Philippines Gets Ready for the Duterte Ride

Rodrigo Duterte skipped his official proclamation by Congress as the new Philippine president this week. This was no surprise: he has said such an event was “corny” anyway, and he has also famously said he has little regard for Congress, claiming during his campaign that he’d shut the whole thing down if Congress tried to impeach him.

With the new president missing, the applause within the halls on Monday went mostly to Vice President Leni Robredo, a widow who cut a figure of modesty, standing on stage with her three daughters and fiddling with the pendant of her simple gold necklace. She was getting the hugs and the selfies before and after the ceremony.

For Filipinos with memories of earlier political turmoil, Robredo’s narrow victory over Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the lone son of his namesake, the former dictator deposed in 1986, was an urgent reminder of the fragility of democracy. Congress validated the votes in her favor by a slim margin after a long and contentious count following the May 9 elections.

Bury me not on the lone prairie

In the meanwhile, comfortably ensconced in the southern city of Davao where he was mayor before his phenomenal rise, Duterte triggered another controversy during one of his rambling midnight press conferences. He has promised to “heal” the nation by burying the former dictator Marcos, without much delay, in the Heroes’ Cemetery located in the capital. He urged the victims of martial law to seek monetary compensation from the courts because “the guy is already dead, what do you want? You want the cadaver to be burned? Will that satisfy your hate?”

The cadaver in question lies in state in an air-conditioned mausoleum that has become a popular tourist spot in Marcos’s home province of Ilocos Norte, although many believe it is merely a waxed figure akin to Lenin’s tomb in Russia. Marcos died in 1989 in exile in Hawaii and his body was flown back home, but the government has refused to allow him a place of eternal honor alongside other national heroes.

Online petitions against a Marcos burial are making the rounds. Writer Candy Gourlay posted on Facebook that it would be an insult to the memory of her grandfather, a soldier during the Second World War who risked his life, “to share it with a man who lied about his World War II exploits and faked medals for heroism.” Marcos’s record as a supposed anti-Japanese guerrilla leader, a key part of his myth, was exposed as a sham in western and local press reports not long before his fall.

If Duterte tries to keep his word, it might be the first crisis he will face after inauguration on June 30. If he plants Marcos in hallowed ground, it would be as puzzling as why millions of Filipinos were willing to see his son return to power after the Marcos family’s years of plunder and oppression in the 1970s and 80s.

“Duterte is telling us and the next generations to forget part of our history, a blow to our already weakening collective memory,” said the online news site Rappler in an editorial.

Welcome to the Twilight Zone

Robredo will now have to carry the banner of the opposition under the unique Filipino system of electing presidents and vice presidents separately. There is no doubt in her supporter’s minds that she is the alternative to Duterte. If he stumbles, it would most likely be out of his own doing as he seeks to turn the conventional order upside down, such as skipping his Congressional proclamation. The agitation for her to step in is likely to be intense at times.

He certainly wants to shake things up. He says he wants to change his work schedule to run from 1 o’clock in the afternoon until midnight and possibly hold office in Davao. He also has drastic and apparently popular solutions to crime, which involve summary executions. The country seems about to enter the twilight zone.

The historian Manolo Quezon, who has written an almanac on the presidencies, said in a podcast that “we should expect the unexpected” under Duterte.

As a result, some think he might fall into the same mess as former president Joseph Estrada, who was deposed in a popularly backed military coup in 2001, leaving behind Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who presided for nine years over a scandal-plagued administration.

But apart from the fact that both Duterte and Estrada are nocturnal creatures, there’s not much else to compare them with, at least for now. Estrada was largely seen as a buffoon and a drunk; Duterte is a tough – and some would say thorough – man of action. “The challenge of every president is to stay true to the persona that got him elected in the first place,” said Quezon. For Duterte, it means straight talk and challenging the status quo while keeping the many enemies who would like to bring him down at bay.

Tough talk

Before he has even taken his oath, Duterte is still rousing the people with his “change is coming” slogan. The promise is appealing to many and frightens others, as if he has planted a landmine to defy norms and embrace the strongman he might become.

He has gotten into a verbal brawl with the Catholic Church and officials who question his stance on human rights; he has said he will restore the death penalty and swell the ranks of the police; and he might soon release high-level politicians charged with corruption, including Macapagal-Arroyo.

The military will be watching his moves and listening to his sometimes fickle words, which change often enough for one journalist to call him the “Havaiiana president” after the branded flip-flops.

He and Robredo, who appears straightforward and transparent, will certainly be an odd couple, raising the constant specter in the Philippines that the “military might act,” in the words of one outgoing cabinet member. “People may see the contrast and lean on her,” said the official, if Duterte’s promises fall short.

Of course, in Manila, rumors of military action against the sitting government are a constant refrain, usually with little basis in fact. But the uniforms have acted often enough – successfully in 1986 and 2001, unsuccessfully many other times – that their temperature bears monitoring. The good news is that in recent years, the military has resisted chasing political power. Assuming Duterte’s campaign bombast is followed by a semblance of reasonable government and a minimum of madness, Filipinos including the military, having chosen him the leader, will likely go along for the roller coaster ride.