From Tumindig to Duterte Fist: Why Hand Gestures Mean Power in Politics

It defines politicians and movements.
Photo/s: Jerome Ascaño

Days before President Rodrigo Duterte's final State of the Nation Address, a familiar hand sign caught social media by storm. A drawing of a clenched fist pointing upwards, the artwork, aptly called Tumindig, has inspired a campaign for resistance ahead of the 2022 elections and even figured in protest actions coinciding the President's annual speech.

Tumindig is a testament to the power of hand gestures as a political symbol. It's the counterpoint to President's fist bump, which earlier served as foil to the Laban sign. Decades earlier, Laban slayed the Victory sign of the Marcoses and in between, several politicians tried to own the thumbs up and the number one signs.

Why are hand signs a staple in the country's political landscape? It’s because like any other icon, these symbols help politicians build their own brand, political scientists told reportr.

“Hand signs or gestures are symbols that make people remember or be reminded with particular political interests,” Gerardo Eusebio, a campaign strategist who teaches political science at the De La Salle University, said.

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“That even without speaking, a mere fisted hand would mean association with Duterte. An ‘L’ hand sign would translate to the Liberal Party or Leni Robredo. So on and so forth,” he added.

Hand symbols and politics

While people can use their voice and their body to communicate, the hand has been a favorite tool for conveying symbols because it is agile --- it can do multiple things quickly and easily, said University of the Philippines political science professor Alicor Panao.

“Symbols are particular or specific to an audience; they are not universal. Some symbols carry totally different meanings, depending on the context and culture,” he told reportr.

In the case of politicians, Panao said they resort to using symbols because they want to be associated with their “cultural and commemorative equivalents.”

Symbols are supposed to package or brand a political platform or program of action,” he added.

Take the “V” sign for example. In other contexts, it could be perceived as a symbol of peace, or even “Girl Power” as popularized by the British girl group Spice Girls. In the context of Philippine politics, this hand sign has been closely associated with Ferdinand Marcos, who used it to symbolize political victory during his more than two-decade rule.

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The same hand sign has also been used by Marcos’ children in their own political battles years later --- Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. during his vice presidential run in 2016, and Imee Marcos in 2019 for her senatorial bid.

While the Marcoses have the “V” sign, the Aquinos and the people allied with them have a competing gesture: the “L” sign, which stood for “laban” or fight. It's the exact opposite in Hollywood where L stands for loser.

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The hand symbol was used by former Sen. Ninoy Aquino’s party, Lakas ng Bayan or LABAN, in defiance to the Marcos regime in the 1980s, and was adopted by his widow, former President Corazon Aquino, when she ran in the 1986 snap elections. She would later ascend to the presidency after Marcos fled the Philippines at the end of the first People Power Revolution.

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The “L” sign has remained popular even after 1986. In 2009, the symbol returned to public consciousness in paying tribute to Aquino when she passed away of colon cancer. The following year, her son, former President Noynoy Aquino carried the same symbol in his campaign. Liberal Party stalwarts Mar Roxas and Robredo have also used the sign in their respective electoral bids.

Back in 1998, Estrada launched his presidential campaign with the "thumbs up" sign, riding on the slogan “Erap Para sa Mahirap.” By 2001, people who grew discontented about the Estrada administration over allegations of corruption turned “thumbs up” into “thumbs down" as they staged the second People Power Revolution.

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Now, political hand symbols have become more popular than ever, with Duterte’s fist bump, which symbolizes the 76-year-old leader’s toughness, always on display whenever he attends public gatherings.


Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, who is among the preferred presidential bets in the 2022 elections, has also come up with his own hand sign --- the index fingers pointing up --- which stands for “God first.”

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Isko Moreno Domagoso/Facebook

Using hand gestures is also a cost-effective way of launching an campaign, said political scientist Cleve Arguelles, since they can reach more voters than political speeches or printed election materials.

"Coming up with an iconic hand gesture that can be very easy to remember and quite reliable in communicating the main message of one's campaign can be advantageous to any candidate needing to differentiate themselves from other candidates and get public attention as easily and quickly as possible," Arguelles, who also teaches political science at the De La Salle University, added.

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Will hand signs be as popular in 2022?

Next year, these hand signs are expected to make waves again as the country chooses its new leaders. But now that campaigns would shift mostly online, the impact of these hand symbols might not be the same as before, Eusebio and Panao said.

The Commission on Elections recently said it would limit physical interaction between candidates and the public due to the ongoing threat of COVID-19. Public gatherings and political rallies will likewise be restricted.

“As democracy becomes more and more media or social media centered, politicians should also transcend beyond traditional symbols because internet as a podium requires messages to be quick, catchy, and brand-focused, highlighting what truly sets a candidate apart from the rest,” Panao said.

Arguelles added that in the age of social media, candidates "must be as authentic and as consistent with their branding from what they say to how they speak to which parts of their bodies are shown and emphasized."

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For Eusebio, candidates should be more creative in using their popular hand signs on social media.

“What could replace it are hand gestures superimposed on memes for social media use. Partisans could send their messages with these hand signs as icons in social media,” he said.

In the end, candidates will not be elected by the voters based on how unique or quirky their hand signs are, but on what they can do for the people they seek to serve.

“Campaigning under the new normal is like live-selling in Lazada or Shopee, only this time politicians and parties must sell their political programs,” Panao said.


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