With all due respect to the good folks at Time magazine, their latest list of the 100 most influential people is woefully incomplete without Rodrigo Duterte.

There are several deserving Asians on the list. Chinese President Xi Jinping is there. So is Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s first female leader, along with Myanmar icon Aung San Suu Kyi, Indian central bank head Raghuram Rajan, North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un and Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. But none of the Asians who Time honored is likely to change the geopolitical calculus on the most dynamic region more than a President Duterte in the Philippines.

This is still an “if,” of course. But this strongman who pledges public hangings for criminals, irks human rights watchdogs, unapologetically tells rape jokes and appears to have little use for democratic checks and balances is the clear front-runner as the nation of 100 million heads to the polls on May 9. His likely foreign policy? Think Donald Trump speaking Tagalog, and you get the picture. Duterte’s rising numbers, it’s worth noting, have made the peso Asia’s worst performing currency.

For foreign pundits observing “Duterte Harry,” the question is how, oh how, this is happening in a nation on such a roll. In six short years, President Benigno Aquino helped transform the “Sick Man of Asia” into an investment-grade growth star. He boosted tax collection, attacked opacity and graft, and reduced the Catholic Church’s stranglehold on politics. Aquino’s biggest accomplishment is one he rarely misses a chance to proclaim: raising the people’s mindset and expectations. The reform genie, in other words, is out of the bottle and no leader can stuff it back in and return to the bad old ways.

Yet that’s just what the electorate seems nostalgic for, even as economic metrics improve. All too many foreign observers exploring this paradox get lost in the weeds of oversimplification, stereotypes and feigned pity for voters who should know better. As tens of millions of my own countrymen rally around a knuckle-dragger like Trump, who am I to judge? The real question on my mind is why the “strongman syndrome” is making a comeback and what other budding Asian democracies can learn from the dynamic.

“Nostalgia-nomics,” to coin a phrase, isn’t confined to Aquino’s electorate. One of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s biggest foes is public affection for Suharto, the late dictator who over 32 years morphed Indonesia into a kleptocracy. In Malaysia, disaffection for scandal-plagued Najib Razak has voters reminiscing about authoritarian rule under Mahathir Mohamad. In South Korea, fond memories of Park Chung-hee’s post-war boom helped propel daughter Park Geun-hye into the presidential Blue House. Japanese voters, meanwhile, display a bewildering tolerance for Shinzo Abe’s efforts to turn back the clock on Tokyo’s wartime exploits.

The common thread, arguably, is disorientation. We live in upside-down times when the U.S. can appear like more of a developing nation than China; when possessing an abundance of commodities can seem more burden than asset; when the democracy the West sold as a panacea for prosperity can fan inequality; when the global rules of finance and trade look hopelessly rigged; and when virtually all the fruits of economic growth go to the 1 percent, while the masses walk in place.

China is intricately linked to the sense of bafflement. Time headlined its Xi write-up “Heir to Mao” and included Jin Liqun, head of Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, in its list of 100. It’s one thing when Asian peers were competing with one another. The rise of a behemoth with 1.4 billion citizens with huge ambitions, deep pockets and no respect for territorial claims is quite another.

In a world where little makes sense, many are grasping for a superhero not unlike those Hollywood brings to theaters with bewildering frequency these days. The confusion plays into the hands of strongmen with little use for niceties, conventions or political correctness and an obsession with uprooting the status quo no matter the cost.

In the Philippines, his name is Duterte, the crime-busting mayor from Davao City. He pledges to clear drugs from streets within three to six months and treat felons so ruthlessly that they’ll rethink their illegal ways. Never mind the impossibility of the task, voters are rallying around a caped crusader from the south who believes so strongly in his gut feelings that he dismisses his daughter as a “drama queen” for saying she was raped.

May 9 may just be the most consequential election in Philippine history, one that either sees the nation accelerate its impressive gains or proves the last six years were an aberration. What’s fascinating is how the contest has a candidate for everyone. Mar Roxas, Aquino’s favored successor, boasts a family lineage that comforts the elites. Jejomar Binay, who runs a daunting political machine, appeals to those who favor an in-the-trenches survivor. The fresh-faced Grace Poe exudes youth and optimism. Miriam Defensor-Santiago is a policy-wonk favorite. Duterte, it’s tempting to say, has the mob and little else. But he also has the megaphone, one Aquino inadvertently passed his way.

Aquino isn’t responsible for Duterte’s surge, any more than U.S. President Barack Obama created Trump. But the gulf between where Aquino claims the Philippines is today and the reality deserves some blame. Again, Aquino has bequeathing the next president a vastly improved trajectory. The Philippines is seen growing 6.4 percent this year, while fiscal space for investments in the future is increasing thanks to a narrowing budget gap as a percentage of gross domestic product. But reinventing the economic system that dictator Ferdinand Marcos built between 1965 and 1986 isn’t a six-year job. It’s a 10- to 20-year task, and continuity is everything.

Aquino erred by overselling the progress the Philippines made since 2010. Soaring expectations for “good governance” outpaced gains in good-paying jobs and upgrades to the bad infrastructure squandering growth. Aquino’s legacy, you could say, is a victim of his own success in changing mindsets about what to demand of leaders. Democracy is messy and full of detours, much like the notorious metro Manila traffic that still plagues voters. Credible, law-abiding leaders can’t just snap their fingers, China-style, and fix complex problems decades in the making.

Hence the appeal of a firebrand, shoot-from-the-hip strongman with little time for debate, compromise or the legislative process. The race for vice president even found space for Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who’s giving reform-favorite Leni Robredo a run for her money. At a time when Filipinos have real options, why are voters veering toward those selling the easiest quick fixes and draped in superficial social-media packaging?

Manila, unfortunately, succumbed to the “Cult of GDP,” just like officials in Jakarta, Putrajaya and elsewhere in the region. That’s the tendency to declare victory when growth rates accelerate. Leaders trumpet the China-like growth they’re producing, but average Filipinos aren’t feeling it. Nor has the flow of Filipinos moving abroad to work and send money back home to fuel consumption slowed. The remittance bubble remains a clear and present danger to competitiveness and quality of life. The disconnect between Aquino’s rosy rhetoric and realities on the ground is feeding democratic fatigue at the worst possible moment.

Good governance hasn’t smashed the oligarch nature of the economy any more than rapid growth has eradicated poverty. Filipinos have every reason to be disenchanted with the ruling elite telling them life is super. But Nostalgia-nomics won’t help. The answer is greater democracy, stronger government institutions and increased checks and balances to keep strongmen away from the presidency. That so many think it’s the other way around makes this an ominous time for Asia.

Based in Tokyo, William Pesek is executive editor of Barron’s Asia and writes on Asian economics. www.barronsasia.com

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.