The Philippine presidential election, which projected Mr Rodrigo Duterte to power this week with an impressive victory margin, has a familiar ring. It once again illustrates the draw charismatic leaders bearing tall promises have on electorates wearied of graft, the inefficiency of institutions and widening income disparities. Bagging 39 per cent of the votes cast, the 71-year-old Mayor of Davao with a reputation for coarse speech and busting crime, handily beat his nearest rivals, administration candidate Mar Roxas and Senator Grace Poe. Perhaps a Roxas-Poe combination could have polled 45 per cent of the vote, but in a "first past the post" system that the nation follows, his victory was a clear landslide.
Now that the election is over, attention will focus on what happens to the Philippines on his watch. Mr Duterte cannot complain that he inherited a poisoned chalice. The economy he inherits from President Benigno Aquino is a strong one, steadily clocking more than 6 per cent average growth in a sluggish region where the spectacular growth rates of the past seem like a distant dream. Foreign investors are finally positive on the Philippines. Growth in the 2010-2014 period was the highest in 40 years, buoyed by services which account for more than half the gross domestic product. Once the "Sick Man of Asia", the Philippines, under Mr Aquino, has indeed become a star turn in the region.
Mr Duterte's task is to not drop the ball, even if he finds it difficult to outpace Mr Aquino's track record. The highly literate, English-speaking nation of some 100 million needs policies that promote not only growth, but employment as well. For that, he must lay stress on repairing the crumbling infrastructure, abolish monopolies, particularly in utilities, and bring his crime- and corruption-fighting instincts to the larger nation. He has a good opportunity to prove his critics wrong, particularly those who think the archipelagic nation may have just elected another dictator. The reaction in financial markets suggests that investors are reasonably sanguine about the man. His Asean neighbours would also be thankful to see continuity in Manila's key policies.
It would be a pity if leaders around the region drew the wrong lessons from the Duterte victory and started giving more importance to populism over effective government. Filipinos, in voting in Mr Duterte, are only signalling a weariness with status quo politics and graft, although the outgoing President's ways stand out as an honourable exception. In a nation with a median age of 23.5 years - Laos is the only Asean state to have a lower median age, at 22 years - it is but natural that there is a yearning for change and strong leadership. Mr Aquino delivered a modicum of both, but the candidates who stood against Mr Duterte clearly did not meet those aspirations. It now falls on him to help his youthful nation achieve its full potential.