The 2010s was the decade of populism. From President of the United States Donald Trump to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsanaro, people expressed their deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the long-standing status quo of their respective countries by giving power to those who promised to break it.
Filipino citizens expressed similar sentiments during the May 2016 elections by choosing then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte to become president. Electing Duterte seemed to be a rejection of politicians who broke their campaign promises once in office.
Populist anger against standard Philippine politics also contributed to the growth of a political faction in the country’s electorate called the Diehard Duterte Supporters (DDS). This group, which emerged during the 2016 election campaign, has become President Duterte’s core fanbase, wholeheartedly supporting him despite his disregard for the rule of law and basic human rights guaranteed by the Philippine Constitution. With that unconditional support also comes a tendency to rabidly defend Duterte by bulldozing any opposing viewpoints on social media, which has the potential to threaten democratic public discourse within the country.
Understanding Duterte’s General Appeal
One could describe populism as the ideology that “claims to represent the common people.” Specifically, populism, as described by Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, concerns itself with “defending” the interest of the common people (or “pure people”) against the “corrupt elite.”
Duterte’s rise was born out of public political frustration, lashing out at the “corrupt elite” that Mudde mentioned. “[Since] the People Power Revolution (the movement that led to the ousting of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and re-installed democracy in the country), every president [has been a liberal reformist]. The narrative was ‘Government has to change. Corruption has to be addressed’ and all those similar platforms when [people] ran for president,” said Kay Conales, a faculty member at the University of San Carlos (USC), in an interview with Spheres of Influence (SOI).
Conales noted that despite the political clamour for change, everything was the same. After years of broken promises from politicians on corruption and poverty, the Filipino people were fatigued from a political culture where structural change and big improvements could not be made due to bureaucracy, political in-fighting, or greed. “When somebody like Duterte, who is so different from previous presidents and other presidentiables [came in], he really clicked with the people,” Conales said.
In the 2016 campaign, Duterte proposed a different “brand” of politics. The brand is not about reform or change since he believes it is too tedious and bureaucratic; instead, his brand is “instant politics” that delivers quick results. His 2016 campaign promise is one clear example of this strategy. “If elected president, give me about three to six months, I will get rid of corruption, drugs, and criminality,” said then-candidate Duterte.
Despite this unfeasible pledge, many people were willing to trust Duterte to fulfill it. “Duterte was mayor of Davao City for over 30 years. When people saw his track record, they thought, ‘Oh, it’s possible in Davao. So maybe it’s possible for the country’” Conales said. But even then, such a short timeline to eradicate the country’s major problem seemed improbable to most Filipinos. “Of course, I don’t think that people really believe the 3-6 months thing. Any logical mind wouldn’t say that we can address it all in that time frame. But Duterte’s track record in Davao City really made people believe that it was possible for the president or any politician to address these pressing problems.”
“Instant politics” was widely popular during and after the 2016 election. Through a media release published by the research institution, Social Weather Stations (SWS), on October 29, 2021, data suggested that the net satisfaction (the percentage of people satisfied minus those dissatisfied) towards Duterte has never dipped below +40. The same media release also shows that 67% of surveyed Filipinos approve of the president’s performance.
Even when Duterte’s administration bungled its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of the public seemed willing to turn a blind eye and continue supporting the president. In 2020, the Philippines’ GDP shrank by 9.6%, the worst economic downturn since the Second World War, while 4.6 million Filipinos lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
What makes the support for Duterte continuously high is the fact that although he may be making mistakes, people believe that he is actually doing something to address the problems, unlike other politicians. “People are very aware of the killings, but at the same time, they feel that Duterte [has] eliminated the criminals,” Professor Walden Bello said when talking about the alleged execution of suspected drug users and dealers by Duterte’s government. “The thugs, the street-corner boys, are no longer there. Women can walk the streets safely. I don’t know if their lives are actually better than before, but the perception is that they are. They’re pro-Duterte because they feel he’s cleaned up the place.”
Rodrigo Duterte, You Are The Father!
When talking about Diehard Duterte Supporters, it is crucial to make distinctions between those who generally support Duterte and those who are fanatically enamoured with him. The former may have some reservations, but they do like him as a president; the latter does not only love him — they are obsessed with him.
