The Trump virus goes global

Why are so many voters in a blind rage with government and politicians?

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
April 29, 2016

Trumpery – the political disease that is convulsing the United States – appears to be mutating into a world-wide epidemic.

Donald Trump is drinking from a deep well of public disgust for traditional politicians in his now seemingly unstoppable run to be the Republican candidate for President in November. He has found that voters will cheer anyone running for public office, no matter how incompetent, boastful or dangerous, so long as he is not tainted by conventional political experience.

READ: Boris Johnson: schemer or charmer? -- Jonathan Manthorpe
London mayor Boris Johnson has bigger political ambitions.

Something similar is happening in Britain where the Tory Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is championing the “No” vote in July’s referendum on whether or not the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union. Just as Trump threatens to rip the Republican Party into shreds, so Johnson may split the Conservative Party down its pro and anti-EU fault line.

Johnson’s principles are plastic to say the least. He has never made a promise he was not ready to break, or had a friend or lover he was not manoeuvring to betray.

Over a couple of decades in public life as a Member of Parliament (twice), directly elected Mayor of London, newspaper columnist and television personality Johnson has cultivated the image of a loveable bumbler. Like Trump, Johnson disdains political correctness and delights in saying out loud the outrageous thoughts most people have the good sense to keep to themselves.

But everyone knows that Johnson’s purpose in campaigning for Britain to leave the EU – “Brexit” in headline writer’s shorthand – is to try to oust David Cameron from the leadership of the Conservative Party and become Prime Minister himself.

Then there is Rodrigo Duterte, who by May 9 could have outpaced Trump and Johnson, and ridden the Trumpery wave to become the President of the Philippines.

Duterte has leapt into a solid lead in public opinion polls in the last few weeks as his anti-establishment, anti-crime agenda has gained traction with the electorate. And this is a man who takes anti-crime campaigns to extremes even Trump might find objectionable. During his 22 years as Mayor of Davao, the largest city in the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao, Duterte has been cited by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Council of the United Nations for, at the very least, tolerating death squads and the extrajudicial killing of suspected criminals.

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte speaks before the protesting residents in the city who are calling for the moratorium on housing foreclosure in several housing projects in the city. At least 5,000 homeowners coming from different subdivisions in the city and even from neighboring towns and cities marched around the city on Wednesday afternoon, Feburary 11, 2008 to oppose the transfer of an estimated P13 billion worth of housing loans with the National Home Mortgage Finance Corporation (NHMFC) to a private entity known as Balikatan Housing Finance Inc. (BHFI). AKP Images / Keith Bacongco
Phillipines presidential candidate Mayor Rodrigo Duterte in 2009, speaking as mayor of Davao to protesting residents calling for a moratorium on housing foreclosure. AKP Images / Keith Bacongco via Wikipedia

In a television interview last year Duterte admitted his links to the Davao death squads and warned that if elected president, he may kill up to 100,000 criminals. It’s “going to be bloody. People will die,” he said, pledging to end crime in the Philippines within six months of being elected.

How far Duterte gets personally involved in his anti-crime campaigns is hard to tell. However, there was one case last September where he stepped in. A bar owner called the mayor when a tourist refused to obey the city’s public anti-smoking bylaw and lit a cigarette. Duterte went to the bar and forced the tourist to eat the cigarette butt.

That, however, is far from being the full extent of Duterte’s boorishness. He readily admits to being a womanizer and clearly relishes his notoriety. But then there’s the case of an Australian woman missionary who was raped and killed during a prison riot in Davao in 1989. This is what Duterte said to a packed sports arena during a campaign rally on April 12:

“When the bodies were brought out, they were wrapped. I looked at her face, son of a bitch, she looks like a beautiful American actress. Son of a bitch, what a waste. What came to mind was, they raped her, they lined up. I was angry because she was raped, that’s one thing. But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste.”

