The Mad Hatter of the Philippines
How does Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, get away with abusing world leaders and expressing the desire to rape a woman? There are no easy answers, and that is what makes his enduring popularity so fascinating
Nikhil Thiyyar Delhi
Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat tells the story of Rafael Trujillo. Though Trujillo, the eponymous Goat, who was trained by the Marines during the American occupation of the Dominican Republic (1916-24), brought a measure of order and prosperity to the country and neutralised the threat posed by neighbouring Haiti, the country paid gravely in terms of civil liberties. During Trujillo’s regime, corruption, murder of political enemies and the terror wreaked by the secret police were commonplace.
Throughout history, the recurring rise to power of dictators has been underpinned by the hope that a charismatic messiah will set things right if given enough power. What follows is usually a lot of collateral damage which leaves indelible marks on society.
Taking a leaf out of the dictatorial handbook, the strongman of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has unarguably established himself as one of the most colourful politicians in Southeast Asia right now. Eschewing the tailored suits of his predecessors, Duterte often turns up to press conferences wearing jumpsuits and track pants. His language is equally nonchalant, to put it lightly. After all, which public figure would call the Pope a ‘son of a bitch’ and the US President a ‘son of a whore’? Duterte does not care that losses in the Philippines’ stocks are accelerating as foreigners keep pulling money out from Asia’s most expensive market amid speculation that his outbursts are hurting investor sentiment. Duterte does not care that there is rising concern about his state-orchestrated crime-cleansing program which has lead to about 1,800 extrajudicial killings. Duterte simply does not care, and it his this very lack of political correctness that has perhaps endeared him to the masses.
Popularly known as Digong, the erstwhile seven-time mayor of Davao has had a record which makes it tricky to establish what side of the liberal-conservative divide he falls on. In a country where 86 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, Duterte has espoused birth control and support for LGBT rights, both ideas inimical to the Catholic Church. Duterte has eight grandchildren: half of whom are Muslim and half of whom are Christian.
Those surprised at his outburst against Obama forget that Duterte has a history of saying things that can be intemperate and often outright stupid. In 1989 when an Australian missionary Jacqueline Hamill was raped in Davao, he lamented about how he should have been accorded the privilege of raping her first, as she was so beautiful
Those surprised at his outburst against Obama forget that Duterte has a history of saying things that can be intemperate and often outright stupid. In 1989 when an Australian missionary Jacqueline Hamill was raped in Davao, he lamented about how he should have been accorded the privilege of raping her first, as she was so beautiful. When stories began circulating that he was philandering during his marriage, he simply said, "I was separated from my wife. I'm not impotent. What am I supposed to do? Let this hang forever? When I take Viagra, it stands up." Duterte’s quotes make Donald Trump seem like a rationalist. And yet, unlike Trump, Duterte is not a bigot. During his time as mayor of Davao City, he pushed through non-discrimination laws protecting both women and the city’s Muslim minority. He has pursued diplomatic solutions with the country’s various minority insurgent groups, including the amazingly named Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Duterte’s most prominent crusade is against drug use, which is weird considering that the Philippines is not exactly in the grips of a drug pandemic. Methamphetamine use is common, but at par with global levels. The ambition to stamp out drug use symbolises a particular kind of politics that has helped Duterte rise to national prominence. During his time as mayor of Davao, Duterte had backed death squads and police encounters, which supposedly brought crime down. While statisticians say that this is a patently false claim, Duterte’s pyrotechnics ensured that he was seen as a man who could bring law and order to a lawless land.
So far these shenanigans seemed to have worked. Popular support for him remains robust. In a poll released on July 20 by Pulse Asia Research, ninety-one percent of Filipinos said that they trusted Duterte, while the more authoritative Social Weather Stations found that 63 percent expected him to fulfil his campaign promises. Meanwhile, Obama seems to have forgiven Duterte for calling him names. Perhaps the American President has learned that the abuses came a day after Duterte’s daughter Sara suffered two miscarriages while delivering triplets. Not only have the two met (albeit awkwardly) at a dinner forum for world leaders in Laos, they seem to have exchanged some pleasantries too.
Who would want to mess with a man who thinks he is the political avatar of Rambo?