The Philippines: A New President Takes Over – Analysis


President Rodrigo Duterte took office as the President of the Philippines on 30 June 2016 after winning a landslide election victory. On the face of it, it would seem that he hit the ground running, putting in place vigorous programmes to solve issues that he had identified during the election campaign. He has launched a bold vision of change at home and started to chart a new foreign policy. However, both the initiatives, radical in their content and implementation so far, do not seem to be well thought through or aligned with a long-term vision. They seem to be rash actions of a President in a hurry to stamp his authority on the nation.

Some of Duterte’s initiatives have resonated with the general public, particularly the domestic ones whereas almost all his international incursions so far have undermined the nation’s interests abroad. He started with a well-oriented and promising domestic plan encapsulated in a 10-point Agenda that includes previously neglected areas like agricultural reform that could affect nearly one-third of the population. Another area identified is internal security where the President has committed to resolve twin insurgencies from Muslim rebels and Communists that have long plagued the nation. This could be considered a good beginning.

It is in the conduct of the war on drugs and crime that Duterte has launched that there is palpable discomfiture within the nation as well as internationally. His opponents have always considered the President authoritarian and his actions reckless. The campaign against drugs, launched to fulfil one of his main election promises, has already deteriorated into extra-judicial killings and wrongful or illegal convictions. There is an underlying fear in many parts of the society of a return to the days of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

So far there has been both support and opposition to Duterte’s initiatives. The opposition comes mainly from the established institutions and even the bureaucracy. If the opposition gains ground, in the long-term the President could end up losing political capital. The support is from outsiders who want to challenge the political elite that has run the country for the past four or five decades. Duterte is relying on the unprecedented popularity that he currently enjoys amongst the general public who have been for long kept outside the power-bubble in the capital. He is challenging the political establishment on many fronts, simultaneously and through unconventional means. The Filipinos have great belief in their democracy. It may still be fragile, but as demonstrated in the case of ex-President Joseph Estrada, they are unlikely to permit any move towards re-establishing an authoritarian regime. President Duterte will need to step forward with caution.

ASEAN and Regional Politics

Within a few weeks of coming to power, Duterte initiated an overzealous attempt to bring China onside. This was done despite the favourable ruling by the international tribunal on the South China Sea in a case initiated by the Philippines against China’s activities in that region. While courting China has international repercussions, it is in his dealings with ASEAN that the new President has shown the split from the past in his policy thinking.

Although the Philippines is a founding member of ASEAN, Duterte has downplayed its role in the grouping and has already started to lose the considerable influence that the nation so far had within the forum. He is already being perceived within ASEAN as not sharing the passion for regionalism that has been the foundation of its strength. It is highly probable that China will take advantage of this lackadaisical attitude and widen the schism within the group through proffering bilateral deals on security and trade issues to individual nations.

The Philippines assumes the ASEAN chair in 2017. The question that looms large now is whether Duterte has the élan and maturity needed to excel at quiet diplomacy, which is a cardinal requirement for success, or whether he would continue with his brash behaviour and offensive statements. Further, there is speculation as to how the undermining of human rights and freedoms at home will undercut the credibility of the Philippines as the chair of ASEAN. This is a particularly vexing challenge and needs to be carefully managed, especially since the Philippines has always been a strong supporter of the core values that ASEAN as an institution supports. No ASEAN member wants to move the group to a crisis point. However, a single individual with no clear idea, at least for the moment, regarding the complexities of the functioning of ASEAN has pushed it one step closer to a crisis point. ASEAN deserves better.

International Dealings

In less than 90 days of having assumed office, President Duterte has managed to verbally insult the President of the United States, the Secretary General of the United Nations, the European Union as a whole and the Human Rights Watch. Viewed in a tangential manner, this can be considered a singular achievement. The President’s supporters are couching this more than uncouth entry into international politics as initiating an ‘independent’ foreign policy. Diplomacy and crafting national policies are long-term processes, not achieved by verbally insulting the leader of the world’s most powerful nation. This is a fact irrespective of the sanguine manner in which President Obama dealt with the insult. Perhaps the maturity that President Obama’s attitude demonstrated could be a lesson in diplomacy to the Philippine President.

If an ‘independent’ foreign policy means weaning the Philippines away from the long-standing and traditional dependence on the US, it could be considered a laudable long-term goal. However, the goal cannot be achieved by pandering to the Chinese or by being abrasive towards the ASEAN group. Trading one influence for another, in this case most probably more intrusive and aggressive, cannot be considered a carefully crafted foreign policy initiative aimed at making the nation more independent. Even as this piece is being written, the rhetoric of moving away from the US has been taken to an even higher decibel level with President Duterte declaring that there will be no more joint exercises with US forces after completion of the one scheduled for this week. Further, he has said that he is considering scrapping the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (Edca) signed in 2014 between the two nations. How this action will improve the security of the Philippines is a moot question.