To understand the DDS movement, one must examine the model of the Filipino family and its implications on the country’s political culture. One key cliché is the presence of a father figure who wields strong authority over the family. “Oftentimes, Filipino fathers are different from fathers from Western societies. [Filipino fathers] are heavy-handed and they’re disciplinarians. When they speak, it’s often because they’ve had enough and they often [become] emotionally outraged,” said Aries Arugay, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines-Diliman and a visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “But despite this ‘tough love’, the Filipino father figure has the genuine well-being of his children in mind and works hard and gives it all.”
That description fits the DDS’ view of Rodrigo Duterte perfectly. They see him as the quintessential Filipino father figure. His brutal war on drugs, which he admits is responsible for more than 6,000 deaths during police operations (although human rights groups say that the number is close to 20,000), is a gory example of his “disciplinarian” style of governance and “tough love” for his people. His tirades against former President Barack Obama, Pope Francis, and the European Union were displays of his outrages after having “enough” of any opposition towards his administration.
In an interview with SOI, Arugay proposed that the father archetype may have contributed to the rise and popularity of President Duterte. “A lot of [the] DDS see a father figure in Duterte. They call him Tatay Digong (a combination of the Filipino word for ‘father’ and one of his nicknames).” The idea of politicians, particularly presidents, being thought of or labelled as family members is nothing new. For instance, people sometimes refer to the former president, Corazon Aquino, as Tita Cory (Tita means ‘aunt’ in Filipino). To Arugay, however, the term of endearment for Duterte symbolizes a paternalistic dimension that contributes to the cult of personality surrounding the President.
The DDS’ cult-like devotion to President Duterte is not only culturally intense — it’s also unwavering. “Why would you be critical about your father? Why would you express negative things about your father? You accept your father regardless,” Arugay said. Such a mindset, the professor continued, is the reason why the DDS will “close their eyes and simply not pay attention to the frailties of Duterte.”
The DDS justifies the president’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 response by saying that he is only acting in the interest of his “children,” the Filipino people. “So if policies fail, if policies didn’t work out, if we’re still stuck in this pandemic and we have the worst pandemic, we’ll hear [from the DDS] that ‘Well, we know that he has good intentions and that he always gives his best.’” Arugay then continued on the point of the DDS refusing to criticize Duterte. “How would you blame your father if [he] came up short, but in your heart of hearts, you know that he gave his best?”
Protect The Philippine Patriarch At All Costs
Not only does the DDS refuse to criticize Duterte, but the group also annihilates anyone who, in any way, opposes him. The DDS is notorious for its hostile takeover of Philippine social media. The shrewd social media organization by the Duterte election campaign in 2016 ushered in an online fanbase that sends or posts “aggressive messages, insults, and threats of violence.”
Conales, who does not support the president, has been a victim of these attacks. She used to publicly post and comment about Philippine politics on Facebook, believing that her page was a “space for civic engagement.” However, she had to do a 180-degree view-change after an onslaught from online trolls. In 2019, she wrote and published a post defending a USC student who got into a heated exchange with then-senatorial candidate Larry Gadon, a pro-Duterte individual and avid supporter of Bong-Bong Marcos, the son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. “My inbox was flooded with [the] DDS and Marcos apologists,” she recalled. “That was really traumatic for me.”
In another instance in 2016, Conales became the target of the DDS when she was tasked by the USC Political Science Department to post pictures of a demonstration the department organized in protest of the Duterte administration’s extrajudicial killings of suspected drug users and sellers. She also penned a position paper on the department’s stance on the issue.
In both instances, she got “below-the-belt comments” from anonymous personalities on Facebook. “I received messages that were just unbelievable,” she said, “but they’re actually real people sending me messages, threatening me, saying that I’m stupid [and] that I should kill myself. They said that I was an embarrassment to Cebu [where she resides].”
Conales then “cleansed” her Facebook, removing anything related to politics from her account. What she thought was a place to create discourse and educate others was actually a toxic cesspool. “[Posting politics on Facebook] became too toxic for me and I felt that it did not work. So I decided that I will have to use my Facebook account to express myself, but to mostly enjoy whatever is on Facebook.”
Conales’ story is one of many examples that signify the fear of many Filipinos to speak out against the current government. In a survey conducted from September 12-16 by SWS, 45% of respondents agreed that “it is dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical of the administration, even if it is the truth.” Those who are brave enough to call out the mistakes will be met with fierce retaliation. At this time, Filipinos are feeling the chilling effect created by the Diehard Duterte Supporters, who are waging a war against the concept of dissent.