The Duterte Leader: The Man and Legend

Rodrigo Roa Duterte, 16th President of the Republic of the Philippines, first of his name and first President from Mindanao, a legend of and for our time.

How does one explain the colorful character that is Duterte? I am not here to give an academic explanation of his popularity nor his ascendance to power. Better scholars have done that and are still doing it.

These are simplistic musings on why I think 16 million Filipinos made their choice or took their chances with the motorbike-riding, foul-mouthed mayor of Davao city.

Duterte is a product of our time. The rise of Duterte and the momentum with which he took the national scene by storm are partly due to the undoing of the magic of EDSA 1986. The other part was due to the person of Duterte.

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If you think of it, he was the closest presidential candidate to the common tao.

Roxas, Binay, and Poe were already political and social elites. “Iron Lady” Miriam, who aided historical revisionists by picking Bongbong, on the other hand, was an elite on a level of her own; let’s face it: nobody wants their stupidity rubbed on them.

The bad thing about most intellectuals is, rather than instruct, they, sometimes unconsciously, flaunt how much they know and make other people feel how little they know.

16 million Filipinos felt closer to the more down-to-earth, no frills, no fuss, Duterte. He appealed to the people’s need for authenticity, for a president that is truly of the people.

Although he had the ways and means and knew the protocols of the prim and proper, Duterte flouted them as he saw fit. He made no excuses for being himself and conveniently shrugged off, even enjoyed, the chaos and confusion that ensued.

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The closeness of his persona, his getup, his manners of act and speech to Juan and Juana was his trump card. He had no elaborate platforms, he expounded on generalizations and knew how to tap on the “common sense” sentiments of the people from the construction worker to the software engineer up to the rich businessman.

He offered the common tao a sublimated form of themselves. His ordinariness, the kanto freestyle, no-nonsense leadership, and lifestyle he had always been known in his city, now projected, documented in national media resonated with the public.

Duterte was someone who reflected the common tao’s mannerisms, their prejudices, their disappointments and frustrations with the mayaman, disente, and edukado who lorded over them. And these mannerisms and prejudices are not necessarily good. In fact, most of them run counter to polite society.

In a way, Duterte’s electoral run and his eventual presidency was a transfiguration for the common tao; an alchemical transmutation of lead to gold, a miracle of turning water into wine.

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He offered the people a legend, an opportunity for greatness from an ordinariness with which they identified with and tried to escape. For here was someone who curses like them, talks like them, eats at a carinderia like them, belts out in karaoke like them, have the same vices just like them, and he is going to be president with a different label of change!

And he who successfully gives a glorious legend to the people reigns and imposes his will on them.

More than offering the usual alternative solutions, Duterte’s person was an alternative in itself. He rubbed elbows with the Reds, lambasted the Yellows, the oligarchs, the social elites; dressed, talked casually, and showed an approachability, unlike other politicians.

He was his own message. He was a walking gospel of sorts. Without doing anything grand, he drew all kinds of people to him, good and bad alike. He was not intelligent and multi-awarded like Miriam, did not have the political pedigree of Roxas, the social capital of stardom of a Poe, and the political acumen of Binay. He was just plain old Rody Duterte, badass mayor of Davao city.

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Like Mao Tse-tung, Vladimir Lenin, and Andres Bonifacio, people believed, followed, and raised Duterte because they saw in him a leader who shares the pain and works for everyone’s gain.

We can debate the failures, the disappointments, the contradictions and controversies of his person and presidency today, but Duterte’s legacy, his legend, is already set in the pages of our history.

We can debate his morals and politics but it does not alter the fact that his presence and command remains in place. For his supporters, this remains a proof of his greatness and the era of greatness to come for as long as Tatay Digong stays in power.

For his critics, this should serve as a grim reminder of how a big chunk of our population remains disillusioned and alienated with the democracy after EDSA, so much so that they can easily shrug-off EJKs, the violation on Human Rights and territorial sovereignty, and the unfulfilled promises of ending labor contractualization, and the additional economic burden of the TRAIN law.

How should we respond to President Duterte? I’ll defer to my professor’s advice: “Don’t focus on what he says. Look at what he does.”





I am neither a DDS nor a Dilawan. I am a seeker of truth.

Dom writes for pay by day and writes for passion by night. He is a Japan major at the University of the Philippines. He’s fond of ramen and anime but not of nice people.

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