By: Criselda Yabes

A week into maverick tough-guy Rodrigo Duterte’s victory as Philippine president-elect, his campaign team has begun a shortlist of his future cabinet members. 

What is crucial, however, is who will be vice president, a position of great import in a country with a history of booting presidents out of office, as in the case of Joseph Estrada who was replaced by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2001. Out of office since 2010, she still faces corruption charges.

Leni Robredo, the administration party’s candidate, is the presumptive winner. With 96 percent of the votes counted, she has a slim lead of about 200,000 votes over Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the only son of the late dictator who is seeking to resurrect his father’s name.

In the Philippines’ unique and some would say dysfunctional system, the president and vice president are not elected on the same ticket, a situation that has often caused strife in the administration, as was the case with current No. 2 Jejomar Binay, who lost badly for president after years as  a front runner, and President Benigno Aquino. The two became bitter rivals.

Duterte, however, has already said he would welcome Robredo as an “assistant president.”

A social activist and calm voice, Robredo is the antithesis of Duterte’s tough-guy image. Some suggest she would become president in due course if Duterte steps aside. He has said he would step down if he is unable to fulfill his promise of solving crime in six months, and at age 71, he has also said he might not be able to finish his term. His health remains a question. Once a heavy smoker, as mayor of Davao City he banned smoking in the city.

But in the Philippines nothing is ever quite so simple. Scenarios pile up, rumors abound and  rational thinking gives way to emotion. If Filipinos took a leap of faith choosing a populist, self-declared socialist president, there has to be insurance against the unknown.

Departure from Imperial Manila

A Duterte-Robredo tandem, if this is what it turns out to be, would first be a departure from the centralized “Imperial Manila” of the Luzon elite and dynastic families that control Congress. Both Duterte and Robredo emerge from local politics, he from Mindanao and she from Bicol in southern Luzon where her husband was a town mayor and later a member of President Benigno Aquino’s cabinet before he died in a 2012 plane crash. They have both risen to national prominence very quickly, Duterte by talking tough and Robredo through the emotional appeal of widowhood.

Their votes may well be the grassroots speaking out. As mayor of Davao City for two decades Duterte transformed the city from a violent battleground of insurgents and crooks into a picture of success that resonated across economic classes.  His tough words were order and discipline at all cost.

“I really am a dictator when it comes to crime, you can bet your life on that,” he said shortly after the results showed him far ahead of the other candidates in the May 9 elections. “But for the other things, you can relax,” he said, seeking to quell fears that he would take extrajudicial measures, shut down Congress and set up a revolutionary government – all steps he has said he would take once in power.

Duterte has said many things, making it hard to detect what might pass for official statements. His platform called for federalism, though it is not clear how this would be implemented or if the constitution needs to be revamped. A step in that direction would certainly give the regions more of the power Manila has held since independence from the US  in 1946. Federalism may be what the fringes have been waiting for.   

Gutter tones

No matter what he said, or how ominous or vulgar it rang, the public caught the fever: Duterte was voicing what others could not. He is the rough-hewn man from the provinces, spewing gutter tones in Visayan, the predominant language of Davao passed on from the central Philippines. Filipinos angry with undelivered promises in the past cast their lot with him to do for the nation what he claims to have done for Davao, a sprawling urban-rural city of 2 million.

They saw him as the candidate “who can make things happen,” said Vivian Tin, a researcher for the ABS-CBN television network. “Even if he gets one thing done, that will be good enough.” His campaign, run by close friends who were formerly in the communist underground movement, elicited a spontaneous movement through social media.

Robredo too was seen as authentic, cutting the figure of the “strong mother who could balance him [Duterte],” according to Tin.