Could the Philippines President show the US President-elect how to reform?
In May, I wrote on New Mandala that while Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and US President-elect Donald Trump are notorious for tasteless jokes against women and the LGBT community, their personal and political backgrounds are altogether different. Duterte is not part of the traditional elite, he has good ties with the Muslim community, and he is a self-declared Leftist. In other words, he is the opposite of what Trump represents in politics.
But when Trump won the 8 November presidential election in the US, Duterte greeted him as one president to another, and expressed his intention to work closely with Trump despite his previous pronouncements lambasting American intervention in Philippine politics.
Interestingly, Duterte also compared himself to Trump, noting that both of them have the tendency to curse in public. It was a different story in May when Duterte said Trump was a bigot while he was not. Duterte’s spokesman added that the Philippine President and Trump started their respective campaigns as underdogs who overcame numerous odds to win.
Indeed, Duterte and Trump achieved phenomenal electoral victories despite the initial projections that they would lose in the polls. They failed to impress several mainstream analysts but they directed their energies to convincing the electorate. They mobilised public support by tapping into the anger and frustration of ordinary voters.
Despite the seemingly similar populism of the two, it is still not entirely accurate to compare Trump and Duterte. After all, Duterte has been in public service for three decades already and he has carved a name for himself as city mayor for implementing tough but effective measures against crime and corruption. He talks loud, but he also gets things done. Meanwhile, Trump has yet to prove his worth as a public official.
But Duterte and Trump can learn from each other. For example, Duterte can become a better public speaker by listening to Trump. He should observe how some of Trump’s racist and xenophobic statements are causing much hate and division in the US If he wants to unify Filipinos, he should refrain from making similar hurtful remarks in public.
On the other hand, Trump should study how Duterte disproved his critics who expected him to underperform in his first few months in office. Duterte affirmed his image as a non-traditional politician who can quickly address the people’s demands. Unlike his predecessors, he succeeded in drafting and signing a “Freedom of Information” Executive Order; he suspended destructive large-scale mining operations; he pushed for the regularisation of temporary workers; he vowed to pursue an independent foreign policy which is enshrined in the 1987 Constitution; and he resumed peace talks with Communist and Muslim rebels. He even appointed Leftist radicals in his Cabinet.
Most importantly, Trump, who has indicated he will take a harder stance on drugs, should take caution to not replicate Duterte’s controversial ‘War on Drugs’. While Duterte claims it is succeeding, human rights groups are blaming it for the disturbing rise of extrajudicial killings in recent months. Although Duterte believes the ‘War on Drugs’ may be necessary, the world deems the accompanying human rights abuses unacceptable.
Duterte’s accomplishments as a peacemaker, patriot and defender of labour and environment are overshadowed by the human rights violations allegedly perpetrated by state forces. Unfortunately for Duterte, the mainstream global press is depicting him as a ‘punisher’ instead of his intention to be a reformer.
If Trump wants to make America great again, he must focus on achieving his objective without being distracted by a political platform that would only generate antagonism and hate in society. He should watch how Duterte is losing global support by desperately defending the ‘War on Drugs’ despite the obvious excesses made by his police.
Duterte’s presidency has been undermined by his bloody campaign against drugs and crime; nevertheless, he can still boast about his progressive agenda and success in other areas. It is this reformist element of Duterte that Trump should try to emulate when he becomes a public official for the very first time next January.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator.