As many Philippine History teachers and Rizalistas will attest to, the 19th Century writings of “national hero” Jose Rizal still resonate strongly today in the 21st Century. If true that in more than a century, the Philippines has hardly changed, then, indeed, the confronting question is raised: How much change could any one president actually implement in the Philippines over six years?
For that matter, do presidents really matter?
Because cult of personality rules in the Philippines and trumps ascendancy of ideas in a any “debate”, presidents will always be perceived to matter. Indeed, many in the current Opposition now call for loyalty to country and not to personalities. They, particularly those in the “Yellow camp”, of course conveniently forget that the heyday of their domination over Philippine politics was propped up by cults of “heroic” personalities of 1980s yore.
Indeed, the very failure of the Opposition to unite against Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who continues to enjoy immense popularity and the political capital that goes with it is a result of their blind rallying around “vice president” Leni Robredo. Robredo, as we now know turned out to be a sad non-threat and, ultimately, a non-issue to the incumbent administration. She was easily defanged then sidelined from Duterte’s Malacanang court and, thanks to a series of communication and public relations gaffes, degenerated into a political laughingstock.
The Opposition had, in essence, become a victim of their own blind beholdenness to cult of personality.
The important lesson to learn here is that the irrational loyalty to Aquino “heroes” and the Yellow brand created around them that imprisons many members of today’s Opposition was forged amidst the popular euphoria of the 1980s when their political capital was at its peak. Duterte is currently at a similar peak and, armed with this important hindsight, Duterte’s followers will need to decide whether or not the lessons the Yellow Camp failed to learn are worth heeding.
Duterte’s handlers — specially those at the front-lines of his social media PR machine — need to collectively mature from being a cult of personality to being true thought leaders — the kind that the wannabes in the Opposition camp’s own PR machine (one dominated by a certain “social news network”) failed to become.
The rare opportunity at stake here is that Duterte, more than any of his predecessors, is a president that actually matters. Rather than settle into the persistent status quo that kept the Philippines’ social structure paralysed under the thumb of an entrenched — and, in some cases, criminal — oligarchy and feudal class, Duterte set out to rock the boat. While previous presidents pretended to regard their constituents as “the boss”, the Duterte administration is evidently guided by what is relevant to ordinary Filipinos.
Duterte is guided by ordinary Filipinos.
Because he actually is, it therefore becomes more important that this guidance come increasingly from a more mature constituency. This is where real thought leadership comes into play. It should evolve from one defined by loyalty to a person to one defined by direction framed by the campaign promises of Duterte that won him the presidency.
Duterte himself always emphasises the importance of momentum independent of his person. It is evident in his rather morbid obsession with the possibility of his own death whilst in the service of his country. The inadvertent message there is that Duterte himself sees the direction he is steering the country towards as one that needs to outlast his presidency. As such, the messaging used to rally his supporters needs to evolve towards emphasising this direction and less on building loyalty. Framed this way, the trite style of “trolling” sustained by the Opposition focusing on vilifying Duterte will be rendered obsolete.
More importanly, the violence surrounding the “war on drugs” that put the Philippines on the map for the wrong reasons will be given better context. When focus shifts more on the reality of how crime and crime personalities remained entrenched and untouchable for many decades until now, the message will be sent across that changing such a deep-rooted status quo will be necessarily violent — that the situation attracted the action. At the moment, much of the flawed reasoning underpinning Duterte’s critics’ shrill cries of bloody murder is around vilifying him for pushing this “violence” onto Philippine society when all evidence shows that it was the situation on the ground that pulled that violence in.
Today’s crop of administration-allied influencers need to become more clever that way — better at framing the message and better at changing the obsolete loyalty-based approach that Opposition “thought leaders” are currently fixated to. When the direction change is taking is systematically decoupled from the leader who did the initial steering, that change could be sustained over the long term. That is the challenge — a challenge bigger than merely sustaining Duterte’s popularity.