How do you solve a problem like Duterte?

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Nov 22 2015 02:01 PM

Even when he said enough, few people believed that Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte would be sailing off into the night.

It’s intriguing. Most of those who dismissed the message of that press conference are also the same people who say Duterte is a man of his word. Perhaps, it was the contrast between the words he read (emotional) and his body language (which said, ho-hum). Or, perhaps, people expect politicians to perform during election season.

Duterte has always been a lightning-and-thunder, one-man spectacle. With his latest pronouncement, expect the Duterteserye to dominate the news and social media.

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte has set the country abuzz again by declaring he will run for the Presidency following the Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET) vote on a disqualification case filed against current survey leader, Sen. Grace Poe. Photo from Duterte's official Facebook page

Digong now says he has decided to contest the 2016 presidential race because of his displeasure at Senator Grace Poe’s narrow Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET) victory on a disqualification case.

His latest spiel was full of dramatic sound bytes and straight-to-meme lines. The fiery mayor, a lawyer and former public prosecutor, said the Presidency “must be reserved for a true-blue Filipino."

''Ilabas mo ang nanay mo … Ilabas mo na kung sino ang nanay mo.'' Legally sound maybe, but insensitive -- though sensitivity seems to be the the last thing supporters want from him.

Duterte’s not the only one who doubts Poe’s contention that a foundling in the Philippines is automatically conferred “natural-born” status – as opposed to simple citizenship. That phrase is everything in one’s qualification for a national electoral position.

He does make a valid point in words everyone will understand. What happens if Poe – who leads every survey -- wins the Presidency with new disqualification cases still pending?

A “presumptive Presidency,” Duterte says, can only lead to instability.

So, the excitement that never went away is again blazing across the country. But will the Commission on Elections (Comelec) allow Duterte to run? What will the Supreme Court do once the case lands on its halls?

Anti-crime, anti-pork and anti-political dynasty activist Martin Dino, who has withdrawn as Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) presidential bet, filed the correct form but put in a wrong position.

But let’s imagine a green light for Duterte. What happens?

Mindanao and largesse

Duterte can hurt Poe. But he can hurt Roxas more – where it counts. One word: Mindanao.

Survey after survey shows Duterte winning in Mindanao, where Roxas can’t even benefit from friendly ties between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and President Aquino.

Dislike is a tame word to use for what many MILF supporters feel towards Roxas. Mamasapano and the woes of the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) reinforced those negative sentiments.

Duterte, on the other, clearly spoke up and declared the attack by the Philippine National Police (PNP) Special Action Force (SAF) a violation of the government’s peace agreement with the largest Moro rebel group.

Duterte addresses SWAT members during the opening of an orientation training. File photo from Duterte's official Facebook page

While Poe isn’t the MILF’s favorite person either, she can count on her father’s supporters. He was known as a good friend of former President Joseph Estrada – much hated in MILF areas for his all-out war. But the action superstar had a strong following in Muslim Mindanao, (which included families of MILF guerrillas, one amused rebel officer told me during the 2004 elections campaign).

Poe can’t inherit all of those votes, of course. But Roxas has the biggest challenge there. Many Mindanaoans who may feel threatened by the MILF and the BBL would rather trust Duterte – definitely not Roxas -- to negotiate a way out of the impasse. Those who back the BBL will choose Duterte because Roxas has never bothered to stick his neck out on the issue and because a weak leader is never good for peace.

Even officials of the Autonumous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) can muster only the most tepid words of support for Roxas.

Line agency officials across Mindanao say that all the largesse now flowing from Malacanang and Roxas’ former department – all in aid of electioneering – will mean little to voters come elections.

They say the same holds true for the funds now being dangled by the administration for downloading by local governments and members of Congress.

Word from the provinces describes a very promiscuous ruling coalition trying to cut deals all ways, leaving their bets disgruntled. Already, it has shoved aside well-meaning followers for traditional politicians who are more ruthless political brawlers.

But campaign money isn’t the end-all, be-all of patronage. There are the deals and a track record for standing by your pals through thick and thin. Mr. Aquino is known for the latter; so is Binay, who is loved by the Mindanao beneficiaries of Makati’s largesse through the years. Roxas, right or wrong, is seen as a dour, transactional politician.

