How Populist Duterte Keeps Shaking Up the Philippines: QuickTake

The Punisher. Dirty Harry. Donald Trump of the East. These are nicknames given to President Rodrigo Duterte, a fiery populist who has waged a deadly war on drugs in the Philippines. Since his election in 2016, he has scrambled the country’s international loyalties, shaken up big business and angered women’s groups and the Catholic Church. And that was before missteps in handling the Covid-19 pandemic led to one of the highest case rates in Southeast Asia and tens of thousands of deaths, tanking the economy as well. Yet Duterte remains popular with a wide base, allowing him to chart a path for staying in power despite a constitutional limit of one term.

Duterte inherited a strong economy from his predecessor, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, and kept economic growth running above 6% in his first four years as president, with jobless and poverty rates staying low. The Philippines also got its highest credit rating as tax overhauls were implemented, following on Aquino’s efforts to pursue tax evaders. Spending on infrastructure also increased. The pandemic reversed those gains, however. Two major contributors — remittances and domestic consumption — were gutted as businesses shut and overseas workers returned home or were idled. Gross domestic product plunged 9.6% in 2020, the largest drop since 1946, and unemployment climbed, especially in the Manila metro area, home to a third of the country’s economic activity. While growth returned in 2021, the full-year forecast was cut in August by two percentage points to 4%-5% as new waves of Covid stunted the recovery. 

2. How did Duterte handle the pandemic? 

Duterte used widescale lockdowns to stem the outbreak, tapping the police and military to enforce curbs on movement. Infections dropped early this year but soared again with the spread of the more infectious delta variant, overwhelming hospitals amid struggles with testing and tracing in a fragmented health system. The Philippines, which has relied mostly on Chinese vaccines, has lagged well behind most of its Southeast Asian neighbors in the percentage of the population inoculated.

It reflects the pivot to China — and away from the U.S. — that Duterte began soon after taking office. Chinese loans and grants to the Philippines were at $621 million in 2020, up from $1.6 million in 2016, as investments poured into telecommunications and other areas. Trading ties were also strengthened, and Chinese visitors boosted Philippine tourism pre-pandemic. Online casinos employing and targeting mostly mainland Chinese boomed then too. In 2018, Xi Jinping became the first Chinese president to visit in over a decade. The following year, Duterte said he’d ignore an international court ruling affirming his country’s territorial claims in the South China Sea to advance a joint oil exploration deal with China. As his term winds down, however, promises of big-ticket projects and billions of dollars in investments from China remain largely unfulfilled. Tensions over the South China Sea have flared again and oil exploration plans have stalled.

4. How are things with the U.S.?

Getting better after a rough patch. The two countries have been treaty allies since 1951, five years after the U.S. granted the Philippines independence. Duterte, however, chafed at the relationship, questioning the U.S. commitment and lashing out at what he perceived as U.S. hypocrisy and meddling, often over his drug war. Early on he ended joint sea patrols and threatened to expel American soldiers. He even cursed then-President Barack Obama. Duterte dialed down his verbal attacks during the Trump administration, and as naval tensions with China escalated. In July he retracted his termination of a Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S., allowing the two countries to continue military exercises — a major victory for President Joe Biden. (Duterte said later it was “just give and take” in exchange for donated U.S. coronavirus vaccines.) The U.S. will also resume projects in Philippine military bases as part of another defense pact.

5. Is there still a war on drugs?

Duterte’s drug fight, which he promised to complete in six months of being president, goes on despite the pandemic. It escalated “dramatically” during the lockdown in 2020, according to a Human Rights Watch report. The campaign targeted impoverished Filipinos mostly in urban areas, with the police and unidentified gunmen associated with the force committing thousands of extra-judicial killings, according to the report. The drug war has so far killed more than 6,000, according to government data, but human rights groups estimate the death toll is much higher. Judges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on Sept. 15 authorized an investigation into possible crimes against humanity committed during the war on drugs, despite Duterte’s withdrawal from the tribunal in protest in 2019. Duterte, in a Sept. 21 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, criticized outside interference and said anyone who “acted beyond bounds” during the war on drugs would be held “accountable” by the Philippine justice system.

His popularity ratings have been consistently high, dipping below 50% only twice amid controversies over his drug war and high prices. That’s allowed him to keep majority support in Congress, with the opposition shut out in the 2019 senatorial elections. His approval rating reached a record-high last year, and his government’s response to the health crisis was also received positively. But his popularity began to wane this year as the pandemic dragged on. His harshest critic, Senator Leila de Lima, has been jailed since 2017 on drug charges that she calls politically motivated. He has also attacked the media, including prominent journalist Maria Ressa, who’s facing several court cases.

7. So what’s Duterte’s plan? 

Duterte, who is 76, had talked about retiring from politics after his term ends on June 30, 2022. But as election day — May 9 — approaches, he’s shifted to saying his anti-drug campaign is far from over and he could help his successor finish it. Although he can’t run for re-election, he has been toying with the idea of seeking the vice-presidency, which is elected separately. (A poll conducted in June found 39% of Filipinos supported the idea, while 60% thought it would be unconstitutional.) His spokesman has said Duterte might not run if his daughter, Davao Mayor Sara Duterte, makes a bid for president. Other allies who might run include Bongbong Marcos, son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and Duterte’s aide, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go. Other potential candidates critical of Duterte include current Vice President Leni Robredo, boxer-turned-Senator Manny Pacquiao, Manila Mayor and movie star Isko Moreno, and Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former police chief.

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