Fragile Alliances to the Fore in Duterte-Era Philippines

Rodrigo Duterte speaks to the media shortly after voting in the presidential election. Davao City, Philippines, May 9, 2016. (Bullit Marquez/AP Photo)

Though yet to be officially declared, former Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte is set to be the next president of the Philippines. The unprecedented 84% voter turnout in the May 9th polls suggests a strong popular mandate for the new leader. Duterte has signaled he will capitalize on this through major revisions of the country’s 1987 Constitution, specifically a transition into a parliamentary-federalist form of government. Among other things, this would aim to bring lasting peace to Mindanao. Duterte will be the first leader from this southern region, which has long witnessed considerable political, ethnic, religious, and other tensions with the rest of the country.

Duterte, who will replace President Benigno Aquino III after his six years in office, has proposed constitutional changes that would allow far-reaching economic reforms such as allowing increased foreign ownership of business. A reinvigorated economy, coupled with the devolution of political power in a new federal republic, has been promoted as an opportunity to achieve lasting peace in Mindanao.

It is unclear, however, whether Duterte has the ability to maintain the fragile network of alliances that have led to his electoral success. His strongman reputation, earned through two decades in power in Davao City, has led to a curious coalition of supporters, including even the leaders of insurgent groups waging war against the Manila-based central government. Co-opting the leadership of armed groups will be key for peace in the near-term, but it would be a controversial initiative as far as many in the Philippines are concerned.

Nur Misuari, founder of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and arguably the father of armed Muslim secession in Mindanao, previously pledged support for Duterte’s candidacy, citing the former mayor’s ability to keep various interest groups in line. Misuari is banking on Duterte’s roots in Mindanao as a guarantee of his empathy for Filipino Muslims. In 2013, Misuari’s followers were involved in the bloody 20-day siege of Zamboanga City. The clashes were triggered by what Misuari perceived as Manila reneging on the terms of the 1996 peace agreement between the MNLF and Philippines government. The siege came in the midst of efforts by the Aquino administration to finalize a peace agreement with another Muslim secessionist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

While insecurity in the southern Philippines is typically attributed to Muslim rebel groups, it is often overlooked that eastern Mindanao hosts the most potent remnants of the country’s communist insurgency. Millions of pesos are annually lost by businesses due to extortion activities by the Communist Party of Philippines’ armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA). Communist Party founder Jose Maria Sison had expressed a willingness to work with the presumptive Duterte administration. After the election, he reiterated his usual demand for an immediate ceasefire between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the NPA. It is no secret that Duterte’s close ties to the communists extends beyond rhetoric, and also includes the payment of so-called “revolutionary tax” to the NPA.

Staying the hand of potential spoilers will be important as Duterte seeks peace in Mindanao, but it is only one side of the equation. He will also have to address pervasive socioeconomic issues that have fueled unrest. To accomplish this, Duterte is banking on a lineup of cabinet ministers with extensive knowledge and experience in the region. Jesus Dureza, former presidential peace adviser to two previous Philippine presidents—Fidel Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo—tops the list. He is credited with orchestrating the 1996 peace agreement between the Ramos administration and MNLF. More than a decade later, he again pushed for peace in Mindanao by spearheading the campaign to legislate the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain. This would have established a Bangsamoro sub-state in Mindanao had it not been struck down as unconstitutional by the Philippine Supreme Court.

Another key member of the future Duterte cabinet will be former Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hermogenes Esperon, who is being considered as the new secretary of national defense. Esperon was designated the presidential adviser on the Mindanao peace process by Macapagal-Arroyo after retiring from the military in 2006. But as top military officer, Esperon was best known for “intensified and vigorous military” operations against the NPA. His call for a three-year ceasefire, made during his initial months after being appointed as adviser, was rejected by the Communist Party and NPA. The effectiveness of Esperon’s military campaign was tacitly referenced by the communists when they demanded his removal as presidential peace adviser.

In the near-term, Duterte’s closeness with disparate figures such as Misuari and Sison could conceivably decrease the potential for violence and armed skirmishes in Mindanao. But the motley array of personalities that comprise potential adversaries and prospective advisers of the presidency questions the feasibility of enacting constitutional reform and could ultimately be Duterte’s political undoing.

Charisma and populist appeal can only go so far in bridging the gaps between the non-negotiable principles of elites. If Duterte fails to keep his fragile web of alliances intact, his vision of a federal Mindanao state will never be realized. Principally, the revolutionary tendencies of Sison would be hard-pressed to accommodate Esperon’s military pedigree. Neither would Duterte’s pledge to fill his administration with former military personnel be a welcome development. Likewise, Dureza’s incremental approach to peace negotiations would not sit well with the once-spurned Misuari.

Giving further impetus to the potential unraveling of Duterte’s fragile alliances is the unprecedented levels of animosity within the electorate itself. Multiple cases involving cyberbullying and other threats were filed, mostly against pro-Duterte supporters, during the presidential campaign. The high turnout also does not erase the fact that Duterte will be a minority president, garnering no more than 40% of the vote. He will be the most scrutinized chief executive the Philippines has elected. On the Mindanao issue at least, it remains to be seen whether his government can bear the weight of its inherent contradictions.

Joseph Franco is an Associate Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.