The 30th South East Asian Games (SEA Games) hosted by the Philippines in 2019 have caused social cleavages to resurface at a time when the host nation should be presenting a united front. Trouble began to rear its head when foreign delegates began to arrive in the Philippines only to be met by unprepared welcoming committees, substandard menus for athletes, and athletic venues still under construction. Given that the head of the organization coordinating the event, Alan Peter Cayetano, is allied with President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, the nature of the SEA Games itself became subject to local politics. Factions became rowdier online, where many of the hardcore DDS supporters of President Duterte claimed that all those criticizing the conditions and preparation for the SEA Games were unpatriotic and were plagued with ‘crab mentality’.
With many of the vocal Duterte supporters coming from the regions outside of Metro Manila, the national debate also began to highlight the infamous Philippine rural-urban divide. This was furthered by the artistic decision to use the iconic 1972 Hotdog song, ‘Manila’ as the accompanying musical track to the entrance of the Philippine SEA Games delegation during the event’s opening program, with even First Daughter and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte criticizing the choice for its apparent preferential treatment for ‘(Imperial) Manila’ and its neglect of the regions.
When Sara Duterte, who identifies as a Bisaya from the Mindanao region, speaks of ‘Imperial Manila,’ what phenomenon does she refer to?
The rural-urban divide is hardly unique to the Philippines. Due to efforts to improve macroeconomic indicators and general standards of living, countries focused on urbanization in the 1970s, believing that trickle-down economics would mean that rural areas would still benefit from growth if urban centers focused on industrialization. The failed promise of trickle-down economics, however, eventually meant that while urban areas were growing, regions were lagging behind. This meant not only income inequality between urban centers and regions, but also inequality in opportunities and access to basic services. In the Philippine case, for example, while income inequality appears to have decreased in urban areas, income inequality between Metro Manila and the regions has risen in recent years .
In the Philippine setting, the rural-urban divide has a more insidious tone. ‘Imperial Manila’ is the catch-all term that refers to “the notion that political, economic, and social underdevelopment is more prevalent the farther away a province is from the capital, Metro Manila’. In a more colloquial understanding, ‘Imperial Manila’ is a term used by those who argue that political, administrative, economic, and even cultural power is too centralized towards the capital, and that the diffusion of these powers to the regions is too top-down in nature and, therefore, is neglectful of regional nuances and concerns.
The manifestations of this phenomenon are numerous and varying in degree. From a political perspective, the hegemony of Metro Manila has meant that most public officials elected on the national level are those who enjoy the lion’s share of media coverage that focuses on the capital and its nearby provinces. Rodrigo Roa Duterte is only the first President from Mindanao, one of the three main island groups and the one farthest from the capital – a fact that highlights how removed national politics has been from politics in the regions. Duterte was elected with the expectation that he would usher in not only change in terms of fighting crime on a national level but also the hope that he would bring much-needed attention to his hometown Davao City and the rest of Mindanao. The outcomes of efforts on the latter front have been arguable at best.
Perhaps the most significant action attempted by President Duterte with regard to empowering stronger political participation in the provinces is his call for a charter change for federalism. Despite the existence of legislation pushing for devolution towards the provinces, i.e. the 1991 Local Government Code that aims to develop stronger decentralization and fiscal autonomy for local government units, dividing political power in the Philippines through federalism has popularly been perceived as one of the most viable solutions to the problem of the perceived hegemony of ‘Imperial Manila’ 6. Whether federalism will improve conditions for the Philippines has since been a hotly debated topic among members of the public, but to date the debate remains largely hypothetical. In June 2019, President Duterte gave a speech publicly indicating that he had given up on federalism, claiming that it will not happen during his administration. Discussions on the value of charter change have since dwindled.
If anything, the rural-urban divide caused by the hegemony of ‘Imperial Manila’ has perceptibly worsened since the election of President Duterte. As has been mentioned, most of Duterte’s supporters are from Davao, his home city, and from Bisaya Cebuano regions from the Visayan islands and Mindanao. The political elite – “the establishment” of which Rodrigo Duterte is markedly not a part; an “outsider” identity that has enamored him to voters disillusioned with those who have held political and economic power in the Philippines for years – converge in Metro Manila. This geographical dichotomy and the almost palpable drawing of enemy lines have made polarization in the Philippines more pernicious over the years.
Online on Facebook and on other social networking sites, political commentary is largely divided into two factions. On one hand, there are the DDS (Duterte Diehard Supporters) who unequivocally defend everything the President stands for. On the other hand, there are the so-called Dilawans – literally, the Yellows, with yellow being one of the colors of the Liberal Party, to which Former President Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Aquino III – the most recent past president, who is often derided as the poster boy for inefficient oligarchic leadership – belongs. Regardless of the possibility that most voters may in fact identify as belonging to neither side, the current political climate in the Philippines is such that if you are not for the DDS, then you are perceived to be a Dilawan – and more often than not, vice versa.
The middle ground has completely left the group chat. And at the heart of a messy bundle of reasons for this pernicious polarization is the resentment felt by voters from the provinces and rural areas, who for the longest time felt neglected by ‘Imperial Manila’. Resentment, in part, elected Rodrigo Duterte. Resentment, in part, continues to drive a deeper wedge between already fractious cleavages in Philippine society.
The experience of hosting the 2019 SEA Games proves that polarization in the Philippines has hit such a low that the use of a song dedicated to Manila can trigger the daughter of the Philippine President to comment on the exclusionary nature of this artistic decision. If warring political parties on opposite ends of the spectrum cannot agree to overlook something as innocuous as the choice of a pop song, what then can these polarizing parties can agree on? Possibilities for cooperation remain inaudible amidst the unceasing bickering of political factions who simply refuse to hear the other side.