Sign Up

Duterte: The Making of a Philippines President

What can be expected of a prizefighter-turned-death-squad-mayor in the country’s top job?

June 3, 2016

What can be expected of a prizefighter-turned-death-squad-mayor in the country’s top job?

The image of an aging prizefighter with the street language to fit – in the form of Rodrigo Duterte – is not quite what either the United States or Asian neighbors would like to see in a Philippine president.

His overt approval of extra-judicial killings of alleged drug dealers and other criminals is unsettling to nations with commitment to human rights and due process.

His invitation to communists to accept important ministerial posts in his government is a worry for those looking for stable economic and social policies for a nation only just beginning to achieve significant progress in improving the lot of the people.

And his ambiguous attitude to China and its claims on a vast swathe of the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone and the islets within it are a worry for neighbors and allies ranging from the Japan and the United States to Vietnam and Malaysia.

Politics as usual?

Yet there may well be less than meets the eye when it comes to the reality of a Rodrigo Duterte administration, which takes office next month. Most of the things that have happened since the election suggest that the country is probably in for politics-as-usual, behind a noisier façade. That is both good and bad.

Duterte came to office on a wave of populist sentiment in favor of someone outside of the mold of elite Manila politics.

The outside world saw the administration of President Aquino as having brought economic growth and a reduction in high-level corruption. The country’s urban population, however, saw a record of failure to fix daily transport nightmares, as well as crime and corruption by officials who were better at talking than implementing.

Thus Duterte seemed to promise change: to be a man of action not afraid to use any measures, legal or not, to bring order to Davao.

On the island of Mindanao – the country’s second largest – Davao is the largest city (population about 2 million) and one of the largest nationwide.

He and his daughter have alternately been the city’s mayors since 1988. Their formula includes such paternalistic but scarcely authoritarian measures as bans on alcohol sales after 1 A.M., smoking in public places and curfews for under-age children.

A mayoral presidency

So far at least, Duterte’s national priorities seem more those of a mayor not a president. The drugs problem in Philippines is about average for the Southeast Asian region and surely well down the list of the nation’s major challenges.

He can probably get Congress in a fit of righteousness to make alcohol (and similar) restrictions national. Whether or not they get enforced is another matter.

As for extra-judicial killings, that happens elsewhere already – but quietly. What Duterte could do in a city he had long ruled is not replicable nationally particularly now that his past behavior has become an issue internationally as well as at home.

In any case, crime reduction in the Philippines needs to start with cleaning up the police and speeding up the courts, rather than by attacking individual criminals on the streets.

On other issues, change looks modest. The business sector has nothing to fear from his economic agenda as far as it exists. Duterte admits he know little of economic issues and will leave it to experts.

The latter clearly are the same kind of people who ran the Aquino and Arroyo economic ministries. His choice of Finance minister has been well received.

He says he wants more liberalization not less, including a constitutional change to allow foreign investment into restricted areas. That could undercut the positions of the monopolies and oligopolies which dominate the modern sector of the economy, but radical change looks improbable nevertheless.

Thorny insurgencies

How market liberalization will square with attempts to get the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the communist National Democratic Front, to lay down its arms in their insurgency on Mindanao is anyone’s guess.

The NDF is wary of overtures despite Duterte’s welcoming the return of exiled communist leader JoMa Sison, and so is the country’s military. The NPA itself is a mixed bag of old-line Maoists, local activists focused on land rights, and extortion gangs.

Duterte has appointed as his negotiator with the NDF the same person who was in charge of similar talks under President Arroyo. They may well go the same way.

Likewise his negotiator with Muslim separatists of Mindanao and Sulu has done the job before. But here the outlook is more murky.

Filipino federalism

The outgoing Aquino administration had been on the point of pushing through the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) giving wider autonomy to the Muslim majority region. But the incoming one includes Mindanao allies of Duterte fiercely opposed to the BBL.

Worse, Duterte is proposing changes to the constitution to enable a federal system nationally. The process involved would inevitably mean the BBL being put on ice if not abandoned.

Duterte’s federalism concept is little developed, as is his preference for a parliamentary system, instead of a presidential system.

Manila (the capital) currently holds the national purse strings. This, in principle, gives the President huge powers of patronage, but ones which can only be exercised through the elites that hold power locally.

Federalism might actually increase the influence of these groups at the expense of ever building a strong central administrative structure.

Make Philippines Great Again

Duterte is likely to find major change very difficult. He has no experience at national level and no well-developed policy platform.

Most of his appointments to date have either been Mindanao associates or veteran figures who served previous administrations with varying degrees of competence.

Though the left has been promised land-reform and some other significant portfolios, breaking down elite bastions look like more rhetoric than realistic prospect.

What he may however be able to do is make ministers perform better than under President Aquino, a man with a soft heart who proved unable to sack appointees who proved incompetent or worse. The Philippines does not lack for good policies but implementation is often abysmal.

Despite efforts under Aquino to reduce corruption and collect taxes, tax evasion remains rife and smuggling continues on a grand scale. Perhaps if Duterte focus his anti-crime measures here rather than on petty criminals, he can do some good.

Boasting his own sexual prowess, he is at odds with the Catholic church so is also likely to press harder for family planning options in a nation whose fertility rate among the poor remains very high.

Join the party

The elections to congress and provincial governorships showed that big families still rule – including the Dutertes in Davao where the president-elect’s father had been provincial governor.

As in the past, many congressmen and even some senators have already switched their party allegiance to the incoming president. That makes it easier for him to get legislation passed but also means they expect something in return.

They will only vote for radical changes that do not diminish their own role. A federal system might further entrench their interests.

Duterte’s innately parochial outlook is illustrated by his casual approach to the one major international issue in which the nation is an important player – the South China Sea. He made a series of typically contradictory off the cuff remarks.

Expanding beyond provincialism?

In one he suggested a bilateral deal with China, which would have infuriated neighbors and the United States. In another, he accused Aquino of having de facto allowed China to occupy the Scarborough shoal.

This lies well within Philippine’s exclusive economic zone and only 120 miles from the Subic Bay naval base.

Duterte has appointed a lawyer with no foreign policy experience as acting foreign secretary. This gentleman seems to think his main job is looking after overseas workers rather than the sea issue on which the Court of Arbitration in The Hague is due to pronounce soon on the case brought by the Philippines against China.

This case lies at the heart of Philippines’ relations with all its neighbors – not least Vietnam, recently visited by President Obama.

The United States itself had got off to a bad start with Duterte, hurriedly replacing its ambassador after the outgoing one publicly criticized the president-elect during the election campaign.

The question now is whether he will be swayed by local business interests, among whom ethnic Chinese are a major part. They want a deal with China at any price. Or he may be swayed by the interests of his allies and the nationalist sentiments of his grassroots supporters.

In short, the next few months will be interesting, and could be stressful for the Philippines’ allies. But Duterte is ultimately a pragmatic politician. He is surely becoming aware by the day of his lack of preparedness for the job.

And he will know that his support base could crumble as rapidly at it rose in the weeks before the election if does not prove he can be a constructive leader outside his family’s bailiwick.


Philippines President-elect Duterte is a controversial figure but ultimately a pragmatic operator.

Duterte takes the helm of a Philippines where tax evasion and smuggling remains rife and broad.

Politics as usual: Duterte’s incoming cabinet is a mix of parochial allies & national veterans.