Rodrigo Duterte, a self-proclaimed socialist, has a liberal-capitalist economic agenda. Will this compromise his political beliefs, or is this a front to something? (Photo by Rappler)

Rodrigo Duterte, a self-proclaimed socialist, has a liberal-capitalist economic agenda. Will this compromise his political beliefs, or is this a front to something? (Photo by Rappler)

The spectre of socialism is haunting the Philippines, or is it? A Filipino politician who claims to be a socialist just won the presidency in a liberal-capitalist nation who has a love-hate relationship with democracy despite its geopolitical location where almost everybody seems to disgust it. The Philippines, a Southeast Asian nation who acts West — it was the colony of the United States who had been an independent state — but exhibits East Asian political characteristics — proliferation of political dynasties and a longing for an iron hand governance — could now be fully transformed into a Latin American country. Several analyst have pointed out that the country is the lost cousin of South American nations due to its colonial history with the Spaniards and the proliferation of populism, influence of the Catholic Church in political affairs, and conservatism in its political arena. But only this time that it will experience socialism, a phenomenon not alien to the region. Still, there are doubts as to Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-talking mayor of Davao City, being an actual socialist or creating a front to an autocratic-like rule similar to what the country has experienced four decades ago.

Feeling the Burn

Rodrigo Duterte could be easily mistaken for an ordinary elderly man. His simple life compared to several politicians in the Philippines is outstanding: he lives in a two-story bungalow in a subdivision just within the city proper of Davao, goes incognito around his city as a taxi driver, and does not own a suit. The reluctant candidate initially refused to run for presidency due to lack of funds despite publishing several print and television ads but went ahead when several financiers fueled his campaign. While he was not explicitly anti-establishment, his brash and tough image created a perception of being one with the common Filipino. He has been mayor of Davao City for more than two decades, circumnavigating the three-term rule by running for Congress or vice mayor in between. The city was his kingdom: his daughter and son are politicians there and are now its mayor and vice mayor, an effective 911 emergency service is in place, and it is one of the cities in the country to have anti-discriminatory ordinances.

Setting aside his “Dirty Harry” style of ideas, his platform is pretty convincing: a strong anti-crime movement to entice investments, especially foreign ones, to solve poverty. Despite a revitalized economy under the Aquino administration, poverty is still stubbornly high and the new-found wealth are yet to be distributed to the lower classes of society. His eight-point economic agenda, though, seems to be contradicting his self-proclaimed belief in socialism. The continuation of a liberal-capitalist economic policy seems to be fine with the incoming president but it comes with reforms not pursued by the outgoing leadership, like income tax reform and the de-nationalization of national economy.


The most sweeping promise that the Duterte camp made after his unofficial election is an inclusive, liberal, and youthful Cabinet similar to that of the Canadian liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau. But in a span of a week after the statement, the picture is not promising: several of those who are eyed to be appointed are his classmates in law school and were former members of the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo — the sickly jailed former president turned Congress representative — cabinet. Likened to an old men’s club, there is a lack of diversity among the incoming officials: the incoming official spokesperson is infamous for representing the Ampatuan clan in the gruesome massacre of journalists on Maguindanao in 2009; the incoming public works secretary is a recently elected congressional representative who is a son of a billionaire real estate developer who became senate president a few years back; and the incoming justice secretary was cited for contempt during an impeachment hearing against the late Chief Justice Corona for covering his ears while Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago was speaking. To prove his “commitment” to socialism, Duterte reserved four departments for the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and progressive left-leaning groups. While there are more government positions to fill in, the initial list of nominees have already been criticized by many groups.

The communist link

During his stint as mayor, Duterte makes clear that any form of illegal movement by the New People’s Army (NPA) — the armed wing of the CPP — within his city will not be tolerated. Despite this, he has a clear link with the communists: the CPP founding chairman, Jose Maria Sison, was his professor during his college years. The two have been close friends since then but the two differ in their respective stance towards an armed struggle for the “liberalization of the masses.” The CPP-NPA has been regularly “surrendering” prisoners, usually policemen and soldiers, to Duterte and there was a time when he attended the funeral of a communist leader in a nearby town. This relationship has been a factor why the CPP is willing to go on the peace table with the incoming administration to end the almost five-decade struggle of the armed communists. With a society inculcated with a right-wing, liberal-capitalist, freedom-loving democratic political culture, the looming role of the Left in the government will not be celebrated by many Filipinos. To be fair, there are some prograssive personalities in the Arroyo administration and one even ran for senator under the Liberal Party-led coalition.

Ideology of personality

The late dictator Ferdinand Marcos once espoused an “ideology” that can be described as a belief to the “revolution from the center,” a nationalist ideology that Filipinos are better than what the West has described to them. The ideology was used to justify the imposition of martial law, as the late Marcos says that the Philippine republic was “at threat” with “communist elements” despite the relatively small number of communist guerilla troops during his time. The missing piece towards the actual Latinalization of the Philippines rest on Duterte actually practicing socialism and may or may not bring the country into an improved state.

Image source: Rappler