Rodrigo Duterte
President Rodrigo Duterte at the 60th founding anniversary of the Social Security System on September 6, 2017 (King Rodriguez/Presidential Photo)

Some of President Rodrigo Duterte’s adherents and those opposed to him because they have a vision of an alternative State and future and the programs to achieve it have more in common than most observers and even those in their own respective ranks think.

Exclude from the former group the government officials who last week attended the pro-regime program at Plaza Miranda and those who were bussed there on the promise of some reward or the other sourced from the people’s taxes. Consider instead those who voted for Mr. Duterte in 2016 who’re still clinging to the forlorn hope that he’ll bring about the changes he promised then.

Pathetic was the September 21 pro-regime event obviously organized and orchestrated by regime officials which some government employees were forced to attend. To keep attendees from leaving, it had to make use of the middling talents — for the usual fees, certainly — of a dance group, politically clueless comedians, and other entertainers. The officials present again mouthed the usual platitudes and absurdities about the drug war. Most of the “celebrities” who attended simply said they were there because they “believe” in Mr. Duterte, but without saying exactly why.

The discourse both on stage and off was apparently not particularly intelligent or enlightening. The common folk in attendance were relatively much more articulate than their supposed betters. Those interviewed by the media said what they wanted was for the “changes” to continue. They didn’t say exactly what those changes were. But that wish echoes what drove most of the 16 million who elected Rodrigo Duterte to the Presidency of the Republic in 2016: the hope and yearning for change.

In 2016 the voters repudiated the Benigno Aquino III administration by voting for Rodrigo Duterte against Liberal Party candidate Manuel “Mar” Roxas II. Among their reasons were the transport mess evident in the traffic problem in Manila, and the unreliability of the public transport system; the high and rising costs of basic necessities; the inadequacy of social services such as medical care and educational opportunities; the limited chances for gainful and meaningful employment and advancement; the corruption that most Filipinos believe has metastasized throughout government; and the high crime rate.

But behind those seemingly commonplace complaints was the hankering for better lives and improved prospects for the future, the absence of which many Filipinos have come to believe is linked to the persistence of corruption and crime.

In 1998 they elected Joseph Estrada in the belief that like his tough-talking film persona, he would put an end to both and bring about the changes that have eluded Filipinos for over a century despite the Revolution of 1896 and EDSA 1986.

Mass disenchantment with past administrations was Estrada’s not-so-secret weapon for winning the 1998 Presidential election. In 2016 it was equally that of Duterte, whose even tougher talk convinced many that he would put an end to corruption, crime and the many other ills Filipino flesh has been heir to for what has seemed an eternity. Plagued by unremitting violence, a corrupt political class and widespread hopelessness, the Philippines, said Time magazine, needed “a quick and dirty fix, and that is Duterte’s mandate.”

Mr. Duterte’s threat — on which he has made good — to kill drug addicts and pushers was thought by many to be an indication of his commitment to take decisive action against the country’s problems. It didn’t matter if that commitment fixated on drugs would cost many lives, and that it would paradoxically be criminal itself, given his declaration that his war on drugs could result in as many deaths as 100,000. An indication of both the casualness with which killings have come to be regarded by a people made numb by the violence in their daily lives as well as of desperation, much of the electorate apparently thought a hundred thousand dead was a price worth paying for the promised results.

Those who voted for him were apparently convinced by Mr. Duterte’s thug-talk that corruption, which he also vowed to eliminate, would be a thing of the past during his watch and that its hoped-for demise would usher in an era of prosperity. Upon his assumption of the Presidency his declaration of a government ceasefire and the resumption of peace talks also encouraged hopes that an end to the conflicts that have riven the country for decades would help bring about the changes that he repeatedly assured the citizenry were coming.

The sincere and burning desire for change and even revolution, unarticulated as these may be among vast segments of the population, is what some partisans of Mr. Duterte have in common with the progressive groups that led the September 21 demonstration against the Duterte regime’s march to despotism and its obsession with martial law. To be sure, many of those same supporters have accepted as valid Mr. Duterte’s mistaken assertion in a number of his public utterances, rants and speeches, that a declaration of martial law, or even his constituting a bogus “revolutionary” government — in either of which cases the military would rule, and the Bill of Rights and the Constitution suspended — would enable him to solve many of the country’s problems.

That those among his supporters who’re disillusioned with the incompetence and corruption of past administrations and who’re sincerely for change are mistaken in believing that claim is due to a number of factors. Among the reasons is certainly the failure of some members of the generation that went through martial rule to pass on to succeeding generations their knowledge of, and experience with, that foul period.

It is a reality that must be dealt with, and it won’t do to write off as unreachable and beyond enlightenment — an assumption encapsulated in their being described over social media as “Dutertards” — those Filipinos who, in their fervent hopes for authentic change, voted for and continue to support Mr. Duterte to the extent of giving him the discretion to do whatever he thinks would enable him to bring about the changes he promised.

Progressive and democratic groups — the youth, women’s, workers’, farmers’ organizations; human rights defenders; journalists aware of the threat to press freedom; nuns, priests, pastors, imams; and Muslim and Lumad formations — must instead find the means with which to meaningfully engage with them so they may work together in the effort to realize the shared aspiration for the authentic and lasting changes that only an awakened and empowered people can achieve.

As the country’s experience with the Marcos regime demonstrated, despite his glittering promises no demagogue focused on remaining in power and establishing another political dynasty, who uses the mass hankering for change and revolution to further his limited and anti-people ends, is really for the transformation Philippine society so urgently needs. That particular point needs imparting to those who’re sincerely for change but who, in their desperation, have been looking for saviors everywhere — including in the very political system that has failed them — except in themselves.

Despite their differences, those Filipinos engaged in the making of a better Philippines who’re opposed to Mr. Duterte’s despotic tendencies and apparent obsession with martial rule, and those who support him in the earnest hope that he will bring about the changes that will transform this country from the embodiment of the incompetence and corruption of its political class into a model of peace, prosperity and justice, are brothers and sisters under the skin.

On that kinship rests the possibility of convincing the latter that the authoritarian path Mr. Duterte is taking will lead, not to the bright future they want, but to more, and worse, of the same ills of poverty, corruption and injustice that plague the people of this troubled land.

(First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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