By Mely Caballero-Anthony
A charismatic maverick by the name of Rodrigo Duterte, a long-time mayor of Davao city on the southern island of Mindanao, was on Monday elected president of the Philippines.
He cut a stark contrast to his presidential rivals, who were either seen as pro-status quo, inexperienced or corrupt. Campaigning on a platform of eradicating crime and corruption that have plagued the country, Duterte has shocked many with his colourful language, vows to rewrite the constitution and threats to kill criminals and to shut down Congress should lawmakers attempt to impeach him. He has also startled neighbours with tough statements on foreign relations.
The new president has the huge task of steering the country towards better economic prospects, resilient political stability and security amid major policy challenges within the country and the wider Asean region.
The Philippines has been regarded as the “sick man” of Asia since the 1980s. Unlike the rapid economic growth of its Southeast and East Asian neighbours that benefited from export industries backed by strong economic fundamentals, the country suffered years of negative growth and poor economic prospects. Meanwhile political instability brought on by a tumultuous period of martial law and dictatorship under the Marcos regime bankrupted the country and left a dark shadow of human rights abuses.
After the “People Power” revolution in 1986 that toppled the Marcos regime, it took decades for the country to recover and rebuild its democratic institutions and eventually jump-start its economy. During the post-Marcos era, the country also grappled with a decades-old threat of rebellion by the communist New People’s Army (NPA) and secession by Muslim separatist groups in the country’s southern Mindanao provinces. Efforts at forging peace agreements have met with fitful success.
Recent years have seen the Philippines finally achieve a semblance of economic progress and political stability. From 2010 to 2014, the country recorded its highest fiscal growth in four decades, averaging 6.3 per cent a year – among the fastest in Asia’s developing countries. Once shunned by foreign investors due to fears of instability, investments and industrial growth are now the major drivers of the Philippine economy, with the services sector contributing more than half its gross domestic product.
With a population of over 100 million, the country enjoys the competitive advantage of a large, highly literate and young English- speaking labour force. It is also reaping a demographic dividend – the median age is 23.5 and its growth rate is 1.6 per cent. The country also continues to benefit from the huge foreign remittances of the 2.4 million overseas Filipino workers, who contribute about 8-9 per cent of GDP.
Departing President Benigno Aquino credits his government with laying foundations of strong economic fundamentals and political stability that make the Philippines potentially the next “bright star” of Asia.
Given the economic numbers, it is puzzling that the administration’s candidate, Mar Roxas, a technocrat and experienced government official, always trailed in the polls. Even more puzzling is how a “tough-talking” provincial mayor, who appears dismissive of political institutions and the rule of law, has captured the hearts Filipinos across all ages and economic classes.
With his promise of a “comfortable life” for Filipinos and a safe country, Duterte quickly became a hero for Filipinos disillusioned with their leaders’ failed attempts to eradicate poverty and corruption.
While the Aquino administration boasts of a positive economic record and unprecedented levels of support among the international business community, a high level of income inequality persists in the country. Almost a quarter of the population still live below the poverty line.
But the sense of frustration with politicians has spread beyond the working class. Filipino sociologist Randy David notes that a “sense of desperation is coming [also] from those who have relatively more… they who righteously proclaim their entitlement to something better – better-paying jobs, better public transport, more responsive public services, safer neighbourhoods … better airports, better hospitals and better schools”.
Amid the clamour for change and the need for a strong, decisive leader, there are growing fears that the country is about to make a fateful step back towards dictatorship. Pre-election business jitters saw drops in both the country’s stock market and the peso. Reinforcing the anxiety surrounding Duterte was his lack of concrete policy on how he would address the issues over which he gained widespread support.
Monday’s election was among the most divisive in the country’s recent history, raising concern that powerful stakeholders won’t respect the result. In that case, we could see a repeat of the fate suffered by Gloria Arroyo’s presidency when it was undermined by accusations of cheating and illegitimacy. Worse still, any attempt to deny Duterte the win would spell trouble and instability which the country can ill afford at this time.
An orderly and peaceful transfer of political leadership is crucial not only for the Philippines but also for Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The Philippines will chair Asean next year, when the association turns 50. The need for regional leadership has never been higher in Asean, whose unity is being tested by escalating disputes over South China Sea territory – Manila having sent its own case against China to the international tribunal at The Hague.
Duterte promised during his campaign to board a jetski and plant a Philippine flag on disputed reefs. The hope is that such nationalist bravura was mere campaign posturing and won’t play any role in making national policy in what is a regional tinderbox. Instead, a peaceful and economically vibrant Philippines stands to benefit from deeper economic integration through the Asean Economic Community.
It is also crucial that the new president maintains the push for a political solution to the festering secessionist problem in the southern Mindanao provinces while working with countries in the region and beyond to fight terrorism and other transnational challenges, and appreciate the value of regional cooperation in preventing conflict and dealing with security threats.
The Philippines has come a long way in becoming a significant player in the region. Vital to its success and security is the successful and peaceful transition of its leadership.
Mely Caballero-Anthony is associate professor and head of the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.