Whistling in the dark: Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist

Residents walking past an election campaign poster of leading presidential candidate Rodrigo in Davao city, southern Philippines, on May 11, 2016.
Residents walking past an election campaign poster of leading presidential candidate Rodrigo in Davao city, southern Philippines, on May 11, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

Michael Tan

Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network

It has happened. As I write, it's certain Rodrigo Duterte has won. The vice presidential race, though, is still too close to call and for once, it's an important one.

More than a vote on individuals, the votes were verdicts-hatol ng bayan in Filipino-on existing governance, an indictment of the Liberal Party and the Aquino administration, one that is startling because the last six years was a period of rapid economic growth and relative political stability.

What lessons might we derive for the future, including the next six years with a President Duterte?

I believe we still have strong political fundamentals, a rough-and-tumble democracy, yes, but one that has checks and balances which Duterte might actually find more useful than his resorting to autocratic or revolutionary government.

Mr Duterte will have to learn that a strong presidency comes not with rough language and strong-arm tactics but with having strong-in the sense of competence-women and men in his Cabinet. This was President Aquino's greatest weakness, with perceptions of favoritism in his Cabinet appointments, and its links to all too visible incompetence in vital areas of national life.

The average Filipino had to suffer from that incompetence on a daily basis: city dwellers sweating through and cursing the mess in mass transit, rural people left on their own to take the brunt of climate change and food insecurity. And, yes, casting a long shadow was day-to-day criminality, from pick-pocketing to holdups, in broad daylight, in jeeps and buses.

Perceptions have become all the more important in this age of social media, with an individual's bad trip (literally) on the LRT or his being mugged on the streets going viral on social media, only to be overwhelmed by the next horror story. It's not surprising people feel they are under a state of siege, coming home and reading all these stories on social media, sometimes even with videos uploaded on YouTube. News of heinous crimes would cap the day, adding to the despair.

The Aquino administration was weak with public relations, unable to read the public pulse. The proposed tax on balikbayan boxes and the dismissal of the "golden bullets" fiasco in our international airport (headed by an Aquino crony) were examples of this fatal insensitivity to a large sector, the overseas Filipino workers.

The new president will have the usual political honeymoon period, during which he will have to act rapidly-and visibly.

He might want to draw lessons from Mr Aquino's early days. Remember one of the most dramatic moves of the newly inaugurated President Aquino: no more wangwangs (police sirens) and counterflow? They were important changes that were maintained through the six years but could have been expanded to show that in a democracy, you can have discipline and, even more importantly, fairness.

Marcos was dramatic in his first year of martial law, complete with a public execution of drug dealer Lim Seng. Then it was backsliding from there, his own cronies the worst offenders.

CHANGE

Duterte might find it tough to be tough. Someone sent me a political cartoon, clearly from the United States but which unfortunately did not have credits and goes this way: some leader asks an audience, "Who wants change?" with everyone raising their hands. The next cartoon has the question, "Who wants to change?" and there is not a single raised hand.

Everyone seems to want Duterte to change the country, but let's see how many people are willing to do their share for change.

Duterte may find the police and the military to be the most difficult allies, given people's love-hate relationship with these men in uniform. People want the law enforcers to be, well, law enforcers; so continuing corruption on their part will reflect immediately on Duterte's leadership. And now, people expect the law enforcers not just to clean their ranks, but also to show results quickly in the crackdown on criminality.

That, of course, is the nightmare of human rights groups because that could mean instant "justice," fall guys hauled in, dead or alive, for the media.

Duterte will need allies in local government and in Congress. Politicians will flock to support him in the beginning, but once they sense public opinion is becoming frayed at the edges, they will jump ship.

And the judiciary, ah, they will be kept busy, perhaps not so much with criminal cases that make it to the courts as with the attempts of civil society to curb human rights violations and moves that short-circuit democratic processes.

POPULIST

Ultimately, we keep going back to the citizenry, especially the people who voted Duterte in. What we have is a populist president, in many ways similar to Joseph Estrada, except that Estrada's aura came mainly from a fantasy movie world of guns versus goons. This time around, we have someone who looms larger than life, making no bones about guns and goons.

Duterte would do well to mobilize the citizenry, build a mass movement ready to take up responsibilities, rather than just privileges. This is where I grieve for the Liberal Party. During the 2010 elections, I heard from and was impressed by young Liberal Party members who truly believed in their party and the prospects for change.

But that was part of the problem we have in the Philippines: the absence of real political parties, with members and clear platforms and visions that operate year-round rather than just during elections.

That lack of real political parties is Duterte's problem once again. I actually keep forgetting he ran under PDP-Laban, which traces its routes to the heady days after Edsa, full of hopes. PDP-Laban has become a shadow of itself, until Duterte came along; but Duterte will have to fire up the imagination of people, beyond shooting down criminals.

Which means he will have to be extra vigilant too about his followers. During the elections the cyberbullies defending Duterte did get people concerned: Was that a taste of what is to come?

Life moves on. Duterte won't be president till June 30. In this transition period, a new school year starts, marked by the birth pains of K-12 and senior high school. It will be a reminder to the new administration that the young must be his top priority. Our schoolchildren's needs capture so much of Filipino dreams: a good and affordable education, safe streets, efficient public transport, healthcare and nutrition.

We're really in the dark for the next few weeks. The final outcome of the vice presidential race will be so crucial. There will be sighs of relief if Leni Robredo does win, but that will be accompanied by anxiety too: Will she be able to work with Duterte?

The results for Congress, and local governments will also be crucial. Most importantly, we await Duterte's announcement of Cabinet members, their plans and programs.

So, for now, we are a nation-Duterte supporters or not-whistling in the dark, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst.

mtan@inquirer.com.ph