After 90 days in office, Duterte has little show in terms of foreign policy initiatives other than actions designed to consciously alienate the US. There have been no articulated policy or even a coherent statement regarding how the security of the nation will be ensured if the US decides to step back; no explanation as to how the trade and economy of the Philippines will be shored up if the US and the European Union, both leading economic partners, decide to close their purse strings. Duterte has indicated that he will try to visit China before the end of 2016, with the unstated aim of warming up bilateral ties. He has mentioned promoting the rights of Philippine fishermen to operate without any restraint in the Scarborough shoal. While this may be a populist move, it is an extremely short-term objective and plays right into China’s hands and goes very close to abrogating any Philippine claim to the disputed area.

Moving towards greater dependence on China brings an inherent risk of escalating instability in the country that will ripple across the region. China is connected to corruption in the Philippines from the time of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s administration. Its aggressive assertiveness in the South China Sea has not been missed or misunderstood by the general public in the nation. From a common person’s viewpoint China carries a tainted image and public opinion is divided about the most recent approaches of friendship that the current administration seems to be undertaking, with great alacrity.

Close advisers to the President believe, or rather hope, that he will find his feet sooner rather than later. In the meantime he has substantially undermined the Philippines national interests—domestically, regionally and internationally. For the sake of the well-being of the nation that he leads, Duterte needs to stop creating and articulating national policy on the run and in ways that his fairly vivid imagination directs.

Opposition to his authoritarianism has not yet coalesced, mainly because of the continuing euphoria of the people in having elected an ‘outsider’ to the hallowed halls of power. If it does—a possibility that cannot be discounted—especially in the military, legislature and most importantly in the streets, the course of events will start to run against the President rapidly and conclusively. President Duterte has so far not displayed the maturity, stature and sangfroid necessary to lead a fragile nation towards stability and prosperity while upholding the democratic traditions so dear to the people of the Philippines.

The War against Drugs

Duterte’s presidential election campaign was primarily based on a law and order platform underpinned by the reputation that he had built as a man of action during his long stint as the mayor of Davao City. There is no reason to believe that he would change his behaviour as the President. As the mayor of Davao City for seven terms, starting from 1988 till June this year, he had sanctioned extrajudicial killings, but which had brought about a definite drop in crime rate. However, even though the drug problem may be considered to have become a national emergency, it cannot be used as an excuse to do away with the rule of law and for the denial of basic human rights.

On becoming the President, Duterte unleashed a war on drug trafficking, permitting the shooting of people involved in the trade, and publicly naming mayors, government officials and police officers he alleged were involved in the drug trade. Available statistics indicate that by mid-August, 1800 persons have been killed, 5900 arrested and 565,800 people as having surrendered to the authorities. Along with this somewhat disturbing statistics, there is also a claim of crime rate having fallen by 49 percent.

Criticism of these actions were vehement and quick to follow. While accepting that the drug problem is serious in the Philippines, politicians and journalists demand adherence to enforcement within the laid down law and the protection of the constitution. Non-Governmental Organisations and other nations point to the abuse of human rights and insist that extra-judicial killings are not, and have never been, lawful or acceptable drug control measures. The United Nations was constrained to point out that claims of fighting the illicit drug trade does not absolve the Government of its international legal obligations. Duterte’s reaction was to threaten to leave the UN and create a new global organisation to tackle the challenge of drug trafficking internationally. Knee jerk reactions to genuine criticism do not make the grounds to establish stability nor does it help to create an atmosphere that develops trust and dialogue.

The disregard for law and order that in turn directly erodes the rule of law, in a nation with a long history of the abuse of power, is a long-term worry. In the Philippines, democracy has been reclaimed after an enormous and long struggle by the people. Autocrats in power, the world over, are seen to become visibly frustrated by the inefficiencies and diluted effectiveness of democratically elected governments. Unfortunately President Duterte seems to have joined their ranks. He has to understand that the solution to the ills that plague his country—especially the spiralling drug problem—is the rigid and unbiased application of law, not its total disregard.

The Philippine Democracy under Siege

The Philippines can be justifiably proud of its democratic traditions. In the past few years the nation has enjoyed institutional progress and improved its economic competitiveness. There has also been limited success in countering the endemic corruption that has long plagued the nation. Surveys suggest that there is high optimism in the general public about the future. On the other hand the country could also be considered to be suffering from ‘democracy fatigue’, a state where the population is tired of a non-functional bureaucratic approach to solving national challenges. The promise of freedom, prosperity and peace has not been delivered by successive democratic governments, gradually forcing the general public to look at the other side of the coin that is painted in authoritarian colours. There is a gradually emerging belief that only a strong and autocratic leader can address the 21st century challenges facing the nation.

