Duterte: Political clown or social phenomenon?

Christian Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

The presidential election is still five months away, but one candidate appears to be dictating the tenor of the campaign this early.

With his colorful language and unconventional approach to such problems as criminality, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte has somehow emerged as the Philippine version of Republican candidate Donald Trump in the United States.

Whenever Duterte talks, people listen—and his opponents react. Never mind if much of his statements are littered with invectives, much to the dismay of people who prefer the conventional ways of Philippine campaigns.

But it’s this same Duterte approach that has also earned him lots of free media mileage, when other candidates have had to shell out millions for regular TV or radio spots.


The camp of Liberal Party standard-bearer Mar Roxas acknowledged the novelty of Duterte’s campaign approach, but said he was attracting interest for the wrong reasons.

“We don’t need a clown, we need a president,” Rep. Barry Gutierrez, Roxas’ spokesman, told ABS-CBN News.

“The only reason why Mayor Duterte is somehow popular these days is because he has distinguished himself from the other candidates by being, you know, the clown, by being the outrageous person in the room.”

Gutierrez added: “In a room full of adults, he is the child who throws a temper tantrum.”

Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, PDP-Laban president, said his party picked Duterte as its standard-bearer because “he is able to think outside the box in looking for solutions to our country’s problems.”

“Some candidates want to continue western doctrines and theories in solving our problems. Some want only cosmetic changes,” he said in a text message.

“President Duterte will introduce change: change we will all feel.”

‘Social phenomenon’

But what really makes Duterte click?

Former Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello described Duterte as a “social phenomenon that emerged because of (the people’s) tremendous frustration over elite politics, ‘trapo’ politics in this country.”

“He has tapped into a strong anti-elite undercurrent and this is the same thing that Trump has tapped into among sectors in the Republican party,” said Bello, who is running as an independent senatorial candidate.

Duterte also projects “the look of somebody who could actually deliver on what people need, has that ability to connect with a certain group of the electorate,” said Prof. Jeremy Gatdula of the University of Asia and the Pacific’s School of Law and Governance.

Deconstructing Duterte

Bello, a long-time human rights advocate, made it clear that he has “great disagreement” with Duterte over the mayor’s admitted practice of eliminating suspected criminals without due process.

“(But) let’s try to understand him as having become a vehicle (for people’s frustrations) so we can deconstruct Duterte and, in fact, show people that the shortcuts that he proposes are not the way to go,” he said.

“If you’re going to just dismiss him as a many have done, you are not going to understand why people are gravitating toward him at this point.”

Roxas’ camp believes interest in Duterte would eventually wear off once voters start looking at election issues more closely, and judging who among the presidential candidates is actually fit for the job.

And for Roxas and the rest of the political contenders, this supposed political clown should not have the last laugh.