Duterte's Rise to Power in the Philippines: Domestic and Regional Implications

Duterte of the Philippines

President Duterte is the most controversial figure in the Philippines today, and arguably in the ASEAN region. He is now President of the Philippines, which chairs ASEAN in 2017. What is in store for the Philippines and for the chairmanship of ASEAN? 

This article explores the wider social and political implications of Duterte's first months as President at both the domestic and the regional level, in view of the Philippine chairmanship of ASEAN 2017. The article also provides a background of the main political junctures in Philippine social and political development that have contributed to Duterte's rise to power.

Rise to Power

Rodrigo Roa Duterte, 71, served as the mayor of Davao City in Southern Mindanao for 27 years before rising to the Philippine Presidency on May 9, 2016. He garnered 15.7 million votes representing 39 percent of the electorate in a five-cornered electoral contest. His victory made Duterte the first mayor to become president. He won on the basis of several bold promises, foremost of which was to rid the Philippines of illegal drugs and crime in just six months. To his supporters, his record of cleaning up drugs and crime in Davao using a folksy, no-nonsense leadership could work for the country of 104 million people.

Apart from the anti- drug and corruption drive, Duterte promised to shift government to a federal system, re-balance Philippine development towards Mindanao and the poor, solve the traffic problem in Metro Manila, and forge peace agreements with both communist and Muslim rebel groups. He also wanted a more independent foreign posture, distancing from the U.S. and opening new doors of relations with China.

The rise of Duterte with a clear plurality vote has translated quickly into a public approval rating of 91 percent (Pulse Asia Survey covering 2-8 July 2016). This confirmed to Duterte he had the Filipinos' mandate to undertake comprehensive and transformative change. Duterte quickly started his war on drugs. Police knocked on doors throughout the nation to ferret out drug users and pushers. In less than 90 days in office, the war has killed over 3,000 alleged drug pushers and users who fought back at the police, or hit by unidentified vigilantes. The war also induced the surrender of over 700,000 “drug personalities” to the police. There has been a rush to build rehabilitation facilities, but mostly, those who surrendered are sent home to get out of addiction on their own.

Early political challenges and trends

On September 2, the Davao City night market was bombed, killing 15 and wounding 60 others. This happened after Duterte poured in 7,000 more soldiers into Mindanao to finally exterminate the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group. In reaction, Duterte immediately announced a state of lawless violence throughout the country.  On 5 September, a day before leaving for the ASEAN Summit in Laos, Duterte signed a proclamation putting the country indefinitely under a state of emergency on account of lawless violence. The proclamation empowers him to employ the military alongside the police in suppressing all forms of lawless violence nationwide.

Duterte's unorthodox leadership methods have polarized the Filipino public. On the one hand are the Duterte Diehard Supporters (DDS), an evocative self-label that plays on the Davao Death Squad (DDS) that Duterte had allegedly used to suppress drugs and crime in Davao. The DDS express relief the streets are now safe from crimes and applaud the numerous initiatives launched by Duterte, such as night curfew on children, freedom of information (executive order), and faster transactions with government.

On the other extreme are the “yellows” that supported the presidential candidacy of Mar Roxas and his vice presidential candidate Leni Robredo, the handpicked successors of President Noynoy Aquino during the elections. This group has led the opposition to the draconian measures of Duterte and decries the impunity of extra-judicial killing (EJK) of drug personalities.

The Duterte program of governance

The attention given by Duterte to the anti-drug drive has overshadowed the other elements of his program. These less known initiatives are as difficult to accomplish as ridding Philippine society of drugs and crime. Solving the traffic problem in Metro Manila is clearly almost an impossible task without a long-term systematic solution. Installing a federal form of government is another promise that may take decades.

The Duterte program is best represented by the 2017 budget proposal the Administration has submitted to the Congress totaling $71.97 billion. This is 11.6 percent higher than the 2016 budget and is the highest proposed ever. The budget clearly shows the President intends to exercise the primary initiatives. The Office of President will get $430.3 million, up from $61.44 million in 2016. The budget for infrastructure is increased ($16.29 billion to $18.49 billion) or about 5.4% of the GDP. Agriculture and rural development will get $2.59 billion, public order and safety $4.44 billion. The judiciary gets $698.18 million, an increase of 21.5% from 2016.  On the other hand, the Health and foreign affairs budgets are reduced.


Duterte as the center of politics

Political dynamics has shifted under President Duterte. The President himself has become the political arena, as he makes all the major decisions – policy and appointments. There has been a re-centralization of power from local to the national government, as local governments now implement initiatives emanating from Malacañang, such as the anti-drug campaign, implementation of curfew. Congress is poised to grant Duterte emergency powers to cut red tape. The climate of public opinion has become polarized. Social media has been intensively and widely used for propaganda. Human rights abuses have become accepted by a large segment of the population as the price for increased sense of security of the general population.

Consolidating power

There has been a visible cooptation of the House of Representatives and the Senate by the Administration. Solons have shifted party loyalties wholesale giving the President a “Supermajority” in the Lower House and in the Senate.

Apparently a strategy to subsume the Congress, Duterte has publicly attacked and humiliated Sen. Leila de Lima, who investigated the human rights allegations against him when she headed the Commission on Human Rights. On 19 September, his allies in the Senate have removed de Lima as Chair of the Committee of Justice and Human Rights, for having presented a self-confessed member of the Davao Death Squad. The witness testified that then Mayor Duterte ordered the Squad to conduct extra-judicial killing of drug pushers, addicts, and criminals in Davao from 1988-2014.

Duterte has consciously courted the military. He continued to visit military camps (about 20 so far) all over the country, speaking before soldiers and officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, discussing political and security issues and making announcements about the welfare of soldiers, and seeking their support for his actions. Duterte has also tightened his control of the bureaucracy. He ordered all President appointed positions (about 6,000) vacant. However, many of these positions have remained unfilled, slowing down the work of these departments.

