All worlds are a scene, Shakespeare wrote, and a man of his time plays many roles.
Mixed between rapacious empires and irreproachable oligarchs over the centuries, the Philippines has never had a leader like Rodrigo Duterte. Here is a man who plays a thousand roles at the head of power, a consummate Thespian crowned by a people under siege in its darkest hours. And if one believes, at first glance, the latest surveys, President Duterte is also the most popular leader in the world. What is its magic?
Mr. Duterte is a man of many firsts, a singular figure in the history of our country. Not only is he our first president of the long and unjustly marginalized island of Mindanao, a land bristling with untold talents and unfettered aspirations, he is also the first mayor to be catapulted straight to the presidential palace.
In a long line of fragrant and chic rulers, he proudly stands out as the scruffy and brooding man of the people. I remember vividly how, at an award ceremony in Malacaang, the president, then still in his first year in office, boasted of being haunted by former presidents because he still misbehaves. .
In a country where the elite love to brandish their Hispanic ancestors and American accents, Mr. Duterte has proudly claimed to be of Muslim (Maranao) and even Chinese descent.
Where Mr. Duterte stands out most from his peers and predecessors is his poisonous contempt for the West, especially America, and, as a result, his unwavering complacency on the authoritarian rulers of the Russia and China. Its foreign policy has been a surreal mixture of contradictions and chutzpah.
In a truly populist fashion, he threatened to bankrupt the country’s most powerful businessmen, the Métis billionaires who dominate the economy and have long been considered untouchable.
More importantly, despite being the oldest man to ever keep Malacaang busy, Mr. Duterte is the most media and energetic leader in the country’s history. And this is where his ultimate secret of power lies, the fountain of his unfathomable charisma.
By any objective standard, Mr. Dutertes’ governance record is mixed at best and, in some areas, simply mediocre.
Just think about his handling of the COVID-19 crisis. According to the international medical journal The Lancet, crisis management in the Philippines ranks in the bottom third of the countries studied, a dismal 66th out of 91 countries.
Struck by the region’s worst epidemic, the Philippines is also set to experience the second worst economic contraction this year. No serious thinker would look at key national indicators in recent years and think competence is the name of the game.
But Mr. Duterte remains popular because he knows how to project leadership into our postmodern simulacrum where impression management trumps actual performance. Researchers often use the term performative governance to refer to this brand of leadership. The great scholar of populism Ernesto Laclau also rightly used the term empty signifier.
In the age of social media attention deficit, do people really care about detailed factual analysis?
In the midst of this crisis, we have seen an emotionally transparent leader, surrounded by generals and high-level Cabinet members, deliver regular perorations on the state of the nation. Meanwhile, legions of online propagandists carefully nip any criticism in the bud and tirelessly reinforce the organized image of a decisive and reliable leader.
Then there is the general climate of fear in the working-class communities, the main respondents to the survey as well as the main witnesses to Mr. Dutertes’ scorched-earth drug war. Note the somewhat approved figures in the polls.
Interestingly, the latest Pulse Asia surveys coincided with Bayanihan 2’s financial aid to millions of anxious Filipino families, who desperately yearn for a strong leader amid a generational crisis.
In fact, it is precisely this atavistic need for a tough leader, a father figure, which is why Mr. Dutertes’ populist peers enjoy historic approval ratings. At the height of the crisis, Indias Narendra Modi saw his approval ratings soar to 90%, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan received a 14 point hike.
Even Brazils Jair Bolsonaro, widely regarded as one of the most incompetent leaders of recent months, is getting his best approval ratings to date.
But above all, at 91%, Mr. Duterte is the master of performative governance, his populism is a Shakespearean scene.
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