The Philippines and the Politics of Failure

President Rodrigo Duterte. If this is the next leader of the Philippines, as early results from Monday's election portend, one has to wonder how it came to this. The country seems condemned to dwell on the past in the form of both leaders and issues while its political elite – in this case the blah figure of Mar Roxas – clings to an egotistical belief in itself to the detriment of common sense.

If, as is possible with the race too close to call, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., son of the former dictator, triumphs for vice president over reform-minded Leni Robredo, the country would have confounded reason.

Duterte, an ailing and bizarrely misogynistic advocate of vigilante justice, built his reputation in the years after Davao City emerged from a dirty war between communist rebels and the government that turned the metropolis into a frightening ghost town after dark. Duterte became the avenging mayor a generation ago, apparently allowing the killing of rebels and criminals in staggering numbers. He now promises to do the same for the entire country, only targeting crooks rather than communists. This may tap into a well spring of public anger not unlike the voters following Donald Trump in the US, but the reality is that murder with impunity has long been a hallmark of the Philippines system, with police often backing the assassins on behalf of powerful politicians. One shudders to think what sort of hit list Duterte may have in mind.

And in an even stranger instance of impunity and mass amnesia, Bongbong Marcos is contending for the vice presidency (the two posts are elected separately in the Philippines, a strange constitutional anomaly that adds to an already dysfunctional political system) almost exactly 30 years after his thieving father and mother were ousted from power. Bongbong, a man whose chief accomplishment is his last name, has the once-reviled Marcoses back in the center ring, continuing a Marcos versus Aquino family battle that dates back to the 1950s.

All this is happening after six successful years of President Benigno Aquino III, whose father was murdered while President Marcos was in power and whose mother pushed the erstwhile dictator and his flashy wife out the door. Investors like what has been happening under Aquino, growth rates are robust and the country has seemed, yet again, poised to fulfill a portion of its potential.

Bad boys all

But it is the same old Philippines apparently, where politics is a blood sport among families and demagogues like Duterte can inflame the anger of the perennially disenfranchised majority.

There seem to be three main reasons for the sad news from the polls. First, the unelectable Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, darling of the Aquino camp and a dull elitist in the eyes of the public, refused to give up his guaranteed-to-fail quest for the presidency, thus splitting the “sane” vote with Grace Poe, who may be a largely unknown quantity but at least appears reasonable and fairly clean. “Everything good they did, they have ruined with their egos,” said a Filipino friend in summing up the failed political instincts of Aquino and Mar.

Second, Aquino’s Liberal Party, seemingly convinced that only it can lead the country, also massively underestimated Duterte by focusing instead on bringing down current Vice President Jejomar Binay, who became an also ran in Monday’s voting. But even the scandal-riddled Binay is at least an adult, a brilliant tactical politician who would likely have made a competent, if ethically challenged president.

The past revisited

But the factor that seems to stand out the most is the alienation of voters from power in the Philippines. These citizens, still largely ruled by a clutch of feudal families with Spanish surnames like Roxas, may vote for the name “Aquino,” as they did six years ago, because it is familiar and Corazon Aquino was widely seen as a woman of almost divine virtue. But they may also swing to the promise of vengeance for unspecified grievances as they appear to have done in the case of Duterte and as they did the last time this kind of thing happened, in 1998, when movie star and populist drunk Joseph Estrada succeeded the country’s last competent president, Fidel Ramos.

That this time around the rise of the thuggish Duterte is accompanied by the almost surreal return of the Marcos family to near the pinnacle of power, is as dismal a result as one could conjure up for the Philippines. One might think back thirty years and imagine this could have been different had the justice system functioned with enough courage and professionalism to convict the elder Marcos of one of his many apparent crimes. But Cory Aquino had no desire to see Marcos punished other than by exile and in the Philippines crime usually goes largely unpunished, especially when it is committed on a grand enough scale by a powerful family.

And now what? In the case of Estrada, the elites of Makati were so deeply embarrassed by his shenanigans with women and the bottle that they helped engineer a church-backed coup to put him in his place in 2001. That led to nine years of instability and decline under Gloria Arroyo’s scandalous presidency. With Bongbong potentially waiting in the wings under a President Duterte, just getting the military to help back yet another “People Power” may not be so simple.

Given that the Philippine ruling class – and it is a ruling class, make no mistake – sees elections as nothing more than an inconvenient distraction, we can now brace ourselves for conspiracy theories and dire scenarios. If activist and lawyer Robredo, whose late husband was a rising star in the Aquino cabinet when he died in a 2012 plane crash, hangs on to her slim lead for the No. 2 spot, it will be seen as a victory of sorts for reason and the drums will start beating for her to replace Duterte.

It did not have to be this way and if blame has to be apportioned, it lies pretty squarely with Aquino and his bestie Mar. Now the world will again look on in disbelief at all this, wondering what the heck is wrong with the Philippines. We also wish we knew the answer to that question.