One night during quarantine, I caught my 12-year-old niece, Althea, looking startled as news reports of the 2022 national election came flashing on TV. Althea was upset after learning that Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential term is ending in a year’s time. She turned to me in disbelief and asked if the news was actually true. I nodded yes — relieved, at last, that Filipinos are now in the last lap of the six-year calvary of the Duterte administration. 

What seemed to me good news, however, only made Althea even more disappointed. Isn’t she six years too early to be fretting over electoral matters? She’s not even a registered voter yet. So, why is she suddenly acting so involved in politics?

Althea replied in her defense: “Tita, si Duterte ang pangulong kinamulatan ko. Siya na ang presidente simula nang magkaisip ako.”

My niece was around 6 years old when President Duterte was sworn to power in 2016. At one point, Althea told me she grew up thinking that the clenched fist is the symbol of government. Half-sneering, I watched her clasp her right hand and punch it in the air. I thought: How come a child, who happened to be my niece, would think of Mr. Duterte as a political hero? That is, to assume that a foul-mouthed man, a proud womanizer, and a fearmongering president is a leader worthy of admiration. How am I going to say words such as “misogynistic”, “brutal”, “abusive”, and “tyrannical” in the least damaging way possible so as not to shatter my niece’s idealism too prematurely? 

Who is Mr. Duterte? What did he do? Althea was so eager for answers. So, I went on to tell her that the first Philippine president she grew up knowing is the prime mover of the country’s war on drugs and extrajudicial killings. I told her the old man with the clenched fist is obsessed with exterminating criminals and drug addicts, that even a hint of suspicion is enough for him to issue orders to kill and get away with it. 

I felt sorry seeing Althea, puppy-eyed and teary, processing this information. She was so clueless about Mr. Duterte’s iron leadership and the bloodstained legacy this strongman will be leaving behind as he steps down. That reality casts a scary future for younger people like her who would mistakenly follow the ruthless logic the administration has propagated, that peace and order demands killing people—innocent or not—without proper trial. 

It was not so long ago when Mr. Duterte promised us change and  16.6 million Filipinos believed him. My father believed him. My mother used to believe him. And my niece, she almost believed him. I didn’t. To me, Mr. Duterte’s populist character of blending into the ordinariness of the crowd was like a chameleon lurking in the jungle, waiting to lash its tongue out in the presence of prey. In fact, chameleons use their long, agile tongues to compensate for their slow-moving behavior, another one of their survival tactics besides changing color. Uncanny resemblance, isn’t it?

The Filipino electorate was made to hope that this tough-talking maverick from the south would magically transform the Philippines into a country free of crime and corruption. We gave him all the time he said he needed: six months. Six months—and four and a half years hence­—change has come, indeed, only for the worse. 

As the next election nears, we ought to think beyond ourselves and be more critical. We have to vote for someone our children deserve, someone who exemplifies moral uprightness and good conscience. I would hate to hear another campaign speech quoting that the youth is the hope of our nation when all adults do is make the wrong choices by electing bad leaders. How could we expect the young ones to be the paragons of hope if we adults make the present situation hopeless for them to begin with? We should own up to our mistakes. Be more accountable. And we expect the President — especially the President — to do the same. 

Our children are watching us, but they are often out of the conversation when we cast our votes and set the political agenda for this nation. If children could vote for a president, who would they choose? 

I bet kids won’t vote for the bully with a bad mouth. 

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