Duterte’s brand of Populism

This text is a small part of my literature review for my PhD thesis.

According to Bryant and Moffitt (2019), there are usually two principles of populism: it must claim to speak on behalf of everyone and that these people stand in opposition to an elite establishment, stopping them from fulfilling their political preferences. Wren-Lewis (2016) describes populist policies are either harmful to society although might be beneficial to a significant subgroup of a society or harmful to everyone.

Mudde (2017), in an interview with The Atlantic, describes populists as “dividers” rather than uniters and who say they are guided by “the will of the people” and split society between “the pure people” and the “elite” but who these people actually are is not based on position or money but based on values. In the same interview, Norris (2017) further describes populists as boorish to appear like “the real people” and use simple slogans and direct language.

Norris and Inglehart (2019, p.6) define another form of populism — authoritarian populism — where authoritarian values are combined with populist rhetoric, the “most dangerous threat to liberal democracy.” Rodrigo Duterte is named as an authoritarian populist. According to Norris and Inglehart (2019, p.8):

…authoritarian populists favor strong governance preserving order and security against perceived threat (‘They are sending rapists’ ‘radical Islamic terrorists’), even at the expense of democratic norms protecting judicial independence, freedom of the media, human rights and civil liberties, the oversight role of representative assemblies, and standards of electoral integrity. It is the triumph of fear over hope.

Populism is not new to the Philippines. Former president Joseph Estrada and Vice President Jejomar Binay gained popular support through populist campaigns, but Duterte’s brand of populism diverges from what Filipinos are used to — Duterte’s populism is a performance, stylised for mass media and digital media (Curato, 2016). Filipino sociologist Randy David (2016) coins the term “Dutertismo” defined as “pure theatre” and “sensual experience” while historian Vicente Rafael (2016) described Duterte’s campaign speeches as “semiotic overdrive” — rambling, unstructured, sexist, and full of swearing. Curato (2016) argues that Duterte’s populism is consistent with the “global wave of populism”, performing a crisis to “save the people” from the “dangerous other”, which in his case, Duterte painted a Philippines with a problem of order due to illegal drugs.

According to Teehankee (2016a), Duterte’s rise to power comes after the failure of Aquino III’s administration to institutionalise reformism and the pent-up frustration and anger from the middle class who have been dissatisfied with good governance reformist agendas stretching back to Corazon Aquino’s government. While Corazon Aquino restored democracy, she failed to address issues of social equity which would prove to be a challenge to the presidencies succeeding her. 

Teehankee (2016b, p.72-73), argues that the Duterte phenomenon was not a revolt of the poor but rather of the elite, the wealthy, the newly successful, the middle class who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of Aquino III’s good governance campaign but instead “suffered from a lack of public services, endured horrendous air and land traffic, feared breakdown of peace and order, and silently witnessed their tax money being siphoned by corruption despite promises of good governance.”

Pertierra’s (2017) analysis suggests that it is Filipinos’ love of melodrama that has elected Duterte into power — Duterte himself being charismatic and dramatic is a beneficiary of a political culture where entertainment and politics converge. Pertierra (2017, p. 227) looks at audience studies to take a closer look at the Filipino voter:

Yet the melodramatic dimensions of Philippine politics cannot be dismissed as a sideshow in the national political scene; the melodrama of Senate hearings and other mediated political encounters is important to understand because these moments generate the emotional ties that push people to support politicians in times of tension and transition.

Hedman (2001) agrees, saying that “movie star” populists’ strategy includes appeals to the poor whereby politicians act as heroes fighting for the poor against the elites. Joseph Estrada, for example, was an action star and campaigned with the narrative of “Erap para sa mahirap” or “Erap for the Poor.” Fernando Poe, Jr., who ran for presidency in the 2004 presidential elections and who lost amidst cheating by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, was also one of the biggest action stars in the Philippines and also used a similar narrative to that of Estrada’s. What makes Duterte’s populism different from Estrada and Poe Jr. was that his audience wasn’t the poor, but the middle class and the elite or the “ABC voters” (Thompson, 2016)

Duterte’s branding and style of political campaigning falls under the popularisation of politics or what Street (2012) calls “cool politics” where politicians are supported by fandoms similar to celebrities. Another element of “cool politics” is having popular culture figures recommend or campaign for a politician (Penney, 2017). Van Zoonen (2006) further describes this behaviour as being similar to pop culture fandom where crowds cheer or yell for a politician in the same way they would for a movie star. According to Penney (2017), these fans who help distribute campaign messages have deep emotional attachments to the politician they support and usually come from the grassroots rather than from. Penney (2017) also asserts that grassroots support coupled with a brand image that will resonate with and inspire supporters are key ingredients in making campaign messages reach more people. 

This kind of fandom is what Duterte gained during his run for presidency. Coming as a Mayor of a city outside of Manila, Duterte’s first supporters were from his hometown, Davao City, who have personally experienced his style of leadership. His grassroots supporters helped in creating a broader fanbase by using Facebook groups and Facebook pages in campaigning for him. Duterte also amassed a large number of support from popular celebrities and sports figures in the Philippines who used social media to campaign for him — changing their profile photos to one that says “My president is Duterte”, sharing photos of themselves with the iconic Duterte fist, and turning up to his political rallies.