Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) raises the arm of his executive assistant Bong Go, after filing his senatorial candidacy, Manila, October 15, 2018. Photo: Presidential Palace

Perhaps nothing better symbolizes Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s enduring strong popularity than the meteoric rise of his long-time personal aide and hometown friend Christopher “Bong” Go.

If current opinion polls hold, Go will be elected as a senator at mid-term elections held in May, a position that would catapult him among the country’s most prominent celebrities and political figures, many with presidential ambitions of their own.

While the upcoming midterm elections will cover municipal, regional and provincial polls, the nationwide race for half of the seats in the 24-member Senate is arguably the most politically important.

Go’s candidacy in particular will be closely watched as he emerges as a potential successor to Duterte when the populist leader’s six-year term is up in 2022.

The Senate will determine whether Duterte can push through a controversial new constitution, which if passed would potentially remove the presidency’s one-term limit and ease institutional checks and balances on his executive power.

A Duterte-aligned Senate could also facilitate the passage of new draconian laws, including a reduction of the minimum age of criminal liability for minors from 15 to nine, which passed the lower house in January in the name of fighting crime.

Duterte loyalists in the lower house are also considering to restore the death penalty, which was suspended in 2007.

The Senate as currently constituted is one of the last bastions of opposition to Duterte’s strongman rule. A thin coalition of opposition senators, bolstered by a few independent-minded colleagues, has blocked many of the president’s controversial proposals.

Rodrigo Duterte (R) talks on the phone while presidential special assistant Christopher “Bong” Go (L) listens in Davao City. Photo: AFP/Presidential Palace/Handout

But the rise of core Duterte supporters like Go in the Senate could dramatically alter the equation, with the presidential aide-turned-senator expected to act as a less-independent liaison between the executive and legislature.

As the consummate insider and gatekeeper in Duterte’s administration, Go’s loyalty is not in doubt. Indeed, his critics on social media often refer to the Sino-Filipino as Duterte’s “errand boy” and “utility man.”

For over two decades, Go served as a special assistant to Duterte when he served as mayor of Davao City. He has acknowledged taking Duterte to hospital, buying his groceries, carrying his bags, filing out his candidacy certificates, and, most crucially, overseeing his schedule and communications, including with fellow world leaders.

Go’s transformation from assistant to politician started in early 2018, when he launched the first phases of his Senate campaign. In an about turn, the notoriously taciturn and camera-shy presidential aide has emerged strongly from Duterte’s shadow, demonstrating a media savvy few knew he possessed.

As early as January 2018, Go started to circulate pictures of himself riding a jet ski across Davao City, his and Duterte’s hometown on the southern island of Mindanao, to rescue residents affected by flooding and destruction caused by Typhoon Vinta.

In subsequent months, his office filled social media with pictures of Go helping citizens in need across the country, promising together with Duterte to bring about change for poor and disenfranchised Filipinos.

One of Christopher “Bong” Go’s election campaign posters, 2018. Photo: Twitter

But Go’s self-promoting publicity campaign took a temporary hit when the media exposed his alleged intervention in a high-profile military procurement deal, where he was accused of unduly favoring a specific bidder for a navy frigate deal.

A Senate Blue Ribbon hearing into the controversy questioned Go, who denied any foul play. In the run-up to the hearing, Duterte noted that Go’s family owns the largest printing house in the Philippines outside of Manila and that Go didn’t need to “steal a frigate” because he already “owns a yacht.”

Around that time, Duterte made a public speech in which he not only defended his close aide against the corruption accusations but also floated for the first time the idea of him running for the Senate.

His presidential communications team followed up with catchy campaign slogans (Ready, Set, Go 2019) and a sing-along jingle (Wake me up before you Go, Go), while Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol promoted him as a potential “bridge between Senate and Palace.”

Beginning last March, Go began delivering his own public speeches, including as a guest of honor during an event hosted by the influential Philippine military’s top brass.

Duterte’s cabinet is filled with more than a dozen ex-top soldiers, reflecting the centrality of the military in Philippine politics under the current rights-curbing administration.

For the past year, Go’s billboards have mushroomed across major cities nationwide, often with his picture placed side-by-side with Duterte raising his hand like either an anointed successor or winner of a boxing match.

In the last year the political duo’s picture, with Duterte portrayed as “father of the nation” (tatay ng bayan) and Go as “big brother of the nation” (kuya ng bayan), has become almost ubiquitous across the country.

Bong Go before testifying at a Senate Blue Ribbon on a frigate procurement controversy, February 8, 2018. Photo: Twitter

In October, Duterte even accompanied Go to file his official certificate of candidacy for the Senate race.

On the eve of last month’s official launch of the election campaign season, Go ranked for the first time among the “magic 12” of senatorial candidates in opinion polls, a predictor of those who will and won’t win seats in the upper house.

The latest surveys by Social Weather Stations’ and Pulse Asia, both local polling agencies, put Go in the 5th and 6th spots, respectively, meaning he’s likely a shoo-in to win. That represented a meteoric rise from the 27th position he held as recently as September.

According to a report by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism which tracked senatorial candidates’ political ad spending, Go has so far spent 422 million pesos (US$8 million), far exceeding his 12.6 million pesos ($241,000) declared net worth.

Go often talks about receiving funding from his new grass roots supporters, but many analysts believe special interest lobby groups seeking presidential favor are also behind what is arguably the slickest and most well-oiled election campaign.

More than money and machinery, however, it’s Duterte’s tireless campaigning for Go that has his long-time aide skyrocketing in opinion polls, despite the lack of any major achievements of his own. But in today’s Philippines, loyalty to Duterte and proximity to power is seemingly all it takes to rise and rise in politics.

Leave a comment