Philippines: Will the Politics of Populism Compromise?

4 MINS READMay 9, 2016 | 19:45 GMT
(Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images)
Despite strong economic growth in the Philippines, many voters perceive its benefits are unevenly distributed, giving rise to populist candidates in the country’s presidential election.

The Philippines wrapped up its general elections May 9. While an announcement of presidential election results is not expected until at least May 11, preliminary counts suggest that the controversial mayor of Davao, Rodrigo Duterte, leads his opponents, Sen. Grace Poe and Mar Roxas (endorsed by outgoing President Benigno Aquino), by a significant margin. The results point to growing public disenchantment with the country's political establishment — a trend that Duterte has capitalized on.

After all, Duterte built his campaign on the elimination of crime and corruption and a return to law and order. In doing so, he promoted a populist image as an outsider who could bypass regulations and stand up to established commercial interests that flourished under the Aquino presidency but only delivered limited benefits to the people. The message has resonated strongly with Philippine voters suffering from poverty, lack of safety, widespread corruption and inequality, especially in areas outside Metro Manila, the Philippines' power base where economic wealth is concentrated.

Thus despite gross domestic product growth of 5.8 percent in 2015 and projected growth of 6.5 percent this year, Filipinos continue to feel politically and socio-economically marginalized because of the perceived unequal development favoring the long-standing rule of select political dynasties. Duterte's record in reducing crime in Davao, where he has been mayor for more than two decades, and creating conditions for more investments in the city give him the image of someone who is capable of replicating such success for the entire country. However, it is a task that is going to be far more difficult than anticipated, given entrenched political and economic interests.

Keeping Campaign Promises

The extent to which a victorious Duterte could carry out his promises and shake up the structures that have underpinned the country's uneasy but promising development remains to be seen. Among other things, he has promised to abolish Congress if it stood in the way of his plans to reduce crime, promote development and even to engage with China bilaterally on the issue of maritime disputes in the South China Sea. If implemented, these steps would represent a dramatic change in the country's domestic and foreign policies. He has also vowed to include Communist leaders in his Cabinet, despite ongoing military operations against Communist rebels throughout the country. And because Duterte was instrumental in reconciling rebels in Davao, a city in the southern region of Mindanao, he has expressed confidence that he could similarly engage with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front — the main group based in the region's restive, Muslim-dominated areas —  to finally achieve results in the fragile peace process there.

Nonetheless, Duterte's calls for quick reconciliation with his presidential opponents suggests that he recognizes that he will need to work with established interests to govern. Powerful and wealthy economic groups provide support to other candidates, support that could be directed against Duterte once he is in office. Moreover, more than 400 leaders of the Philippine business community attended the recent presidential dialogues to decide whether to support a Duterte presidency. Duterte has attempted to reassure them, but his focus on law and order during his campaign implies that they found few concrete assurances on the direction of his economic policies. Overall, Duterte has yet to win the support of the country's business community, which largely does not view him as a capable economic manager. As for the peace process in Mindanao, the challenges are substantial and would require Duterte to work with Congress and the military. Duterte will have to act carefully to avoid creating a unified opposition to his presidency.

His controversial proposal to initiate a bilateral dialogue with China within two years should the Philippine case in the U.N. Permanent Court of Arbitration fail to deliver results will not be easy, either. Duterte wants substantial investment from China to fill nationwide infrastructure development gaps, and has already sought to have China invest more in his country. But even with a bilateral dialogue, there is not much he could offer China that would be politically palatable to the Philippines. Both Beijing and Manila are highly unlikely to compromise on their territorial claims in the South China Sea. By relying on bilateral engagement rather than on the framework of international court and law, Duterte risks a devastating domestic political defeat while also straining growing security and military ties with the United States and Japan amid the dispute with China. 

So while Duterte's victory is likely, his controversial pledges will confront major domestic and foreign constraints. Instead of being populist, Duterte will be forced to compromise and work with entrenched political and economic groups to guide Philippine development.

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