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How Duterte’s Campaign Joke Led Filipinos to His Presidency

Five years ago, Duterte said he would ride a jet ski to the West Philippine Sea and assert Philippine ownership of the disputed waters. On May 10, he said it was not a promise but a campaign joke.

Panahon ‘yan sa kampanya ‘yan. At saka ‘yung biro na ‘yun, ‘yung bravado ko, it was a pure campaign joke at kung naniniwala kayo sa kabila, I would say you are really stupid.”

This was how Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte answered critics on how he is handling the West Philippine Sea issue in recent weeks. The president was referring to his answer to a question on his plans regarding the incursion of Chinese ships in the West Philippine Sea should he win. This was during the final presidential debate held at the University of Pangasinan five years ago. (Read: Timeline: The West Philippine Sea Dispute Against China)

The then-presidential candidate answered, “Ngayon, pag ayaw nila, then I will ask the Navy to bring me to the nearest boundary dyan sa Spratlys, sa Scarborough. Bababa ako, sasakay ako ng jet ski, dala-dala ko yung flag ng Pilipino, at pupunta ako dun sa airport nila, tapos itanim ko. Then I would say this is ours and do what you want with me. Bahala na kayo. I would stake that claim and if they want to–matagal ko nang ambisyon yan na maging hero din ako. Pag pinatay nila ako dun, bahala na kayong umiyak dito sa Pilipinas,” he said.

Apparently, this statement was a “pure campaign joke.”

Campaign Joke

‘DEFEND THE SEA.’ A Filipino joins a demonstration in front of the Chinese consular office in Makati City on June 10, 2016, ahead of a historic ruling on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) (Photo from Photo by Francis Malasig/EPA/Rappler)

Joke or not, the president’s jet ski remark has struck a chord with millions of voters. Duterte marketed himself as someone with “tapang” to assert Philippine sovereignty in the disputed waters, and “malasakit” to those whose livelihood depended on it.

In fact, Carlo Montehermozo, the fisherman who asked Duterte the question during that particular debate, said while he never expected Duterte to really ride a jet ski and plant the Philippine flag, he held Duterte to his word— his promise to protect them and the Philippine territories.

Kaming mga mangingisda dito, masama ang loob namin. Ba’t ganon lang, joke joke lang ‘yong sinabi niya sa akin noon?” Montehermozo told TeleRadyo. (Read: Duterte’s Stand on the West Philippine Sea Over the Years)

Meanwhile, Albay Representative Edcel Lagman said that the joke does not exempt Duterte from upholding his constitutional duty of protecting the country’s sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea.

“Of course no one believed that the President would physically jet ski to plant the Philippine flag in the Spratlys Islands, but the electorate clearly understood that candidate Duterte vowed and committed to protect and enforce Philippine sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea,” the opposition lawmaker said.

A Dilemma of Campaign Promises

A fisherman from Pangasinan said on Wednesday that he voted for Duterte because of his promise to protect the West Philippines, only to be let down. (Photo from ABS-CBN News)

American Journalist H.L. Mencken famously defined an election as “an advance auction sale of stolen goods.” Voters bid without any guarantee that the auction will proceed to settlement. (Read: Hey, Catholics! Bishop Pabillo Has This Advise for the 2022 Elections)

Elections are commitment games. People vote for the candidates and parties whose values and policies are most appealing— in this case, the people voted for Duterte as he was someone they can “relate” with.

But just like any other candidate, all these voters had was Duterte’s word— an assurance he will act in a certain way under certain circumstances. And in politics, there is no institutional mechanism by which voters can demand the realization of the pledges that their elected candidate has made.

With the case of Duterte, his jet ski remark was never even a promise— and now, those who believed it was being “stupid” and cannot take a joke.

But who’s really laughing? Certainly not the fishermen whose livelihoods are affected by the Chinese incursions in WPS.

In this Feb. 27, 2015 photo provided by fisherman Renato Etac, Chinese Coast Guard members approach his fellow fishermen near Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea. (Photo from AP/Philippine Star)

Vote wisely

Hindi ako istupidong tao,” Montehermozo said. “Pag-isipan na lang mabuti kung sino talaga ‘yong makakatulong talaga sa atin, sa ating mga kababayan,” he added.

Montehermozo and his fellow fishermen were still hoping to return to the shoal, a rich fishing ground, without being threatened and shooed away by China’s coast guard. (Read: Philippine Church Bells Kick Off Voter Registration Campaign)

And while Duterte insists that his jet ski promise was just a joke, in 2018, he said that he will go to Benham Rise to assert the country’s ownership of it.

He even delivered a speech at the BRP Davao del Sur docked in Casiguran Bay, Aurora while Bong Go and his son Baste rode jet skis nearby.

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