Eroding Institutions and Exploiting Resentments: Populism in the Philippines and Southeast Asia

Last March 6, 2018, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was addressing a crowd at the Malacanang Palace. The occasion was the oath taking of the newly formed Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission.  A commission tasked to hold public officials accountable for their actions.  With usual fire, flair and foul words, Duterte said, “you cannot acquire jurisdiction over me, not in a million years.”[1]  Referring to the International Criminal Court (ICC), Duterte was adamant that his actions and the performance of his administration was not the business of any international organization or any international treaty.  Along with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the ICC have been sending communication to the Philippines regarding the excessive use of force and the violent nature of the government’s anti-drug campaign. For Duterte, the bloody nature of the drug campaign is an electoral promise he is determined to fulfill.  After one week, it was announced that the Philippines was withdrawing from the ratified Rome Statute, a treaty creating the International Criminal Court (ICC). Hints and threats of withdrawal from the ICC have been increasing along with personal attacks against UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard who serves Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

When it comes to international organizations, international NGOs and human rights groups, the populist leader has created a narrative of ill-informed foreigners meddling in domestic affairs.  More importantly, they were getting in the way of him fulfilling his duty. As early as the campaign period in the 2016 elections, Duterte has managed to paint the Philippine drug crisis and subsequently his administration’s drug war as a matter of national interest.  To the members of the Philippine National Police, Duterte dissuaded them from cooperating from a possible UN human rights investigation, "Why would we be answering? Sino sila [Who are they]? And who are you to interfere in the way I would run my country? You know very well that we are being swallowed by drugs."[2]

It should not come as a surprise that Duterte would challenge the ICC or the UNHCR.  Prior to this, Duterte was already combative against the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights.  For a time, the Chairman of the Commission, Jose Luis Gascon, was called names and publicly berated. In support of the president, allies in Congress threated the Commission with a $20 budget.[3] Apart from the Human Rights commission, other institutions have also been shamed and blamed using populist rhetoric.  The Chief Justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, of the Supreme Court is currently under impeachment proceedings from Duterte’s allies in Congress.  The Office of the Ombudsman, the Philippines’ constitutionally mandated anti-corruption body clashed with the president over an investigation of the presidents alleged bank transactions amounting to 1 billion pesos (US$19 million).[4] The chief executive issued a 90 day suspension against Deputy Ombudsman Melchor Carandang for "divulging valuable information of a confidential character acquired by his office or by him on account of his position."[5] These kinds of interactions and statements weaken institutions meant to safeguard the rule of law and provide avenues of check and balance. Apart from these political institutions, the media and civil society have also been on the receiving end of punitive action and intimidation.  The Security and Exchange Commission revoked the incorporation of online media platform Rappler for violating laws that prohibit foreign ownership of media firms.[6] Recently, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency has announced that it will investigate human rights groups if they have links with drug lords.[7] The intolerance, unrestrained and the unpredictability of populist regimes weakens multiple institutions over time. Can institutions weather the populist agenda?

In recent years, voters have increasingly chosen populist leaders from the left and from the right. An increasing number of elected populist leaders can be found in countries with long democratic traditions and history. It might be less surprising to find populist leaders in countries that are purportedly democratic but without necessarily having strong liberal democratic traditions.  While some have argued that the reason for this rise is the failure of globalization and the lack of inclusive growth.  For the segment of the population that have not benefited from the borderless economy, there is understandably, a cynicism that makes populist rhetoric appealing.  While that may be true, in the case of the Philippines, manifestations of populism can be attributed to weak institutions and a democratic deficit.  The insufficiency of democratic institutions to address public demands. One reason for the deficit is due to the primacy of personalities over institutionalized political parties.  The irony is that democratic deficits create an opening for populists that further strengthens the tendency for personalities over parties.  In time institutions will further weaken under a populist regime. For some political scientists, this will include electoral integrity.  But the fact that populists managed to win these election means that electoral integrity was flawed to begin with.  The electoral process provided an opportunity for populist leaders, who can likewise be traditional politicians and need not be pro-poor, to have favorable electoral outcomes.  A critical look at the electoral process with an eye to minimize its vulnerabilities should be part of the longer-term agenda of reformists.


