Engaging Duterte’s supporters: Lessons from Listening to the Populist Publics
By: Cleve Arguelles
In Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, fears of further democratic backsliding have dominated conversations among democracy advocates. To counter this backslide, civil society groups and democrats are experimenting with strategies on responding to a populist president who has openly attacked human rights norms and democratic institutions. Some are considering convicting Duterte in national and international courts, others are flirting with the idea of impeachment or another extra-constitutional people power revolt, and many more are eyeing electing opposition politicians in the 2019 midterm elections.
Drawing from my conversations among Duterte supporters in big slum communities in the cities of Caloocan, Manila, and Quezon, I argue that taking the fire out of the populist Duterte will entail meaningful engagement with his supporters and their anxieties and hopes for the country. To speak of rescuing Philippine democracy from further backsliding is to de-center our efforts from Duterte and re-focus it to listening and responding to the most important voices in our democracy: the people. Otherwise, if our supposed democratic responses to populism only target the man himself, we risk having the large numbers of his supporters drift to non-democratic alternatives. This is the last in the series of essays on my fellowship with iLEAD on Listening to the Populist Publics1. I offer two lessons that I have learned from the duration of doing four months of fieldwork with urban poor supporters of Duterte.
First, engaging the supporters of the president demand not shouting matches but difficult conversations. It is true that they have made and continue to make morally questionable choices like supporting the resulting killings from the war on drugs or laughing at the president’s rape jokes. Yet efforts to mock them and their views without attempts to understand their motivations are rather unproductive. It takes more than polarized discourses of “Duterte’s critic as democracy’s angels” and “the president’s supporters as morally evil” to get out of our present predicament. To do so is to empower the populist more who thrives on polarization.
I have met many supporters of the president whose motivation in supporting the drug war is to live in safer slum communities that residents of gated communities get to enjoy: “Sana dito din sa amin kasing ligtas nung mga subdivisions2”. I have also talked to many of them who previously sincerely trusted the EDSA consensus but only to be disappointed: “Kung wala naman kasing nangyayari, kasalanan bang sumubok ng bago?3” Many more have been failed by the very institutions that we expect them to defend: “Kung aantayin na naman ang korte, paano kung hindi makulong ang mga adik? Balik na lang kami sa dati?4” In these conversations, I have learned that their motivations are far from being unreasonable. My visits to several urban poor communities have been crucial in enabling me to understand how often the political reasoning of people gravitated to Duterte is guided by motivations similar to others including the president’s critics. What motivates their support for a leader like Duterte are civic values that democracy advocates also honor: community wellbeing, effective institutions, and governance reforms.
Yet their morally questionable choices must be confronted. We must make them realize that the security, prosperity and wellbeing that they seek for themselves must be extended to all. But this we must do in a language that respects their frustrations and sense of exclusion. Beyond allegations of complicity, I propose that engagements by democracy advocates be guided by this question: How can they, the populist publics, win in a society where human rights, rule of law, and democracy thrive? In a democracy, listening sincerely is as important as speaking out.
And second, alternative futures not business as usual will win the hearts and minds of the president’s supporters. While fears that the reform agenda of the Duterte administration may only serve his authoritarian dreams, democracy advocates must not make the mistake of rejecting all proposed reforms. The populist publics fear the status quo more than the possibility of a failed alternative future. Democracy advocates must not only respond to arrest democratic backsliding but to take it further and think of possible innovations in our democratic practices so its benefits can extend to all.
Many of my respondents, when asked about the critics of the president, have often asked this question: “Kung hindi war on drugs, ano ba kasi ang gusto nila mangyari? Hindi naman kami papayag na balik lang sa dating gawi.5” Fears that the president’s critics do not offer any plausible alternative to their everyday misery but only a return to business as usual dominate conversations about them. If democracy advocates are going to win back the populist publics, they will have to refuse to simply just respond to Duterte’s agenda and proactively offer alternative proposals to regain the initiative in public conversations.
Leandro, a former village official who has long been frustrated with barriers to effective local governance, complained that it is a tall order to expect them to oppose the president’s federalism agenda if there is no serious counterproposal on the table. He highlighted that his “constituents”, who overwhelmingly voted for Duterte, were energized by the prospects of wide-ranging powers for local government units. To him, to get their trust, democracy advocates must be at the forefront of innovative democratic reforms that can combat some of our perennial governance problems including overcentralized powers, corruption, and bureaucratic inertia. Otherwise, these people who have voted in large numbers for change, will come looking for it even from a man like Duterte.
In the last decades, we have been careening between populist and oligarchic modes of politics- both, as even recognized by the populist publics, are insufficiently democratic. To defend Philippine democracy then, Asia’s oldest democracy must continually reform itself.
In closing, the biggest lesson to be learned here is that the democratic backsliding that we are currently experiencing does not squarely rest only on Duterte and his supporters but also to an opposition that refuses to listen, understand and respond meaningfully to their fellow citizens that they pejoratively dismiss as “Dutertards”.
It is important that we recognize that the problem is not the supporters of Duterte; it is that the hopes and anxieties of these populist publics are being redirected by the populist against norms of human rights and democratic institutions. The challenge for democracy advocates is to find ways to channel their energies to further the democratization project in the Philippines
 I benefitted and continue to benefit from the research assistance of my student Kyle Dheric Miguel.
 “I hope our community is as safe as the subdivisions”
 “If nothing is happening, is it our fault that we want to try something new?”
 “If we wait for the court to decide and then they let the drug addicts go, are we just going back to how our community was?”
 “If not the war on drugs, what is their proposal? We will not agree that we just return to the old way”