Rooting for Rody

Straight from the city that made the president, a writer reports on hope and disappointment, change and stagnation, and the character required to weather them

by John Bengan

Straight from the city that made the president, a writer reports on hope and disappointment, change and stagnation, and the character required to weather them


One evening last September, a man left a bag at the bustling night market on Roxas Street, Davao City. Then, from a distance, he used a cellular phone to set off an improvised explosive device inside the bag. The blast claimed 15 lives and wounded several individuals. The attack, which came three months after Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte was elected president, punctured Davao’s aura of safety, reminding residents that the city was never truly shielded from what continues to trouble other places in Mindanao.

These days, people are flocking to the night market again. The streets are filling up. Elsewhere, bars and restaurants are seeing more of their regulars return. Suspects linked to a newly formed terror group have been arrested. As with the aftermath of attacks in 2003, the community is bouncing back. Some semblance of order has been restored.

At the Matina Town Square, a popular food and entertainment arcade, a large banner that reads “Stay Strong Davao” hangs over the entrance. The sign has replaced another banner that used to welcome patrons during the election period, an old banner that read “Duterte Town Square.” Meanwhile, more security checks have been installed across the city. While crossing the street outside city hall some time last month, I was approached by a soldier who asked me to open my backpack. The “state of emergency on account of lawless violence” that President Duterte declared shortly after the explosion on September 2 has yet to be lifted.

In his public appearances, the president continues to swing from rage to comedy. One moment he’s scolding inept officials, the next moment he’s cracking a racy joke. Foreign observers have often remarked that Filipino humor is a balm that prevents us from confronting our problems. Here now is a president who uses humor to disarm and, at the same time, spur people to action. Who else could joke about kidnapping and dynamite fishing in front of a crowd in Basilan and in the same breath, ask them to protect the environment and help the government attain lasting peace for the nation?

The same Visayan humor—dark, earthy, self-deprecating—has gotten President Duterte in trouble. His rambling, code-switching, stream-of-consciousness style of addressing the media has exposed a dangerous impulsiveness, which is amplified tenfold by constant coverage. His speech swerves from lucidity to murkiness in a turn of a phrase, sporadically jolting listeners with invectives lobbed at individuals and organizations that others curse only in secret or under their breath.

Like many in Davao, I’ve been inured to this belligerent style of speech. We could easily dismiss the mayor’s outrageous statements. It was his way of saying he means business: we better follow rules. This is why people in Davao have grown to value how the Dutertes run the city. Abusive practices are quickly corrected. Strict implementation of policies is observed to keep wrongdoing from happening again.

Take, for example, the attempt to monopolize stalls at the night market. In August, Mayor Sara Duterte had ordered for the temporary closure of the market after a vendor rented several stalls and leased them for a higher price to other vendors. After the matter was settled, the market reopened and city hall imposed a one-stall policy for the 700 stall owners. The market had only been back in business for a few weeks when the explosion happened.

I support this administration’s progressive programs in labor, social services, health, the environment, and the peace process. The president’s fabled political will has so far made possible early signs of progress in those areas. But I know that rooting for Rody comes with a nauseating drawback. Now that President Duterte is responsible for the entire country, his words have become more brash, and his methods, particularly in the campaign against illegal drugs, more severe.

Davao is no longer his only audience. A number of people here—from university professors and cab drivers to market vendors—would rather turn off the TV or radio whenever he slips into another tirade.

Read the full article in Rogue’s December 2016-January 2017 issue.