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Understanding Duterte: The Unpredictable President of The Philippines

Dr. Sampa Kundu is Research Assistant at IDSA Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 14, 2016

    Rodrigo Roa Duterte, the powerful seven-term mayor of Davao city,1 was elected as the new president of The Philippines in May 2016 with an approximately 39 per cent of vote share.2 His landslide victory in the presidential election has been largely attributed to his over two decades of administrative experience as the longest serving city mayor, and the failure of the previous government on the administrative as well as economic fronts. Despite economic reforms carried out under former President Benigno Aquino III, The Philippines remained one of the less-developed economies in the Southeast Asia region.

    Though The Philippines registered 5.8 per cent growth in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2015, which is projected to touch six per cent in 2016,3 the country’s unemployment rate still stands at 6.4 per cent, the highest among countries comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).4 Despite Aquino’s Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) and the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Programme (CARP) aimed at reducing poverty in the mid- to long-terms, and huge remittances (estimated to contribute around 10 per cent to GDP) received from overseas workers, about 25 per cent of the 99.14 million Filipinos still live below the poverty line.5 Alongside this economic disparity, there were various other factors that acted as catalysts for Duterte’s huge success in the election.

    The Rise of Duterte

    The administrative failure of Benigno Aquino III, popularly known as Noynoy, was one of the reasons that pushed the people to vote for Duterte, often portrayed as a headstrong ‘punisher’ in the popular media in view of his heavy-handed approach towards crime and drug trafficking as the mayor of Davao. The Noynoy administration probably received its first blow in 2013 when some of its senators and congressional members were found to be involved in the misuse of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), the so-called pork barrel scandal, allotted for constructing schools and building social infrastructure. Added to that was Typhoon Yolanda, which highlighted the poor coordination between government agencies in dealing with natural disasters.

    The man-made power crisis in Luzon, and the way Aquino favoured his cronies involved in that incident, further infuriated Filipinos. These developments added to the growing frustration of common Filipinos with the Manila-based old-hat political families, which had been running the administration for years. While reflecting on the fundamental problem facing Filipino politics, Walden Bello has rightly stated:

    “A key problem in Philippine development has been the state, which has traditionally not functioned as a development agent but as a mechanism used by the economic elite to almost exclusively extract wealth from society.”6

    Duterte symbolises a change to the common Filipinos. It is widely believed that Davao city became largely free of crime because of his strong leadership. The city police is no longer seen as corrupt, and law and order is said to be well maintained. In fact, Duterte himself used to go for regular night patrols to monitor every nook and corner of the city. He was even appointed by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to serve as her anti-crime consultant.

    Besides, Duterte was instrumental in the appointment of a Muslim and a Lumad politician as deputy mayors, as he believed that local concerns will be best served by them. He has also promised to work with the country’s best economists to continue with the economic breakthroughs achieved during Noynoy’s regime and work towards improving the country’s long-neglected infrastructure. Commenting on Duterte’s policy priorities, the spokesperson of his Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (Philippine Democratic Party-People's Power- PDP-Laban), Paola Alvarez, said that the well-being of the Filipino people would be at the “forefront of the incoming administration's foreign policy.”7 All these factors contributed to Duterte’s emergence.8

    Foreign Policy under Duterte

    The recent history of The Philippines shows that China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea (SCS) and managing relations with the country’s former coloniser, the US, are two important foreign policy challenges for Manila. Richard Javed Heydarian has predicted that Duterte is most likely to adopt an “equilateral balancing strategy” towards the US and China.9 In fact, there are apprehensions that Duterte may encourage a distance with the US. The past one and half months, after the May 9 election, have also demonstrated Duterte’s willingness to follow an independent foreign policy and not allowing the country to emerge as a US satellite, especially in the context of the great power rivalry in the South China Sea. Here, the difference between Duterte and Noynoy is clearly visible. While Noynoy was president, Manila approved the stationing of the US military in Subic Bay under the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Act (EDCA), though The Philippines’ Constitution does not allow any foreign military bases in the country.10 For his part, even before he was sworn in as president, Duterte articulated his desire to pursue an independent foreign policy thus: "I will be chartering a course on its own and will not be dependent on the United States."11 After taking charge as president, he broke a diplomatic norm by choosing to meet the Japanese and Chinese ambassadors first and the US ambassador later.12

    A few other sporadic incidents in the past also indicate that Duterte may develop too cordial relations with the US and its allies like Australia. In 2002, an American citizen accused of a dynamite explosion in his hotel room in The Philippines, was taken into custody by FBI agents and sent back by the US Embassy instead of being tried within the country. Following this incident, Duterte had accused the US of not respecting The Philippines’ national laws. Duterte reportedly talked about ending diplomatic ties with Australia during his electoral campaign as the latter had expressed its displeasure at Duterte’s unsolicited remarks on the rape and death of an Australian woman missionary. Earlier, in 1995, Duterte was allegedly involved in burning Singapore’s flag after a Singaporean national was convicted in the murder of a Filipino woman and her child. More recently, during his election campaign, Duterte’s remarks on the 1995 incident and the circulation of a forged photograph of the Singaporean prime minister endorsing Duterte had again created tension between the two countries.

    Duterte’s approach towards China is something that will be closely watched in view of the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea (SCS). After the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague on July 12, which clearly indicates a victory for The Philippines, its relationship with China is likely to be affected to an extent. While China has repeatedly said that it will continue to safeguard its national interests in the SCS with the help of its military, The Philippines’ Secretary of Foreign Affairs Perfecto Yasay noted that Manila “strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision.”13 However, the Tribunal’s decision and China’s take on it are unlikely to compel Duterte to ignore economic interests which can be furthered through cooperation with China and the multilateral agencies led by it such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). In 2014, China was the largest source of imports for The Philippines and the third largest destination of its exports, followed by Japan and the US.14 During his election campaign and even after that, Duterte, while endorsing the multilateral negotiation policy of his predecessor towards resolving territorial disputes in the SCS, had also invited China to invest more in and explore further areas of economic cooperation.15


    Rodrigo Duterte’s inaugural presidential speech did not contain many references to foreign policy. In fact, it has often been argued that domestic interests will be his main priority. However, contrary to his anti-establishment image, which had definitely helped him win the support of Filipinos, he is likely to continue with some of the legacies of the Aquino III administration, at least in the area of economy. But there is no certainty about his foreign policy orientation. Nevertheless, one can expect that, as president, he may not totally overlook the popular views prevalent among Filipinos regarding sovereignty over the reefs and atolls in the SCS. In the wake of the PCA ruling, Filipinos came out with the concept of ‘Chexit’ (China Exit) on social media and Duterte cannot afford to ignore such sentiments.