Who is Rodrigo Duterte and what does he mean for the Philippines

On the 30th of June this year the controversial Rodrigo Duterte will begin his terms as President of the Philippines. But who is this man, why has his election so heavily divided Filipinos and international commentators, and what does his presidency mean for the Philippines?

Duterte has been the Mayor of Davao City (the third largest city in the Philippines) for over 22 years, running on a strong anti-crime platform. During the 2016 Presidential campaign he quickly established himself as the unconventional, anti-establishment candidate, running with a great deal of showmanship and controversy.  He outraged critics and captivated fans with his refusal to stop his swearing, off colour jokes, or threats to kill throughout the election campaign. Notable examples include joking about the rape and murder of an Australian missionary, calling the Pope a “son of a whore,” and threatening to have journalists who are “unfair” to him killed. Typical to his nonconformist style, he skipped his own proclamation after claiming victory in the election, choosing to perform his usual duties as Mayor of Davao instead.

The three main issues he ran on included stamping down on crime, weeding out corruption, and a push toward Federalism.

Regarding crime, he cites his record as Mayor and the success he has had in battling criminal syndicates in the past. Controversially, as Mayor he was linked to 1,000 extra-legal executions of alleged criminals. Rather than apologizing for this he claims that as president he will “turn the 1,000 into 100,000.” At his final campaign rally he built upon this, saying “Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men, and do-nothings, you better go out. Because as the mayor, I’d kill you.” This strong man stance, along with his claim that he will end crime in six months has been met with huge support and is a key component of his electoral success.

Another core issue was his promise to challenge the ruling elite. Economically and politically, the Filipino society consists of huge inequalities. According to some economists, 40 families in the Philippines control 76% of GDP. Additionally, in 2014 the Centre for People Empowerment in Governance estimated that dynastic families controlled 80% of congressional seats and another 80% of Governors and Mayors. In the 2016 election this was particularly visual as three out of the five candidates were backed by the powerful Couangco family. Duterte’s popularity and election is seen by many analysts as a symptom of the frustration of many Filipinos who have been disenfranchised by the political establishment.

Duterte also stood out through his promise to push for federalism. The Philippines currently have a unitary government with the vast majority of the power coming from the central government in Manila. However, many advocates of federalism, including Duterte, argue for a division of responsibility and power between the central (federal), state, and local governments. Duterte claims that this division of power will lead to more attention being given to poorer regions of the Philippines which will in turn lead to higher levels of economic growth. Additionally, Duterte argues that giving poorer regions some level of autonomy will help to bring peace in areas such as Mindanao that have experienced armed insurgencies.

Photo: Reuters

Many are questioning how his election will impact the troubled Chinese-Philippines relationship. In the past 6 years, relations have been strained over territorial disputes over areas in the South China Sea such as the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. The tensions have been exacerbated over reports of growing Chinese aggression toward Filipino fishermen. Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed hope that Duterte’s new administration could mean the revival of Sino-Filipino relations. In response, Duterte expressed a willingness to improve bilateral relations, and to work closely with China on joint development projects, but clarified that this would in no way constitute the Philippines backing down on its claims in the South China Sea. Speaking directly to China, he said, “I told you that is ours, you have no right to be there.”

It is questionable whether once in office, Duterte’s hard-line will soften and whether if it doesn’t he will have the ability to work with congress to approve his ambitious policies. His potential success will very much depend on his ability to work with his more mainstream Vice-President, Leni Robredo. Filipino elections involve voting for Presidents and Vice-Presidents separately, and this time, the pair come from different tickets. Some, like Filipino political scientist Julio Teehankee, have great hope for the pair, saying that under them the Philippines will see a “disciplinarian father and nurturing mother” who make a potent mix.

Whatever the case, the way in which the first few months of a Duterte presidency unfold will have huge ramifications on the Philippines, and indeed on the Asia-Pacific as a whole.