‘Duterte Harry’: An Analysis of Epiphanies

Upon embarkation of analysing the propaganda of the Duterte administration in my previous autoethnographical post, I have been immediately taken back to many conversations and realisations of how his election campaign and presidency have affected me personally within my own social and cultural framework.

Ellis et al’s Autoethnography: An Overview’ describes autoethnography as ‘an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno)’. Thus, in order to assist insiders (cultural members) and outsiders (cultural strangers) in understanding the political culture of the Philippines, I must analyse my own experiences (epiphanies) and consider the way others may experience similar epiphanies.

One of my most impactful moments trying to understand the excitement around President Duterte was on a deserted island in the Philippines at 3am after an 18th birthday debut. We had just swum to shore from accidentally hijacking a sailboat, and may or may not have had a little mix of tequila, Tanduay, and San Miguel beer (sorry mum). With this liquid courage, I was able to instigate a political discourse with young Filipinos that I would not normally feel comfortable talking about due to potential differences in ideology stemming from geographical upbringing and education. From what I had already witnessed in glimpses in international media, I pondered how a person in such a position of power could speak so casually with profanities, unapologetic rape jokes, and profess themself as a mass murderer, whilst still maintaining such strong public support. Surprisingly, some of these students agreed with my distaste of the President’s language, indicating that they preferred the representative of their country in the global sphere to possess eloquence and higher respect. The majority, however, saw him as the embodiment of the unfiltered, anti-corruption ideals that many of the marginalised did not have the voice to express themselves.

‘He backed the extra-judicial killings of drug dealers, alleged that journalists were killed because they were corrupt and called Philippines bishops critical of him “sons of whores”, among other crude comments’ (Desker, 2016).

Historically, with the country’s struggles of presidential corruption (Ferdinand Marcos, Ninoy Aquino, Jejomar Binay, etc.), celebrity (Joseph Estrada and Manny Pacquiao) and nepotism (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo), it can be argued that Duterte’s attitude of populism (that is, the support for the concerns of the ordinary people) secured him as a front-running candidate in the election.

Sociologist, Nicole Curato, and editor of ‘A Duterte Reader: Critical Essays on Rodrigo Duterte’s Early Presidency’ describes this portrayal as ‘Dutertismo’ – ‘a brand of leadership that [scholars agree] has elements that the country has never seen before’. Howie Severino discusses this further by appreciating Duterte’s role as an ‘underdog outsider’, and I think this perfectly reflects the thoughts of the young Filipinos I spoke with around the beach bonfire. For them and the majority of the country (as indicated by the 2016 election being the highest electoral turnout in decades at 81.62% and Duterte’s overwhelmingly high Trust rate of 91%), the President represents an appeal to the people, to the provinces, and to the anti-elite. Duterte speaks like the people in a ‘gutter language [that] lends credibility to the urgency of saving the republic. By rendering the visceral rejection of the status quo visible, he gives voice to the people’s frustration’ (Curato, 2016). Further, his determination to speak in English, his roots in the South (Visayan), and refusal to live in the Presidential Malacañang Palace heightens his position in populism, demonstrating a dismissal of the traditional, Manila-political-elite lifestyle associated with past corruption.

It cannot be denied that Duterte has changed the nature of public political discussion. I have in my research realised – why is it that this particular presidency has caused so much international debate and uproar amongst citizens and foreigners? Curato in ‘Flirting with Authoritarian Fantasies? Rodrigo Duterte and the New Terms of Philippine Populism’, attributes Duterte’s success in contemporary populism to ‘an age of communicative abundance’ with ‘a reality that politics today is predominantly conducted in televised and digital media’ and in a time when 94% of Filipinos have access to these platforms.

In turn, this rise of dialogic outlets has made it so ‘the issue is no longer the lack of information but the deficit of attention among audiences saturated with various messages’ (Curato, 2016). Thus, for Duterte, the media has become his stage, and his theatrical performance has been dubbed the #DuterteSerye. Due to this communicative abundance, I have found through my personal interactions, that there is an obvious tension in his supporters between justifying his policies as necessary measures to ensure strong domestic stability, and straight-up denying the existence of these policies. These students on the beach, normal citizens, were becoming increasingly heated in the conversation of Duterte’s presidency arguing that outsider news outlets were “twisting words” and “did not understand the country we live in”. And honestly, sometimes this discussion scares me. I have read examples of online thuggery where people have received death threats for expressing their concerns with Duterte’s administration. This discourse has driven normal, everyday people to make comments defending rape jokes saying, ‘better a bad joke than a bad government’, or ignoring the statistics of record-high murder rates in favour of believing claims of safer streets.

This discussion of President Duterte’s political propaganda and context has always been a heavy topic, with scholars only now really emerging to publish strong expressions of discontent and critique. And as much as I would love to continue this post’s analysis of Duterte’s power, I will save myself for my next post.

References

Severino, H (2017), ‘Scholars weigh in on a disruptive presidency’, GMA News Online Available at: http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/opinion/content/625558/scholars-weigh-in-on-a-disruptive-presidency/story/

Curato. N (2016) ‘‘Flirting with Authoritarian Fantasies? Rodrigo Duterte and the New Terms of Philippine Populism’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Volume 47, Issue 1). Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00472336.2016.1239751?scroll=top&needAccess=true

Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P. (2011) ‘Autoethnography: An Overview‘, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12:1. Available at: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095

Desker, B. (2016). President Duterte: A Different Philippine Leader. (RSIS Commentaries, No. 145). RSIS Commentaries. Singapore: Nanyang Technological University. Available at: https://dr.ntu.edu.sg/bitstream/handle/10220/40765/CO16145.pdf?sequence=1

Heydarian, R. J. (2016). What Duterte Portends for Philippine Foreign Policy. (RSIS Commentaries, No. 123). RSIS Commentaries. Singapore: Nanyang Technological University. Available at: https://dr.ntu.edu.sg/bitstream/handle/10220/40774/CO16123b.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

 

 

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2 comments

  1. Duterte is quite the polarising figure. His style of down with the people politics is great for winning voters, but I just can’t reconcile with his appeals to vigilantism. Maybe that’s just an outsider’s perspective and the youths on the beach are right and we don’t “understand the country we live in”. As you mentioned, the Philippines has seen first-hand the impacts of totalitarianism, so I find it interesting that they don’t see the problem with neglecting ‘due process’ and leaving power unchecked. Do you think Duterte’s motives are genuine or do you think there may be underlying motives?

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