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  • Duterte’s Mediated Populism
  • Duncan McCargo (bio)

Rodrigo Duterte’s final miting de avance election rally in the capital’s Luneta Park was a spectacular event, just two nights before the 9 May polls. Tens of thousands of supporters filled the venue, many sporting the controversial Davao mayor’s red campaign colours; the sense of impending victory was palpable. Many had travelled all the way from Mindanao to take part. After a long series of warm-up acts such as songs from artists including the popular Mocha Girls, Duterte himself took to the podium, bragging about his libido and announcing to loud cheers that he would have the bodies of criminals thrown into nearby Manila Bay. As usual, the leading presidential candidate had little to say about policy specifics. Duterte’s style was conversational and at times avuncular: his eighty-minute speech was delivered not from a podium, but standing on a crowded platform among a group of his allies and close supporters, like a local boss figure hanging out with his barkada, or gang.1

Despite — indeed partly because of — the ominous warnings sounded by incumbent President Benigno Aquino III, Duterte’s vulgarity and plain-speaking struck a chord with voters across the socio-economic spectrum. The taxi drivers were no surprise, but I was taken aback to find that academic colleagues at the University of the Philippines, the doctor who treated me for a cough, and even self-styled human rights lawyers were cheering on a candidate whose major campaign themes comprised valorizing his own masculinity, and solving policy problems through extra-judicial killing. [End Page 185]

Across town at Plaza Miranda — scene of the notorious August 1971 political rally bombing in which nine people were killed, setting in train a narrative that provided Ferdinand Marcos with a convenient pretext to declare martial law the following year — one-time front-runner Senator Grace Poe addressed a much smaller crowd.2 The feisty adopted daughter of popular movie actor Fernando Poe, she topped the 2013 Senate polls, drawing on the same core demographic that had propelled Joseph Estrada into the presidency in 1998: the urban poor. But Poe’s presidential campaign was dogged by questions about her nationality (she had been a naturalized US citizen) and residency in the Philippines; amid rumours that she was a front for certain vested interests, her popularity plunged in the final weeks of the campaign, as Duterte’s lead grew.

By the time I reached the Quezon Memorial Circle in Quezon City, the Mar Roxas Liberal Party rally was already over — much like his doomed candidacy.3 Aquino’s motorcade passed me on the other side of EDSA; the President, himself the son of late president Cory Aquino, had strongly championed his 2010 rival to succeed him. Former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas was the son of Gerard Roxas, a prominent politician injured at Plaza Miranda, and the grandson of former President Manuel Roxas (1946–48). But sharing his last name with a major Manila boulevard was not entirely an electoral asset for Roxas, who found himself labelled as an elite trapo (traditional politician) who lacked the common touch, and whose stage presence was distinctly underwhelming.

I had flown to Manila directly from Seoul, where I was taking part in a workshop on “Mediated Populism” across Asia. For four days, we had compared a set of phenomena that could be found from Tunisia to Turkey, and from Hong Kong to Pakistan, including: the rise of “anti-politician” political candidates; the declining relevance of conventional political parties and campaigning; the centrality of TV-hyped super-sized personalities; the exploitation of voters’ fears and resentments; and the merger of election rallies and protest movements with media “events” and mass spectacles. Duterte’s Philippine presidential election triumph perfectly epitomized many of these trends.

The 2016 campaign came on the back of three less than stellar presidencies. Joseph Estrada (1998–2001), popular with the masses but despised by the elite and the educated middle class, had been driven from the presidency following a fresh wave of “People Power” that paved the way for a de facto military coup. Like Estrada, his [End Page 186] successor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo...


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pp. 185-190
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