as a bad thing.
That Filipinos find safety and security in his strong leadership and continue to validate it in survey after survey is already legend by itself. Looking beyond that and beyond affirmations of approval and popularity delivered by survey firms, Duterte actually clearly demonstrates what strong leadership is in the way he manages his staff. In stark contrast to the manner with which his predecessor, former President Benigno Simeon ‘BS’ Aquino III coddled and even took falls for his buddies in his administration, Duterte has shown a wherewithal to take strong administrative measures to deal with sub-standard performance amongst his leadership team. While Aquino allowed the scandals of massive pork barrel thievery, tragic military and police operation failures, and wholesale mismanagement of key transport infrastructure assets to roll-off the well-oiled hides of his kabarkadas and kamaganaks, Duterte had so far overseen the swift relief of errant public officials and Cabinet members from of their duties.
Most important of all, it takes a true strongman to take the helm and turn his ship towards a completely different course. That, again, the Opposition are lurching noisily as the ship they once sloppily-captained lists and groans as it turns towards a new horizon simply validates that real change is currently in effect. Real change that reforms, after all, often costs the once-powerful. These are people who have the power to churn up the most noise in any process of reform. Suffice to say, the noisiest of the lot are, in fact, the increasingly disenfranchised cliques of once-comfy oligarchs (and their hangers-on) who are left outside of the comfort zone of the court they once held in the halls of power.
The best thing Filipinos can do for now is hang on while the ship that is their country settles into its new course and accelerates to cruising speed. In the hands of a strongman, that in itself, is a challenging maneuver. In the hands of a weakman, practically an impossibility — which is why it is only now, after a long time, that Filipinos are seeing that real change. Again, they just need to hang. The ride won’t be smooth, but it is well worth the journey.