After outraged complaints from the Australian ambassador to Manila, Duterte said he regretted his “gutter language,” but would not apologise for his remarks, which he said flowed from his “utter anger” at the incident.

If the thought of Duterte as President of the Philippines – or of anywhere – is not bad enough, there’s another unappetizing wrinkle to the story.

In Philippine elections the vice-presidential candidates are not part of the ticket in the presidential vote. They are elected independently. Well, the man coming through the pack with increasingly good prospects of being elected Vice-President next week is Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ran a brutal authoritarian state for 20 years until his ouster in 1986. The young Marcos is a fan of his father’s fixed bayonets approach to dealing with social and political problems. He and Duterte would probably get on famously.

What is difficult to understand is why voters in the Philippines appear to be in such a bitter, anti-establishment mood. Outgoing President Benigno Aquino has done a pretty good job. The economy has been growing steadily since 2000. Foreign investment is being pumped steadily into the country. Money has been available for much needed spending on social services and infrastructure. Low oil prices have been a boon.

Like the tenure of Barack Obama in the U.S., the Aquino years have been ones of rebuilding, consolidation and bright prospects for the future, unmatched for several generations.

Why then are so many Filipino voters, like their U.S. counterparts, in a blind rage with government and politicians? Some of the reasons in the Philippines and the U.S. are similar. The economic benefits of rebounding economies have not been shared equally. In the U.S., Trump’s appeal is to blue collar white people whose manufacturing or other low-skilled jobs have been blown overseas by the gales of globalization and free trade. In the Philippines, the divide is between rural and urban areas. Most of the jobs generated during the Aquino administration have been in the cities, while the countryside remains mired in poverty and the semi-feudal domination of a few families who own vast tracts of land.

To these people Duterte looks like a champion of the poor who might shake up the entrenched, moneyed establishment. Well, Filipino voters thought the same about another big city mayor, Joseph Estrada, in 1998. He had been mayor of Manila and before that a movie star who frequently played heroes of the downtrodden working classes. But his screen roles did not translate to the Presidency. He turned out to be just as venal as the rest and was removed by his vice-president in a coup in 2001.

Duterte as President would likely be similarly disappointing to his followers, just as Trump will be if he makes it to the White House.

There is, however, one area where Duterte could make a positive contribution and it concerns the killing this week of Canadian John Ridsdel by the Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf after a ransom was not paid. Another Canadian, Robert Hall, is still among the estimated 20 hostages being held by the group.

Abu Sayyaf started life in the 1990s as one of several separatist groups in the predominantly Muslim region of Mindanao and the surrounding islands. It has become, however, little more than a bandit gang that attracts recruits not by its Islamic fervour, but by the easy money to be made from hostage taking.

For well over 20 years successive administrations in Manila have attempted to reach agreements with the main separatist groups in the Mindanao region. The aim has been to give the region enough autonomy so that it will drop the demand for independence.

In 2014 Manila signed an agreement with one of the main separatist groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The idea was to strengthen local authority in the already established Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Elections for the new authority were meant to be held together with the national elections on May 9. But that agreement collapsed last year after 44 policemen were killed in a battle with MILF fighters.

The future of the peace process now hangs by a thread. It may seem unlikely, but even foreign security analysts see Duterte as the person most likely to be able to get the negotiations back on track. He is a Christian, but as Mayor of Davao has always maintained good relations with the local Muslim community, and ensured Muslims held senior positions in his administrations.

There is strong opposition among the Christian Filipinos, who make up about 90 per cent of the 100 million population, to greater autonomy for the Muslim Mindanao region. Duterte favours creating a federal Philippines rather than doing special autonomy deals for Mindanao or other minority regions. Christian leaders like the federal approach, but it will require constitutional change to implement, which is always an uncertain matter.

Even so, Duterte is the only presidential candidate talking seriously about the Muslim minority problem and the only one with any track record of successfully promoting communal harmony.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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