Emergence as controversial international figure

Duterte has made international headlines as a result of the EJKs, and the colorful language he has used to defend his war on drugs. He has bad-mouthed states, international organizations, and their key leaders and representatives like President Barack Obama, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights, in addition to the Pope and the U.S. and Australian ambassadors whom he insulted.  Duterte has also criticized the United Nations, threatening at one time to take the Philippines out of the organization. He has consistently lashed out in defense against foreign interference in Philippine domestic affairs. The Duterte cabinet tries to soften the impact of Duterte's abrasive words by clarifying and backpedaling his statements, often blaming media for biased reporting.

Shifts in foreign policy posture

Duterte has augured a new stance in Philippine foreign relations, distancing the Philippines from the United States. He has called for the removal of U.S. soldiers in Mindanao, and the cessation of joint U.S. - Philippine patrols in the West Philippines Sea. On the other hand, Duterte has continued to be conciliatory towards China, and has made overtures to Russia.

Weak state in design and practice

How did Duterte rise to power so quickly? The 1987 Philippine Constitution holds several clues. The Constitution was the comprehensive solution to the problems that led to the Martial Law regime of Ferdinand Marcos, and to the problem of preventing future forms of authoritarianism itself.  It appears there are weaknesses in the constitutional design.

In the elections where Duterte won, there were five Presidential candidates, almost guaranteeing that the winner will not have a majority vote. There was no provision of run-off election between the two candidates with the highest number of votes. None of the candidates were also elected by political party conventions, where there would have been an intramural contest within each party. There were also no real programmatic political parties with loyal members and a distinct ideology.  Political campaigns were also privately funded, without support from the state. Political dynasties have also proliferated, despite the Constitutional provision mandating a law to regulate them.

The system of checks and balances among the Presidency, the Congress, and the Supreme Court has often translated into stalemated governance.  Despite a decade of reform, the criminal justice system has remained unresponsive, inefficient, and corrupt.

Widespread public frustration

While the Constitution championed decentralization, empowerment of local governments has not reversed the gaps between the countryside and “Imperial Manila.” Mindanao where Duterte came from was woefully neglected in terms of infrastructure and government services. There was a dissonance between the macro-economic achievements of the previous administration and the abject quality of life of the daily lives of the people. One out of four families (25 million) was poor. The sense of frustration with governance, development, and security was skillfully amplified through the social media in the Duterte campaign solidifying and sharpening the Duterte image of a leader who was down to earth, authentic, patriotic, experienced, proven, and confident.

There was also an element of populism and communitarianism symbolized by the popular reference to Duterte as Tatay Digong (Papa Digong). This evokes the regard many Filipinos had of Ferdinand Marcos during his authoritarian rule, where he was “The Apo”, Father of the Nation. This attraction to an authentic folk hero parallels the rise of populist, iconoclastic leaders like Chavez in Venezuela and now Trump in America. 

This spiritual longing to put trust in a leader was awakened and consolidated by a deft social media campaign that created this image of Duterte. The rallies of Duterte during the campaign made full use of symbols such as the Filipino flag, which he would kiss and wrap around himself. This attachment to Duterte came mostly from Mindanao and Visayas, where the sense of alienation from a Metro Manila based government was strongest. The rise of Duterte was also facilitated by the neglect of succession planning by the Aquino administration.


ASEAN Chair 2017

Prospects for Philippines and Chairmanship of ASEAN

What are the prospects for the Philippines and the region?  The Philippines will likely continue to slide into a more personalistic and authoritarian rule, as Duterte degrades the opposition to his rule and centralizes and intensifies his control of Congress, the police and military, and support from a sizeable DDS support base.  The mainstream media, the Church, the business sector, the academe, and large segments of the upper and middle classes will likely increase their opposition as the EJKs continue and hit closer to home and adversely affect the economy.  Duterte's shift away from the United States and the United Nations has further divided public opinion. The curtailment of civil and political space that will accompany the slide to martial law will meet with increased position.

The first outing of President Duterte onto the regional and international stage was the ASEAN Summit in Laos in early September. This outing was marred by controversy. President Obama canceled his meeting with President Duterte as a result of insulting language Duterte directed at Obama hours before he enplaned for Laos. Duterte reacted by purposely skipping the ASEAN-US meeting and the ASEAN-UN meeting. Duterte also made an unusual presentation during the ASEAN-East Asia meeting of a massacre by US soldiers of Muslim Filipinos a century ago when the Philippines was a colony of the United States.

Duterte's actions in Laos show that the Philippine government is bound to be conflicted in its approach to ASEAN. On the one hand, the Department of Foreign Affairs is keen to maintain smooth diplomatic processes in ASEAN. On the other hand, President Duterte has chosen to use the last ASEAN Summit as a forum for advocating Philippine interests. It remains to be seen whether the DFA channel or the Duterte channel will prevail over the next year.  In sub-summit ASEAN meetings where Duterte will not attend, most likely the DFA technocratic and professional approach will prevail.

Nevertheless, it is likely that during the chairmanship of the Philippines in ASEAN, the following issues will not be prominent: human rights, promotion of civic and political participation and discourse, promotion of climate change and environmental causes, and international standards and agreements applied to domestic policy. On the other hand, the following issues would likely be promoted: sovereign equality of nations and freedom from external interference in domestic affairs, interest rather than rights-based resolution of disputes, closer relations with China, and regional cooperation in combating drugs and crime.

The ability of the Philippines to provide evenhanded leadership to ASEAN will be in question, as Duterte increasingly rebels against increasing criticism from foreign and international quarters, including the media and advocates of democracy and human rights in fellow ASEAN countries.