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Holding out for a hero

Philippines
Illustration by Sarah John

In the slum community in Quezon City, Metro Manila, that 54-year-old domestic worker Reynalda Veloso calls home, there are about 50 families, who, like her, mostly live a hand-to-mouth existence.

During the 2016 presidential elections, Reynalda, popular in the neighbourhood because of her infectious laughter and disarming ways, was outnumbered. Many of her neighbours voted for Rodrigo Duterte, the brash mayor of Davao who promised to solve the country’s drug and crime problems.

Reynalda’s choice was Jejomar Binay, whose first name is a portmanteau of Jesus, Joseph and Mary. She had heard that this former Makati City mayor was kind to senior citizens. She believed he would help poor people like her. The drug problem that Duterte promised to solve wasn’t an issue in her area, she thought.

But the Filipino masses seem to love strongmen with a perceived heart for the poor – folk heroes just like in the movies – and they keep electing them.

They saw this in Duterte, who packaged himself as pro-poor and anti-elite. He usually wore jeans or shorts and a collarless shirt. During his two-decade stint as mayor of Davao, he was often observed eating breakfast with his bare hands at an eatery popular with the masses. During his campaign, Duterte made people laugh with his jokes and serenaded them with love songs. He ran on a law-and-order ticket, promising to rid the country of its drug problem and replicate nationwide his success in transforming the once lawless Davao into a safer city.

Duterte soon gained a fanatical following, the DDS or Duterte Diehard Supporters, a moniker that was actually a play on the original DDS – the Davao Death Squad – a vigilante group Duterte had allegedly formed to weed out crime in the city. Davao’s hero became a nationwide sensation, earning him 16 million votes in the 2016 elections, the highest garnered by a presidential candidate in recent history.

A decade earlier, that same longing for a folk hero made movie star-turned-politician Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada Philippine president in 1998. Reynalda had voted for Erap, whose campaign slogan was ‘Erap Para sa Mahirap’ or ‘Erap for the poor’. She once braved a mammoth crowd on the streets to see him and his motorcade pass by.

‘He threw us bags of clothes,’ she remembers, believing to this day that Erap was genuinely pro-poor, never mind that he accumulated mansions during his term and was ousted after an aborted impeachment trial for his involvement in an illegal betting syndicate.

As for Duterte, his violent drug war has left a trail of at least 7,000 extrajudicial killings of mostly poor people, much like the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, whose 20-year rule totted up some 9,000 victims of human rights violations.

Marcos was also known for extravagance. His widow, former First Lady Imelda, is notorious for her opulence, which extended to 3,000 pairs of shoes. Imelda doesn’t mind. She once said she needed to look beautiful ‘so that the poor will have a star to look at from their slums’.

With elections due in May 2022, I wonder who will be the next president of this country of 107 million, where around 25 million people survive on $2 a day. The longing for strongmen remains strong, because the desperate masses dream of someone who can bring them out of poverty and end a cycle that benefits only the elite. Boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, Duterte’s daughter Sara and Marcos’ only son Ferdinand Jr. are among the potential contenders.

Who among them will win? Only time will tell. Another folk hero will likely get chosen, one who promises to banish poverty.

It hasn’t really happened yet. What we need is a real hero to act boldly to close the stark income inequality gap in the country; what we get are demagogues who shower the poor with trifles.

New Internationalist issue 530 magazine cover This article is from the March-April 2021 issue of New Internationalist.
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