A charismatic maverick by the name of Rodrigo Duterte, a long-time mayor of Davao city in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, has this week been elected president of the Philippines.
He cut a stark contrast to the other presidential aspirants who were either seen as pro-status quo, inexperienced or allegedly corrupt. Standing on a platform of eradicating crime and corruption that have plagued the country, Mr Duterte has shocked his countrymen's sensibilities with his colourful language, threats to kill criminals and shut down Congress should an impeachment attempt be made when he comes to power. He has also startled neighbours with his 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.
Since the 1980s, the Philippines had been regarded as the "sick man" of Asia. Unlike the rapid economic growth made by its South-east Asian and East Asian neighbours that benefited from export-oriented industries backed by strong economic fundamentals, the country languished for many years from negative growth and poor economic prospects; it experienced political instability brought on by its tumultuous period of martial law and dictatorship under the Marcos regime that bankrupted the country and inflicted human rights abuses.
Following its "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 the 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 had met with fitful success.
Decades later, the Philippines finally achieved some semblance of economic progress and political stability. From 2010 to 2014, the country recorded its highest growth in 40 years, averaging 6.3 per cent a year and was among the fastest in Asia's developing countries. Once shunned by foreign investors due to fears of instability, the Philippines today has investments and industrial growth as the major drivers of its economy, with the services sector contributing more than half its gross domestic product (GDP).
With a population of over 100 million, the country's competitive advantage has been its large, highly literate and young English- speaking labour force. It also stands to gain from its demographic dividend - the population's 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 that contribute about 8-9 per cent to its GDP - thanks to the 2.4 million overseas Filipino workers.
Departing President Benigno Aquino credits his administration for laying down the foundations of strong economic fundamentals and political stability that makes the Philippines potentially the next "bright star" of Asia.
Given the economic numbers, it is puzzling that the administration's candidate, Mr Mar Roxas, a technocrat and widely experienced government official, had trailed in the polls. Even more puzzling is how a "tough-talking" provincial mayor, who appears to be dismissive of political institutions and the rule of law, has captured the hearts of many Filipinos, across all ages and economic classes.
With his promise of a "comfortable life" for Filipinos and a safe country, Mr Duterte has become the hero of groups of people who had been disillusioned by the inability of several leaders to eradicate poverty and corruption in the country.
While the Aquino administration boasts of positive economic numbers and unprecedented levels of confidence from the international business community as its achievements, a high level of income inequality persists. Despite gains of poverty reduction over the years, almost a quarter of the population still live below the poverty line.
During the campaign sorties, the voices of discontent centred on the failure of previous governments to improve the lot of millions of Filipinos. Interestingly, as noted by Filipino sociologist Randy David, the "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 neighbourhood… 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 turn (again) to dictatorship. Pre-election business jitters had seen the fall of the country's stock market and depreciation of the peso. Reinforcing the concern was the lack of clear policy pronouncements on how the front runner would actually address the issues that have so compelled people from all walks of life to support him.
This election is perhaps one of the most divisive elections held in the country's recent history. Commentators hope that the election results will be respected by all parties concerned. Former president Gloria Arroyo's presidency, for example, was dogged by accusations of cheating and illegitimacy until the end of her term. Possible attempts at denying a Duterte win could spell trouble and instability which the country can ill afford at this time.
It is indeed critical not only for the Philippines but also for Asean to have an orderly and peaceful transfer of political leadership in the country. The Philippines will be the chair of Asean next year, when the association turns 50. It is important that the new president understands the need for regional leadership in a challenged Asean, whose unity is tested amid the contested claims in the South China Sea and where Manila has a stake to protect given its case against China in the international tribunal at The Hague.
The new president should, therefore, ensure that notwithstanding verbal bravura, there can be no room for complacency in order to avoid possibilities of economic, political and security shocks to the region. A peaceful and economically vibrant Philippines stands to benefit from deeper economic integration through the Asean Economic Community.
It is also crucial for the new president to continue to find 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 a successful and peaceful transition of its leadership.
•The writer 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. This article first appeared in RSIS Commentary.
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