The man they call the ‘Punisher’ has scored a massive victory in the Philippines election. But can the president-elect unite a nation, asks Ronnie Holmes. 

7 May, 2016. This is hallowed ground where a multitude of faithful, of various denominations, converged in the past. Less than a hundred metres from the centre stage is the grandstand where presidents swore to fulfill the dictates of the Constitution. It is 2:30pm and there is a steady stream of people who came to witness the final rally, the miting de avance, of the leading presidential contender, a man who has been called the punisher.

The heat is punishing. There are repeated announcements from a production staff that there are water stations strategically located around the grounds.  Free purified water to quench one’s thirst.  But that is just about all that is free.

Nicely designed shirts that convey the belief that change is coming or pay homage to the punisher, are sold at AUS$ 6 to 7 dollars.  I will settle for the free low quality shirts that will certainly be thrown to the audience and tolerate the smell of turpentine silk-screening.

The first to go up on stage was Bishop Nilo Tayag of an independent church in the Philippines. A founding member of the anti-Marcos and left leaning organization, the Kabataang Makabayan (Patriotic Youth) that led the protest against Marcos before the declaration of Martial Law, Tayag, is the national chairman of a group that is tasked to prevent their candidate from being cheated in the forthcoming elections.

He spoke about how the elite have stolen power away from the masses from the time of Andres Bonifacio, the founder of the revolutionary organization against Spanish colonization in 1892. He asked the crowd if they will allow the elite to prevent the ascension of their chosen one. The crowd roared.   He drew more cheers when he roared that what the country needed was a president with balls.

Three hours later, the main program starts with the “appointed son of God”, Pastor Apollo C Quiboloy, leading the invocation. Quiboloy recounts how resolute the presidential candidate was even when he was mayor of the largest city in the country. He recalled a conversation where the candidate expressed his fears that his life was in danger but nonetheless committed to pursue criminals.   Empathising with his friend, Quiboloy swore to secure the future of his young children, transferring to each of them one landed property each.

Forty minutes into the main program, the candidate himself was introduced. The crowd that has ballooned to at least half a million roared.  In his usual spontaneity, he started by having his youngest daughter stand by his side. He introduced her. Then he called the attention of a granddaughter with an informal psst.  The crowd laughed. With reverence, the granddaughter went to the side of her younger aunt as Duterte explained that the younger aunt was a product of his second relationship, a kid he had with his second partner when he was 60 years old.

The candidate was high in spirits. He moved to a portion of the stage that his handlers said would be unsafe given a purported threat to his life. He says he does not fear for his life.  Standing beside him now is a former teacher in college, Jose David Lapuz. For his part, Lapuz exalted the candidate for his nationalism. Debunking claims that he is a communist, Lapuz characterized the candidate as possessing the traits of the national hero, Rizal, whose monument stood 300 meters right in front of the stage.

Tayag, Quiboloy and Lapuz, men from different organizations, who worship different gods but on this occasion have bonded together to extol the virtues of the leading presidential contender—Rodrigo Roa Duterte.  If the miting de avance was to be an indication of the results of the 9 May elections, Duterte, was bound to win. The crowd was 10 times more than what another contender had. The electricity was palpable, most evident when Duterte shouted Allahu Akbar.

Today, with all but more than one percent of the votes to be transmitted to a Commission on Elections server, Duterte is ahead of his closest competitor by more than six million votes, garnering almost 39 per cent of the popular vote, a figure that matches or comes close the proportion of votes obtained by the last three presidents—Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino. Given this distance, all the competitors have conceded and the only race that remains undecided is the separate Vice presidential race, a tight contest between Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and Representative Leni Robredo, the vice presidential candidate of the dominant Liberal Party of President Benigno S. Aquino III.

Knowing that he is now presumptive president, Duterte has toned his speech down. He has reached out to his rivals and has created a transition team to work with their counterparts from the outgoing Aquino administration.

But there are many questions that remain. Will he respect fundamental civil liberties given a record of human rights violations when he was Mayor of Davao and his repeated vow to end criminality within six months, by any means? Who will constitute his economic management team and will there be a coherent policy that will be resolutely pursued to secure the promised asset redistribution/inclusive development?   How would he deal with threats to the country’s territorial integrity as well as the country’s long standing foreign partners—the United States, Japan, and Australia, as well as with the region’s largest economy—China?

And there are more questions but let me address these through an amateurish attempt at being lyrical:

What must one expect from a winner from a tight fight,
who pulls away given repeated vows to use all his might
in eradicating crime with all its attending blight.

He managed to draw a rapid support base
in a rather vicious and divisive presidential race
in the end, though, did his supporters decide in haste?

His demeanor somehow changed
when the numbers showed that he can’t be chased
even by a contender who claims to be chaste.

Is there hope under his presidency
when he has verbalised an uncomfortable degree of obstinacy
and a mouth that constantly spews profanity.

Can he unify a nation?
Deliver on the promise of asset redistribution?
Secure the territory from external aggression?

Change is coming, courage and compassion
slogans that courted followers with so much passion,
a throng whose expectations, we hope, Duterte could see through its substantial fruition.

With all these questions, only one thing is sure—Duterte is coming.

Ronnie Holmes is President of public opinion research firm Pulse Asia and a PhD candidate in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent any associated organisation.