Let me take a selfie: a 2016 photo of Duterte and Hun Sen at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh Cambodia

Southeast Asia: Variations of Populism and Nationalism

But the Philippines is not alone in the region experiencing the leadership of a populist. Southeast Asia has always struggled with strongman rule. The recent Freedom House Report of 2017 shows that a “number of repressive rulers in Asia reined in free speech and assembly during 2016 to smother public criticism of their own crimes and abuses.”[8] Freedom House sees a downward trend with 44% of the countries in the Asia Pacific region classified as free, 36% are partly free, and 20% are not free.  Manifestations of populist and strong-arm rule vary from authoritarian populism and religious nationalism.  The similar strand is in the use “crisis” and “performance.” This is achieved using a “vocabulary of fear, crisis and danger” but a promise of agency for the marginalized through the populists’ “the politics of I will” [9]   In the weeks leading up to the 31st ASEAN Summit in October 2017, Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte stated in a press conference from an official foreign trip that ASEAN countries should try to improve in its “cohesive partnership” and to stay relevant with the needs of the times.   In the weeks leading up to the ASEAN Summit in Manila, the Philippines ranked higher in the impunity index and a downward trend is expected to continue in the Philippine ranking in the rule of law index. Yet President Duterte was confident that there will be no discussion in the ASEAN summit regarding his administration’s campaign against drugs and instead expected support from other ASEAN leaders.  Together, ASEAN’s ten-member states of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, represents the third largest market in the world.  Combined, the region provides the third largest labor source in the world.  The profile of the region’s population is both young and a force for a consumer driven economy.  Just twenty years ago, with the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the region suffered an economic setback that seemed insurmountable, requiring financial support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) especially for Indonesia and Thailand.  The region’s resiliency has ushered years of relatively stability and economic growth. Yet Southeast Asia continues to struggle with governance issues, corruption, human rights, gender equality, religious and ethnic conflict and collusion of economic and political elites.  


One of the first heads of state to arrive in the Philippines for the ASEAN Summit was Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia and State Counselor Aung Sang Suu Kyi of Myanmar.  They were welcomed by former President and close Duterte ally Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, now serving as Congresswoman after the dismissal of her plunder cases.  The ASEAN member states are led by an assortment of political players that reflect the region’s challenges, domestic democratic deficits and political dysfunction. Pime Minister Hun Sen is one of the longest serving heads of state in the region.  As Prime Minister for 33 years, Hun Sen’s government recently kept the opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from participating in elections through a ruling of the Supreme Court.  The repressive style of Hun Sen and the maverick Duterte have drawn the two ASEAN leaders to closer ties.   Given the Philippines’ sudden pivot to China, both countries have become allies of China and of each one. Both Duterte and Hun Sen are known to get along and Hun Sen has praised the Philippines’ tough stance on illegal drugs. Myanmar’s Aung Sang Suu Kyi had it easy as well in the last ASEAN summit because no country brought up how her government was responding to the religious nationalism issue involving the displacement and deaths of Rohingyas.


then the Governor of Jakarta, Mr. Joko Widodo was doing his signature 'blusukan' (impromptu visits) in 2013. Jokowi was elected as the President of Indonesia period of 2014-2019

In Indonesia, a country with a history of strongman rule but also a strong civil society able to oust a dictator.  In the 2014 elections, voter preference almost tilted in favor of the son-in-law of President Suharto.  Formerly the commanding officer of the Kopassus and Kostrad, Prabowo’s units cracked down hard on the opposition during the dictatorship.  Winning with a slim margin, current President Jokowi is no dictator but has been labeled as a “polite populist.”[10]  Today there is a strand of religious nationalism making populist claims that is gaining ground in Indonesia.  It successfully ousted Jakarta Governor Ahok on grounds of blasphemy.  And the harsh crackdown on members of the LGBT community is worrisome for human rights advocates. Recently, Jokowi appointed a moderate Muslim scholar to head, along with Megawati Sukarnoputri, created a presidential unit to safeguard the PANCASILA principles, the state ideology of Indonesia.  In all cases, from Cambodia, Myanmar and Indonesia there is a crisis or a threat framed under to justify and legitimizes populist actions and policies that preserves the power of political elites and invariably weakens institutions along the way.   

