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Since the international media’s falling out with Duterte  over his joke about the rape of an Australian missionary (among his other bombshells that threaten to transform us into Asia’s next North Korea), a number of writers are struggling to explain Duterte’s enduring popularity.

Their accounts suggest Duterte’s rise signals  a”fascist” impulse with Hitlerite implications for the  always already-fragile foundations of Philippine democracy– or, more realistically, that he rides the crest of a new wave of populist authoritarianism in the global south.  Others describe him  as a direct “threat” to democracy. In a country that has enjoyed something of an “economic miracle” of late, his and Bongbong’s popularity can only be a gesture of stupidity for an electorate that seeks an antithesis  to  the obvious successes  of the Aquino presidency.

But this is to assume a certain understanding of democracy. It is to assume a certain version of success, one that suggests everything  was working fine in Philippine democracy, until Duterte came along.

Duterte, after all, is no threat to democracy. He cannot threaten what we’ve never really had. The issue is whether the “democracy” we have now is the kind of democracy most of us want.

The issue is whether this democracy, which Roxas and our elites represent — against whom Duterte, with all his blatant sexism and populist uncouthness stands as an “alternative” (a pathetic alternative at that) — is real.

As much as I would like to believe Roxas’ daang matuwid, the facts on the ground do not bear his vision out. Granted, Leni and Roxas actually have the most progressive-sounding platform out of all of the candidates. The one with the most to say regarding sustainable development, even participatory democracy.

But against this rosy picture, even I would prefer Duterte’s slogans to Roxas’ rose-tinted vision.

For the truth is that for all the investments generated and ‘attracted’, ours is an economy that has sucked all the gains up to a tiny minority who think the rest of us are idiots for liking Duterte. A minority who have enriched themselves mightily, whoever the president.

Such a state of affairs can only yield a democracy that is at best a shell of what it could be, and at worst the expression of the frustrations of the fascist mob.

It is a democracy that gives you the right to vote and the freedom to starve.

A government like ours, which purports its democratic credentials against much evidence to the contrary, will always be built on fragile ground, because its legitimacy was never rooted in “we the people”. It was never about us. It was always about them.

Scratch beneath the surface and Duterte and Roxas speak the same language and defend the same game. I would like to hear either candidate speak openly about prioritizing the opinions of trade unions and small farmers over the opinions of, say, the Joint Chambers of Commerce or foreign creditors.

I would like to hear them say — at the very least — that the goal of our economy is to raise wages and create meaningful jobs over the long term. That the role of government is to ensure an end to the politics of patronage, impunity, and mediocrity. That it will rate its own success by how many more families are able to access decent healthcare without taking their children out of school — not by its delivery of an abstract, meaningless figure, like x-per cent growth.

And that the goal of our democracy is for our people to be ends in themselves, not a means to an end.

And then I’ll know they mean business.

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