University of California, Los Angeles

Democratic erosion in the Philippines

Democratic erosion begins when the values, institutions and characteristics of democracy are challenged. The approach that most political scientists use when determining if a country is a democracy is to reference multiple characteristics because relying on the existence of elections or perceived representation isn’t always effective. When determining if a country is a democracy must political scientists reference these three things: (1) source of authority: the people? group? (2) Purposes or goals of the government: democracy is something that pursues democratic goals (goals in the name of the people) (3) Set of institutions: formal rules of who holds power. (institutions that select rulers) are rulers elected in free and fair elections?

The Philippines found itself in danger of experiencing forms of democratic erosion with the election of Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. However, the Philippines did not know what they were singing up for at the time. Duterte had been involved in politics his entire life, due to his father’s involvement with the government as a provincial governor. After working as a lawyer and a state prosecutor, Rodrigo officially began his political career in 1988 when he became mayor of Davao. As mayor of Davao, he worked to make Davao one of the safest places in the Philippines. During his time as mayor he combated crime, militancy and corruption. All three dropped significantly during his time as mayor. This change in Davao gave Duterte the political support to win the 2016 presidential election, and to attempt to do what he did in Davao to the entire country. With this reputation as a mayor, Duterte was seen as a legitimate candidate to solve the country’s problem with drugs.

Once in office, his war on drugs began. He fought this war on drugs through the killing of drug dealers and users. Since his election over three thousand people have been killed due to his extra-judicial killings. These killing are done by contract killers hired by Durete himself or other members of the government. This is a clear sign of democratic erosion for three reasons. The first being the human right violation. Killing people like this is a clear violation of human rights. This puts Duterte in opposition with international institution such as the UN and the EU who value democratic institutions. This also puts the Philippines in opposition with the member countries of these international institutions. This opposition can lead to economic sanctions and the loss of foreign investment. The second sign of democratic erosion is found in his relationship with the media. Duterte does not take the media seriously, often times using crass language or making jokes. This behavior hurts the media’s ability to be a source of checks and balances on the executive. Without the ability to check the executive, the media loses a significant amount of power and the public loses a significant amount of information. This diminishes vertical accountability. vertical accountability is accountability “exercised by non-state actors (citizens, civil associations, the media) on state agents”. Without an accurate and informative source of media the people are left with little information about their leader making it harder for them to make voting decisions. The third sign of democratic erosion is the bypassing of the judicial branch of government to push his agenda. Removing the power of one of the democratic institutions set in place creates an executive branch that is bigger than it should be. He is giving himself the most power within the government. Creating one branch of government that holds all of the decision making power, diminishes the element of checks and balances. Beyond this attempt to remove power from other democratic institutions, Duterte has next to no regard for human life. When asked about the 3,000 deaths he showed no remorse and then compared this situation to the Holocaust.

This behavior sparked international concern, particularly with the ICC. When faced with opposition, Duterte chose to remove the Philippines from the ICC immediately. Duterte roomettes himself from any accountability. He attempts to remove himself from international institutions that may pressure him to engage in more democratic practices. In addition to removing himself and the Philippines from the ICC, he decided to distance the Philippines from the Unites States. This move was controversial because the United States has been a long time ally to the Philippines. His move away from the US and towards China and Russia, highlights his attempt to run from accountability and international pressure to democratize. The US is known for its democratic institutions, so distancing the Philipines form the US lowers the likelihood of international pressure to democratize.

When referencing the three questions at the beginning of this post, Duterte’s actions affect the answers to all three. Question number 1: Duterte made himself the source of authority by devaluing the press and the judicial branch of government. This makes the executive branch of government the most powerful. He also takes power away from the people by abusing the media. This has a serious effect on the people’e ability to vote. Question 2: Duterte is not pursuing democratic goals. In fact, quite the opposite. His policy against drugs violates human rights, he removes himself from international institutions that would hold him accountable and he distances him self and the Philippines from democratic countries like the US. Finally, the third question: who holds the power? Duterte holds all of the power. He stripped the judicial branch of its power and removed the Philippines from interacting with international institutions that could pressure the him to democratize. When addressing these characteristics of democracy it paints a clearer picture of how Duterte is facilitating the democratic erosion of the Philippines.


Works Cited:

Chen, Adrian. “When a Populist Demagogue Takes Power.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 10 Mar. 2018, 9:00AM

N/A. “Profile: Duterte the Controversial ‘Strongman’ of the Philippines.” BBC News, BBC, 4 Oct. 2016,

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