Is the Philippines About to Slide Back Into Despotism?

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Rodrigo Duterte raises a fist before casting his vote in Davao in the southern Philippines on May 9. Duterte has given no sign that he will moderate his anti-democratic promises, like killing criminals without trial or enacting policies without the legislature’s approval. Erik De Castro/reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

As the Philippines ushers in the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, the longtime mayor of Davao, the country is poised for dramatic changes from the leadership of Benigno Aquino III.

Aquino’s tenure was generally stable, and he oversaw the longest sustained period of growth the country had enjoyed in decades. Aquino rhetorically touted the need to retain strong democratic institutions, and he also used typical political methods of trying to achieve policy successes: He consulted with advisors, unveiled policy platforms and then tried to build support for them in the legislature and with the public.

His persona was rarely controversial. Yet even as he tried to combat corruption and oversaw high growth, Aquino achieved only modest success in reducing income inequality, long one of the most significant problems in the country.

Despite new cash transfer programs, inequality in the archipelago has grown in the past three years, according to Patricia Abinales of the University of Hawaii. Indeed, she notes, despite consistent growth rates of 6 percent or above during Aquino’s tenure:

Job-generation has not caught up. Unemployment continues to hover between 6 and 6.6 percent. The Philippine poverty rate remains one of the highest in Asia at 16.6 percent, while income inequality has worsened in the last three years, though the remittances of overseas Filipino workers—which rose to a high of $28.4 billion in 2014—mitigate this sad portrait.

Duterte, a charismatic speaker who affects a Hollywood-style tough guy persona, took advantage of the perceived failures of Aquino’s tenure. He touted his anti-crime record in Davao, even if that record included condoning extrajudicial killings of suspects, according to Human Rights Watch.

He emphasized that he would fight inequality and would take on Manila’s economic and political elites, at one point claiming that he would establish a “revolutionary government” as president.

With five presidential candidates dividing the vote, and Aquino failing to broker a unity ticket between the two candidates closest to him, Senator Grace Poe and Interior Minister Mar Roxas, Duterte had to win only between 30 and 40 percent of the vote to triumph.

On May 9, he took nearly 39 percent of the vote, good enough to win (according to unofficial election results). Poe took 21 percent, and Roxas took 23 percent—perhaps making Aquino wonder why he waited so long to publicly call for a unity strategy in which Poe or Roxas dropped out and supported the other.

(Although the Philippines’ presidency has substantial powers, there is no runoff to ensure that the winner gets a majority of votes, as there is in some nations like France.)

What will Duterte actually do as president? He has no national level policy experience. His campaign speeches were usually light on policy specifics;
appearing before Manila’s most prominent business group just before the election, Duterte offered few details on economic proposals but repeated his promise, delivered often during campaign season, to have criminals killed without due process.

Domestic and foreign investors are worried; the last time the Philippines had a president who seemed as uninterested in economic policy, Joseph Estrada, growth stagnated, popular protests forced him from office, and Estrada eventually went to jail on graft charges.

But at the same time, Duterte has established a record, in Davao, of promoting investment and growth, where he relinquished significant control over economic policymaking to technocrats, and oversaw significant infrastructure development.

As Reuters reported, under Duterte, it took fewer days to start a business in Davao than in Manila, and the Davao region grew even faster than the rest of the country over the past five years. Despite his populist pledges on the campaign trail, it seems more likely that Duterte will focus his presidency on crime, corruption and national security and maintain the Aquino administration’s moderate, pro-investment economic policies.

In addition, Duterte has pledged to work to pass and implement the peace agreement for the restive south launched by the Aquino administration. With his record as a southern mayor, Duterte could be just the figure needed to convince both the remaining militant holdouts, and Filipinos from other parts of the country, that the peace agreement is worth passing. The deal could foster greater stability in the south and unlock Mindanao’s vast economic potential.

However, as I have written, Duterte’s rise—and now his election—is a very troubling sign for the country’s politics and for democracy in Southeast Asia overall.

In some ways, Duterte resembles other elected autocrats in the region and elsewhere, like Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen or former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who notably presided over his own “war on drugs” that included reports of thousands of extrajudicial killings—leaders who cared only about winning elections, after which they would undermine or destroy legal and constitutional institutions of democracy.

In the run-up to election day, Duterte gave no signs that he would moderate his anti-democratic promises, like presiding over the killing of criminals or trying to pass policies without working through the legislature.

Even if Duterte turns out to be an economic moderate, his election raises the prospect that another of the success stories of the third wave of global democratization will slide back into authoritarianism.

Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.