The Philippines: One of the oldest democracies in Southeast Asia

The Philippines is one of the oldest democracies in Asia with a long experience in elections and the formation of democratic institutions. As a former colonial state of the US, it is tempting to say that the Philippines mimics the US.  But that might not be an accurate description of the democratic challenges both countries are facing.  The Philippines after all, had twenty years of Marcos dictatorship.  And while many compare Rodrigo Duterte to Donald Trump in the way they use unfiltered language, having a solid base of support, and their unpredictable attitude towards democratic institutions, the Philippines elected a populist leader ahead of its former colonizer.  It might be more accurate that we mirror the US in some aspect.  And this would not be all too surprising given that colonial legacies last but also lingers with unintended and pervasive consequences.  The democratic deficit experienced by the Philippines can be traced to the political structures and enduring effects of elite accommodation that began under the colonial state apparatus.


Net satisfaction of Duterte's administration

The Philippines is one of the fastest growing economies in Asia with “uninterrupted growth for 74 consecutive quarters.”[11]  While the Philippines continues to lag in infrastructure, there is a sense that the country is finally playing catch up with its neighbors as far as economic development is concerned.    And these gains, including the improved lives of its citizens, need to be protected. The controversial and not so conventional Philippine president has been under fire from human rights advocates for his administration’s war on drugs.  Since the campaign to wage war against the drug trade was launched there has been an increasing number of extra-judicial killings in the Philippines especially in urban poor communities.  Those killed in anti-drug police operations are said to have fought back leaving law enforcers no choice but to shoot them. In a survey by the Social Weather Station, more than 50% of those polled believe that the deaths from the war on drugs did not fight back as the police claim and 60% of the respondents think that the victims and targets are the poor. The strongarm tactics of President Duterte against the drug war has resulted in thousands of extra judicial killing yet he remains popular and approval ratings remain high.  One question that does come up is, where is the vibrant civil society in the Philippines?  What are their strategies to encourage participation?

The populist trend is unlikely to wane soon, both in the Philippines and in the region, with the politics of resentment, of anxiety constantly created as a form of crisis representation.  There is a need to look at the long-term impact of the populist agenda and how it is weakening democratic institutions especially the values of human rights and the primacy of the rule of law. 


[1] Ranada, P. (2018, March 16) Duterte Insists: ICC has no jurisdiction over him. Rappler. Retrieved…

[2] Bacungan, V. (2018, March 2) Duterte tells police to ignore UN human rights probers of drug war. CNN Philippines. Retrieved…

[3] Cayabyab, M. (2017, September 12) House gives Commission on Human Rights P1,000 budget for 2018


[4] With March 2018 currency rates, this is US $19 million

[5] Ranada, P. (2018, 29 January).  Malacañang suspends Deputy Ombudsman Carandang. Rappler. Retrieved…

[6] Cabuag, V. (2018, 20 January). SEC on Rappler case: Foreign control should not be present in any form. Business Mirror. Retrieved…

[7] Corrales, N. (2018, 27 March). PDEA, PNP probing links between rights groups, drug lords. Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved…

[8] Freedom House Report 2017

[9] Curato, N. (2016) Politics of Anxiety, Politics of Hope: Penal Populism and Duterte’s Rise to Power. Journal of Contemporary Southeast Asian Affairs. Volume 35 (3), pp.91-109

[10] Mietzner, M. (2014, April- June). The Rise of a Polite Populist. Inside Indonesia. Retrieved

[11] Central Bank Governor Nestor Espenilla in a speech for the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, October 18, 2017