A democracy needs to be continually nurtured and works best when national institutions are strong and viable. The recent demotion of a prominent politician in the Philippine Senate, Leila de Lima who was the former Justice Secretary in the Benigno Aquino administration, has raised questions regarding the manner in which ‘concept of democracy’ is practised in the nation. The Senator has been accused of using her position as the head of a committee investigating the extra-judicial killings as a vehicle to pursue her ‘personal political vendettas’. A group of imprisoned gang leaders have testified before the Congress that they had bribed de Lima and the Senator is facing a hearing in response to these allegations. These actions signal the government’s lack of tolerance of genuine dissent and is bound to lead to political polarisation. NGOs, including the Church, are starting to voice concerns over such actions.

The de Lima episode is seen by the Human Rights Watch as an effort to derail attempts to fix accountability of the appalling death toll that extra-judicial killings are imposing on the country. Duterte has officially proclaimed that he does not interfere with other branches of the Government. However, he is known to be extra-sensitive to criticism—the insults to EU and the diatribe against President Obama are stark examples of intolerance to criticism about his actions. The President has a large majority in Congress, which consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives. There are fears now that this majority will be used to create a more authoritarian regime. The anti-drug campaign is opaque with a total lack of transparency and creates a direct threat to the authority of democratic institutions.

Even though the rule of law has been partially discarded, it is still too early to call the actions of the President undemocratic. However, they definitely verge on ‘dirty politics’. A major point in favour of the President is that he has not made any attempt to gag the Press, it continues to remain free. As opposition is gradually being silenced in Congress, the pressure on institutions, civil society and the media to uphold democratic values and ensure accountability based on the rule of law will increase. The extra-judicial killings and the lack of public outrage undermines and challenges the legitimacy of the judiciary and other democratic institutions.

The fundamental reason for an authoritative outsider to have come to power in the Philippines is that democracy has not delivered benefits for the general public. The reality is not glossy: the outlying areas of the country are in the grips of virulent insurgency; its maritime borders are contested by greater powers aggressively enforcing their own writ; home-grown political dynasties have been established and have carved the country into fiefdoms; endemic poverty and unemployment have reached double digit rates; and there is visible and systemic corruption at all levels of government. Further, even after years of average economic growth, the benefits have not trickled down to the common person; promised land reform in the rural areas have remained on paper and has not been physically implemented; and national infrastructure is almost non-existent. The formal political freedom that was promised by democracy has not been actualised for the impoverished citizenry. In effect, democracy is in shambles in the Philippines, brought to its knees through incompetence, corruption and total neglect of the fundamentals that hold the concept true.

The Filipino public, disillusioned with democracy, is almost yearning for the advent of a strong man who would put things right. It is not surprising that they have turned overwhelmingly to Duterte who has a strong authoritarian streak and has displayed open disdain for democratic institutions. His victory in the elections point to the fact that there is a sizeable portion of the population who are willing to forego existing democratic norms for domestic stability and an improvement in their standard of living.

The unfortunate fact is that the Philippines has never been a genuine democracy. Its political and economic landscape has been dominated by a small oligarchy for almost a century. Even so, a bloody revolution that would put in place an entrenched autocracy is not the answer to the ills that face the nation. Such a change can go horribly wrong—as historically proven by the Mao Zedongs, Mugabes and Ghadaffis of the world. The only solution is a gradual and systematic evolution towards substantive democracy. However, such an evolution needs great patience as a nation and a reasoned public consciousness. Both seem to be in short supply in the Philippines at the current juncture.

Unfortunately, the Philippines seems to be following a familiar path that has been trodden by Thailand, Turkey and Chile: an exasperated and shrinking middle-class, fed up with a decayed democracy and sick institutions, is ready to dance with the Devil—incarnate as autocracy. The nation faces a stark choice but it is far too early to make a call regarding in which direction the nation is headed. It can only be hoped that sane and stable heads will prevail in making the final decision.

Dr. Sanu Kainikara

Dr. Sanu Kainikara is a Canberra-based Military Strategist and a practising Historian. He is an Adjunct Professor at the University of New South Wales and the inaugural Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Regional Security, Canberra.

One thought on “The Philippines: A New President Takes Over – Analysis

  • October 4, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    The new President has also gone on record stating that the threat from the ISIS and Abu Sayyaf is real and needs to be eliminated. Is this move seen as power projection propaganda which rings a bell with the electorate ? If he makes headway in fighting Maoist and Muslim militancy will it reinforce the image of the President as someone willing to take on the difficult problems of drugs and militancy. After all his Presidency relies on continued support from the local constituency and he has to play to the grandstand despite whatever the international community may make of it .


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