There may be more to the Philippines’ new president Rodrigo Duterte than his tough guy image indicates
In the populist theatrics that are Filipino politics, the overwhelming election of Rodrigo Duterte should not have come as a surprise, even if comparisons with US ‘outsider’ Donald Trump have been as common as they are inaccurate. Unlike Trump, Duterte is an active Filipino politician and, unlike Trump, his rhetorical bluster is backed by action.
Duterte’s campaign was notable for its tough, sometimes trashy talk, particularly on stepping outside the law to crack down on crime and corruption. He has even threatened the Philippines legislature if its members are found to be corrupt or don’t join him in his fight against corruption.
Duterte is seen as a political outsider because he is not of the traditional Philippines’ elite. Yet in some respects he is a quintessential Filipino politician. In a country in which private armed groups and resorting to extra-legal measures have been commonplace, Duterte has earned an undeniable reputation for backing strong words with strong action.
As mayor of the City of Davao in southern Mindano, where insurgency and crime have been rampant, Duterte has allegedly cracked down on drug crime through ordering the extra-judicial killing of drug dealers, alleged drug dealers and some people who otherwise earned the mayor’s ire. From personal experience, Duterte’s reputation is enough to cause concern to otherwise entirely innocent people just to be in the same restaurant as him.
There is no doubt, however, that in a particularly lawless part of the world, Duterte has been effective. He is seen to be, and is sometimes referred to, as ‘The Punisher’ or as a ‘Dirty Harry’ figure, after the movie character who dispensed law and justice according to his own preferences.
While Duterte’s tough-talking campaign for the presidency won him many fans among those Filipinos who encounter crime and corruption on a regular basis, he is also seen by many to be a ‘people’s leader’, sympathetic to the plight of the country’s disproportionate poor.
Positively, too, Duterte was the only presidential aspirant to put forward clear plans to deal with two of the Philippines’ biggest problems; China’s encroachment in the South China Sea and the Islamist separatist rebellion on his home island of Mindanao.
The Philippines reasonably claims that China has encroached on waters that should, under international law, in part fall to its jurisdiction. Rather than make a simple—and confrontational—territorial claim, Duterte has suggested an alternative in which disputing countries in the South China Sea negotiate a resource-sharing agreement in a mutually administered region.
Similarly, and again in contrast with his head-on approach, Duterte is keen to have a peace agreement with Mindanao’s Moro Islamic Liberation Front finally signed off. Finalising the peace agreement has been held up by the Philippines’ sometimes self-serving legislature: Duterte has threatened the legislature if it continues to block the agreement.
This, then, goes to Duterte’s view that the Philippines should be a federal rather than a unitary state, which might go some way towards resolving some of its regional problems, particularly in the Islamic south. This proposal is unlikely to receive a positive response from the legislature, and confrontation—possibly a showdown—between the new president and the legislature can be expected.
As with Davao City (where he has also banned smoking in some places), Duterte is also proposing banning the sale of alcohol after midnight. His concern for tackling social ills runs the full gamut from organised crime to potential social misbehavior.
None of this is to suggest that Duterte is the knight in tarnished armor that the Philippines has been waiting for. It is to suggest, however, that while he may have unorthodox methods regarding crime and social backsliding, and perhaps shoring up his own political position, he appears to understand larger and more complex issues that have to date largely escaped the attention of the Filipino political elite.
Unlike most other republican systems, these elections did not see the pairing of vice-presidential candidates with presidential ones. In a very tight race, vice-presidential candidate Leni Robredo was just squeezing ahead of Ferdinand ‘BongBong’ Marcos, the son of former Philippines dictator Fredinand Marcos.
Behind the seeming third-rate Hollywood acting, Philippines politics is played hard, sometimes to the point of violence
Robredo comes from a conventional, if activist, political background and her social justice orientation might be a useful foil to Duterte’s more robust interpretation of ‘justice’. Robredo also appears to have the wit to succeed Duterte, who is only allowed one term as president.
But what the elections did show was that being a ‘strong’ political leader had continued appeal for many, perhaps most Filipinos. BongBong Marcos may have come from a very different political (and geographic) background to Duterte, but aspects of his appeal were similar.
As unofficial polling was showing that Robredo was beginning to pull ahead of Marcos in the vice-presidential race, Marcos called for the polling to be stopped, on the grounds that the results might ‘confuse’ voters! As with his father in his own last election, this, then, looked like the creation of an opportunity for vote-rigging.
What was clear, however, was that while many Filipinos look to good, smart candidates as their preferred leaders, many—perhaps most—also continue to also look to more superficial aspects of appeal. The superficial appeal and theatricality of politics in the Philippines, however, should not be taken as a sign that it is not serious.
Behind the seeming third-rate Hollywood acting, Philippines politics is played hard, sometimes to the point of violence. It has been suggested that, in order for Duterte to preserve his political position, not all of those allegedly killed in extra-judicial circumstances in Davao City were criminals.
So the question, now, is whether Duterte, as president, tones down his hometown tough-guy image and rises to the higher office to which he has now been elected. A subsequent question might be whether, in five years’ time, he is succeeded by a social activist or the loyal son of a dictator.
Professor Damien Kingsbury is author of ‘Contemporary Politics in Southeast Asia’, to be published by Routledge in September.