Why did Filipinos vote for Duterte

It’s little wonder that many Filipinos now question the value of democracy.

Mr. Duterte is polling 11 points ahead of his closest rival and has the support of one in three Filipinos. He presents himself as a simple man fed up with the system, vowing to fix the nation at all costs. He has been linked to more than 1,000 extra-legal executions of petty criminals during his time as mayor. Not only has he admitted to supporting the killings, he has promised that as president he will “turn the 1,000 into 100,000” and dump their bodies in Manila Bay and “fatten all the fish there.”

Mr. Duterte’s campaign symbol is a fist — intended for lawbreakers, but seemingly also aimed at the oligarchy. “He is the only man who offers radical change,” said one of the many petitions urging him last year to run for president. The message resonates with the frustrated poor who feel let down by the government, but his fans span all classes. Mock elections at universities consistently pick him as the winner, while a chamber of commerce of wealthy Filipino-Chinese business leaders lauded him as “the man who gets things done.”

This image as a brash, no-nonsense leader explains why nothing he says is able to damage him. He repeatedly described a rival using a homophobic slur. He called Pope Francis “a son of a whore.” He told human-rights groups to “go to hell.” He joked that he should have been first in the gang rape of an Australian missionary. “That’s how men speak,” Mr. Duterte explained. “I am not a son of the privileged class.” His supporters, who often threaten his critics on social media with death and rape threats, defended him with an offensive, but telling, rhetorical question: How can people get so upset at a rape joke when politicians have been raping the country for so long?

Mr. Duterte has energized Filipinos in a historic way. One of his slogans is “change is coming.” It’s the exactly right message from the completely wrong messenger. His and Mr. Marcos’s campaigns are fueled by frustration, but other candidates offer reason and hope: Leni Robredo, a vice-presidential candidate who recently overtook Mr. Marcos, has surged thanks to her advocacy for gender equality. Walden Bello, a former student radical who is now a respected academic, has been lauded locally and internationally for his integrity and democratic activism in the Legislature.

Filipinos should look to such politicians for inspiration. But they should also look to themselves. As Jose Rizal, our hero of national independence, once wrote, “There are no tyrants where there are no slaves.”

For my whole life I’ve witnessed a tendency among Filipinos to elect people who pose as saviors. We long for a disciplinarian, but meanwhile we squabble among ourselves, willingly pay bribes and flout rules. We choose candidates based on regional ties or entertaining personalities. All of us recognize that our government, dominated by an oligarchy, is severely broken — but we need to select leaders who will educate and empower us to fix it ourselves. More, real, democracy is necessary, not less.

Outside the headquarters of the Philippine National Police, a sign declares: “This is your police. We serve and protect.” Continued, in red spray paint, is scrawled: “… the ruling class.” Whoever wrote it voices what so many feel. Only the people themselves can change that.