For someone who claims to have led a wild, wasted youth, Rodrigo Duterte has transformed Davao City into the country’s most antiseptic city, akin to a provincial Singapore. Laws on smoking, littering, driving, drinking, and videoke are enforced in a manner that some say has made Davao boring. Nightlife is dead past 10 P.M.—quite unfairly, one might add, because Duterte once indulged in all common vices. There is only one vice that he and his dear city have not given up: women. He thanks Viagra for allowing him intimate pleasures in his senior years.
His open flirtation with female reporters, in full view of crowd and cameras, is the stuff of legend—and printable and air-worthy news. This is where Duterte’s art of politics cum seduction becomes conspicuous. No Filipino leader has been punished in the polls for his philandering. If anything, he is rewarded. The fairy tale weddings of Mar and Chiz come only second to the narrative of a virile love conquistador.
Shortly before the 2010 voting, a picture of Jejomar Binay with another woman surfaced suspiciously in social media. Being caught in the embrace of a younger, taller, skinnier, and fairer lady was only slightly embarrassing. While that photo may not have sealed his victory, it certainly foiled those who plotted to thwart him.
I am reminded of that well-funded, well-researched campaign of another presidential aspirant. His handlers offered to pay a celebrity friend handsomely to be romantically linked to the, of course, married politician. Radio commentators and tabloid columnists on retainer would take care of spreading it. The ploy was to ensure the candidate’s talkability and name-recall via the requisite reputation of being a “babaero” and an “idol.” It is in this context that we might want to view Duterte’s atras-abante, insertion-withdrawal (or cock-teasing) over his presidential run late last year.
I was in Davao City in April for a story on how it became an oasis of order and discipline in Mindanao. A local reporter pointed out that Duterte was notorious for filing his COC on the last day, always. Once, he had already endorsed a candidate, only to end up running again himself. It had become so predictable that his own people shrugged whenever he’d go on the record saying he was not interested in the presidency. Because all the time he was saying so, his political machine was humming and running. City Hall employees were the least surprised: they were already issued campaign t-shirts. Up until the last day of filing of COC, people close to Duterte were feeding media with all sorts of information: he had bought plane tickets and was flying in any moment; he was holed up in Manila Hotel, waiting for the final hour to file his candidacy certificate.
Duterte went around the country on a listening tour to promote federalism, yet what heightened was not awareness of a new form of government but of him. He gladly accepted every media invitation to “deny” he was running, and at the same time tease the public with his vision of what it would be like under a Duterte regime: he will shut down congress if they obstruct him; the funeral business will experience a boom in the wake of his anti-crime campaign.
I am also reminded of Miriam Santiago in 1991.
She had shot to national prominence as the RTC judge who “ate death threats for breakfast.” Appointed by Cory as immigration commissioner, Miriam one day issued a press statement denying she was running for president. Until that press statement, there was hardly talk of her running. It was that statement in fact that introduced the idea of her as presidential material. It was classic wag the dog; a “denial” that set her on the road to the 1992 presidential election, where she placed second (and only because she was cheated, she says, by Fidel Ramos). Miriam has mounted a second attempt at the presidency, this time using “pickup” and “hugot” lines as way to “seduce” voters.
In my interview with him in April, Duterte was not the cussing, cocky-yet-charming pol we often see on TV or read about. He was calm, collected, and somewhat introspective (in short, it was a boring interview). He offered insight on why he was different from the rest: he had the right moves, literally. “The masses know, from the moment you step out of the car, if you are one of them.” The untucked plaid shirt. The motorcycle. The menacing threats. The DOM moves. Dancing the nae-nae on Gandang Gabi, Vice. A lawyer by profession, born of middle-class parents, Duterte had the ability to empathize, to be common, not to alienate. He had street cred and moved in the ways of the jungle and wild that is Davao City and the rest of the country as well. The people perhaps are less in need of an enlightened leader than a strongman because they are powerless; a champion who can fix things for them fast because they are close to desperation. Duterte knows the right touch points, the erogenous zones of voters, how to whet their appetite and make them lust for him—a craft he mastered in his personal life and in politics. All that flip-flopping or indecision did not stall his candidacy. It was seduction—a coitus interruptus. It was pure method, a tactic he employed for 22 years as mayor and left much of Davao City asking for more Duterte.
From single digit, his survey ratings are now in the 20s, second only to the heir of FPJ. But while Grace Poe has been tested in a national election and has the Senate for a springboard, Duterte is going straight for Malacañang from the Davao City Hall. Not even the popular Erap Estrada, who went from San Juan mayor to senator and then vice president, was as brash.
Backstage at UP Cebu for the TV5 debate, Duterte sat with his second wife Honeylet and their daughter. There was no cordon sanitaire of seasoned politicians, political operators, or hotshot lawyers on loan from generous taipans.
Sitting outside the room on a monobloc stool was his man Friday, Bong Go. Duterte is never anywhere without him. Go hardly said a word, his attention intensely fixed on SMS exchanges coming in the two Nokia GSM phones he held in each hand. Duterte was in jeans. He matched it with a barong he unfolded from a bag and wore with buttons half open and sleeves rolled halfway. Admittedly, it was a refreshing sight. Duterte continues to defy and dumbfound in ways that has left more and more Filipinos turned on.