If you’re hungry for deals, you’ll look to Binay. He has big problems now but he coasted along for decades with nary a scandal. He’s the hero of corrupt local pols, not because the Liberal Party is clean but because the LP guys stumble publicly from one deal to another.

Duterte will hurt Poe and Binay in Mindanao. He will hurt Roxas most.

Visayas and Yolanda

Duterte can also hurt Roxas in the Visayas. His talent for populist gestures will serve him well in the islands of central Philippines, including Western Visayas and Negros region.

And Duterte will be remembered for Yolanda, for his tears and his active, early participation in relief operations.

Duterte with the second batch of Davao City volunteers sent to aid survivors of super typhoon Yolanda. Photo from Duterte's official Facebook page

Roxas, on the other hand, thought it more prudent to stay away during the second Yolanda anniversary – for good reason. The President didn’t help his cause by spending the anniversary socializing in some chichi wedding while people in Yolanda areas demanded an accounting of aid funds.

In Negros region, officials privately say Duterte running will be a nightmare. Remember how the sugarcane hacienda hands put their foot down when it came to their presidential vote for Estrada? The same rumblings are heard on behalf of Duterte. Like the old Erap, he can break the feudal voting patterns in sugarlandia.

In Iloilo, the signatures gathered in the still-ongoing people’s initiative against the pork barrel show high figures even in districts known as bulwarks of Liberal Party politicians.

Largesse has landed in Iloilo – that convention center, those highways. Voters can rest easy that nothing will take these away, and so the fandom for Mr. Aquino may not be transferred that easily to Roxas, even with all the heaving of Senate President Franklin Drilon.

There is also the fact that Iloilo province suffered much from Yolanda and suffered from the relief and rehab anomalies that followed.

Headache for friends

Will Poe suffer the most? I don’t think so.

Poe’s organized supporters will stand with her. She has plenty of the civil society independents disappointed with the Liberal Party. They’re not going to rush to Duterte’s side because of his love for espousing extra-legal actions.

The legal militant Left will campaign hard for Poe. Duterte, however, is also their good friend and a great supporter of long standing. The strongman accused of encouraging death squads in his city is also a staunch defender of human rights of activists.

I can’t really see activists training all their fire at him even while they campaign for Poe. Nor do I expect Poe to ask that of them.

President Benigno Aquino III’s administration certainly has the blood of activists on its hands. With its systemic corruption that is pork and its rural scorched earth tactics on behalf of big corporations, its candidate rightly deserves the brunt of the Left’s energies.

Vice President Jejomar Binay, of the plunder cases, comes second and Duterte a far third – especially since he has wisely distanced himself from the son of the dictator.

Then there’s the underground Left and its even closer and public ties with Duterte. The Davao mayor is a regular negotiator for prisoners of war. He has pledged to resume stalled peace talks. He is also vocal about his belief in a coalition government with revolutionary forces. It’s no secret that the leftist underground likes him.

Duterte signing turnover papers for the January 2015 release of Cpl. Benjamin Samano and Pfc. Alvin Ricarte who were abducted during a Dec. 2, 2014 morning raid in New Corella, Davao del Norte. Photo by Kilab multimedia

Poe’s unorganized supporters, on the other hand, are there because of their strong disgust at Mar Roxas, Mr. Aquino’s chosen heir, and Binay. Majority also genuinely like her over and above their memories of the father.

They are Duterte’s main audience and he knows exactly what will move them, who feel most vulnerable in the face of crime and government double standards.

If Poe’s legal woes continue to rock her world, and unorganized followers get antsy at the prospect of a Roxas and Binay win, Duterte will benefit.

Money problems

Duterte’s main problem remains the lack of financial big guns. To some degree, Poe has the same problem due to her pending cases.

Roxas and Binay seem to have the bulk of the country’s economic elite. They're vets at transactional politics and Duterte and Poe are, well, wild horses.

While campaign propaganda and vote buying will form a big part of expenditures, word from the ground is, the main bulk of funds are now being spent to gather “operators.”

The two men’s strategies are similar: If you can’t beat their charm, beat them at the counting machines. There is one word doing the rounds in the negotiations: PCOS.

Digong has shaken the odds for 2016. His strengths may not be enough to give him victory. Not yet. But he has enough to bloody the noses of the two main power blocs.

That might exactly be what people want even if -- especially if -- the Comelec forbids him from running.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.