15 May 2019
Given the attention devoted in Australia to rising Chinese and Indian immigration, there is considerably little appreciation of the fact that the Philippines is now the fifth largest source of new settlers here. This century, the expanding local Filipino community has quietly overtaken the more prominent and established Italian, Greek and Vietnamese communities in size. And yet the Philippines languishes at number twenty-eight in the list of Australia’s largest goods trading partners. This sets the tone for the relatively low profile the country has here compared with Indonesia or Thailand, or some of its other regional peers.
This week’s mid-term elections provide a good reason for a stocktake on where the Philippines is at. Behind the scenes, its diplomatic and security establishment are keen for a deeper relationship with Australia in order to manage joint challenges such as Islamist terrorism and the rise of China. But for those Australians paying attention, the voter support for President Rodrigo Duterte and his allies (even though he personally was not up for re-election) may come as a bit of a shock in light of his foul-mouthed comments in international forums, and his use of extrajudicial executions in what seems to be a failed bid to curb his country’s drug trade.
The election last Monday of half the Senate’s twenty-four members, the entire House of Representatives and about 18,000 local government positions was the first formal test of Duterte’s popularity since he beat several old-guard political opponents to win the presidency in 2016. Since then he has managed to undermine the independence of the country’s judiciary and its media, leaving the upper house of parliament as the one democratic brake on his power. But on Monday, nine out of the twelve Senate seats up for grabs were won by candidates supported by either his own PDP–Laban Party or his daughter’s newer Hugpong ng Pagbabago (Faction for Change) alliance. They included Bong Go, Duterte’s closest ally from his long incumbency as mayor of Davao City, and Ronald dela Rosa, the retired police chief who has overseen the Philippines’ violent drug war. By contrast, two members of the old political establishment, former vice-presidential candidate, cabinet secretary and senator Manuel “Mar” Roxas, and the latest scion of the Aquino family (which has provided two past presidents), Bam Aquino, were defeated. Duterte is now firmly in power, with the potential to make far-reaching changes to the way the Philippines is run by shifting to a federal structure, and laying the groundwork for his daughter Sara to run for the presidency in 2022.
The Senate vote was the only national vote on Monday and is thus considered the best available forecast of the next presidential election. On the one hand, it has not been unusual for Filipino presidents to win re-endorsement at this mid-term election only to be replaced three years later by a very different style of leader. For example, the brash, violent mayor Duterte replaced the aristocratic Benigno Aquino. But on the other hand, the public approval of the incumbent president this week was one of the strongest since the martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and 1980s. And while Duterte is limited to one term, his daughter emerged from her father’s old Davao job to establish an alliance with some powerful regional political families, campaigning strongly on their behalf and setting herself up as a national figure. She even occasionally clashes with her father on certain matters to add some extra independent allure.
Politics in the Philippines is riven by regional family dynasties, party fragmentation and suddenly successful populists – from rebellion leaders to film stars. Beyond his undermining of independent institutions, Duterte has also proved himself a master social-media campaigner. He’s welded together a new political coalition while his more establishment opponents have remained flat-footed. And under his administration the economy has been well managed by technocrats, despite the president’s antics.
Duterte’s success is part of an emerging phenomenon in Asia of regional leaders breaking into the traditional capital-city power elite. Other key examples of this are India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, and to some extent former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Democratic institutions are being challenged in many Asian democracies at the same time as their increasingly educated middle-class constituencies demand that governments perform in areas such as new infrastructure. Local politicians with a real or manufactured performance record can ride this trend to national power because the old elites are seen as out of touch with the aspirations of formerly poor and uneducated citizens. These subtle changes in the way Asian political systems are evolving deserve more of our attention, as do the shifts in the composition of our migrant communities at home.
Greg Earl was a student in the Philippines under the Marcos martial law regime. He was the South-East Asia correspondent for The Australian Financial Review and is an Australia-ASEAN Council board member.