University of California, Los Angeles

Populist-Authoritarian Leader in the Philippines

Since President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office in June 2016, one of his priorities for his administration was to combat the drug issue in the Philippines. According to the Philippines Dangerous Drugs Board, the Philippines holds approximately 1.8 million drug users. His self-proclaimed “war on drugs” has raised concerns from citizens, the UN, and other countries on whether his tactics and plan to control the drug problem is actually effective or more of a violation of human rights on Pilipino citizens.

Rodrigo Duterte has been described as “relentless,” “straight-talking,” “The Punisher,” and the “Trump of the East.” He is known for his use of foul language in public even calling former U.S. president a “son of a b****” and other vulgar phrases early in his presidential career. Duterte was also mayor of Davao City from 2013 to 2016 before running for president where he created the Davao Death Squad that used extrajudicial killings on 1,400 suspected criminals and children.

Regardless, his image among the people of the Philippines is strong. Although his leadership approach is rather unorthodox, he has an extremely high approval rating of 91%. Pilipinos are convinced that he is “someone who will do what is necessary to get things done.” He promises that the Duterte administration will have an “independent foreign policy,” will implement anti-terrorism laws, and will transition the Philippine government to a federal government.

Now that he is president, Duterte continues to implement extrajudicial killings on the entirety of the Philippines telling Philippine police officials to raid every citizens’ home until every drug user or dealer is killed or incarcerated. The Philippine police use a tactic called “Knock and Plead” where they search from home to home asking drug users and drug dealers to voluntarily surrender. The Knock and Plead tactic has been highly successful with around 500,00 people surrendering to the police. Most people find it easier to voluntarily surrender since it is likely that they could be a victim of the extrajudicial killings if they do not. The Human Rights Watch has recorded around 12,000 deaths since the beginning of Duterte’s presidential term; however, the Philippine government has reported a significantly smaller number at 3,900 deaths.

His brutal actions have caught international attention, especially the attention of UN human rights investigators and other human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Duterte has expressed his feelings towards these groups before; he asks, “’You’re investigating us? Fact finding? Sorry, do not f*** with me.’” In March 2018, the Duterte administration created a terror watchlist which included Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a Philippine national who serves as a UN human rights investigator and other leaders of groups opposing the current Philippine government. As of March 14, 2018, President Duterte has decided to withdraw the Philippines from the International Criminal Court which could have to do with the ICC’s examination on the thousands of extrajudicial killings on alleged drug users and drug dealers before it turned into a full-on investigation and potential charges on the Philippine government for crimes against humanity.

As a developing country and a transitioning democracy, the Philippines is extremely susceptible to democratic erosion. Although the Philippines has democratic institutions in place, the government has had a record of corruption for years prior to the Duterte administration. The true leadership and direction of the government would be in the hands of the president, and President Duterte does not seem to be holding the Philippine government to a high democratic standard. I would even consider his way of governing as populist authoritarian.

Pippa Norris from “Is Western Democracy Backsliding?: Diagnosing the Risks” says that some key traits of a populist authoritarian are excessive use of military might and threats to liberal democracy. As the president uses martial law in certain areas of Mindanao, he relies on his military to use brute force to keep these areas under control. Duterte has also challenged the core values of the rule of law and human rights (i.e. the use of extrajudicial killing) and violating certain citizens’ freedoms in the process while combating the drug problem in the Philippines.

Another important characteristic of populist leaders is the opposition to international interference. President Duterte’s approach to foreign policy is alarming because he strives to have no international influence in his government. His removal of the Philippines from the International Criminal Court and his creation of a 55-page terror watchlist that included a Filipino UN human rights investigator gives foreign countries the idea that Duterte does not want to give any opportunity for interference from other countries. This also leads to the Philippine government not being held accountable by international institutions.

Nancy Bermeo gives “executive aggrandizement” as another major characteristic of populist leaders. He has used his executive powers to use martial law on certain parts of the Philippines like Marawi. Most importantly, he is using his power as the executive to hunt down all suspected drug users and drug dealers, and neither the legislative nor the judiciary have been successful in stopping his actions.

The Duterte administration could lead to major democratic erosion in the Philippines. Populist leaders give the façade of a democratic government; however, democratic institutions fade away, political opponents become weaker, and the civil liberties and human rights of citizens are compromised. In recent events, Duterte is finding more ways to continue his populist ways, and this might come at the cost of the people’s safety.


1 Comment


    March 15, 2018 at 2:26 pm

    It certainly seems like democracy is on the decline in the Philippines. The fact the Duterte is willing to use extreme force against his population makes me wonder if he would have any hesitation using that same force against political rivals or parties. Because he has such a high approval rating, I’m curious if he also engages in media suppression, blinding the public to what is truly happening. Either way I think it is clear that Duterte is ruling as an autocratic leader and the future of democracy is in jeopardy.

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