The 2016 Philippines presidential elections came at a time when the Filipinos had reached a turning point; they were frustrated with the state of their country, felt they were not getting what they deserve and the political system in place was only benefiting the elite. They were ready for effective and efficient change and believed Rodrigo Roa Duterte would lead this change. Rodrigo Roa Duterte became the Philippines’ 16th President on June 30 2016. He succeeded Benigno Aquino III in a victory that comes at a time when populism appears to be on the rise as people who find that their usual political party lacks solutions and helpful responses to social decline and economic decline look elsewhere for swift, effective and sometimes radical answers to their problems. President Duterte did not have the usual characteristics possessed by many of Manila’s political elites; his presidential campaign was not a traditional one but rather one that was politically unorthodox and filled with controversy. He was not a strong presidential candidate in the initial stages of the campaign season nor did he have his predecessor’s support and yet went on to win the elections in a landslide victory.
Originating from Mindanao (a southwest island), Duterte stands as the oldest elected president of the Philippines; the first San Beda College of Law graduate president – the first president to have his marriage annulled and the first motorcycle-riding president. He has been linked to the ‘Davao Death Squad’, which is alleged to be behind several unsolved extrajudicial killings whose victims include children and journalists. The president has also made outrageous and controversial statements; for example calling Pope Francis and former, USA president, Barack Obama, “a son of a whore”; and calling president Trump a bigot. The president has also joked about wishing to have been first in line when an Australian journalist was gang raped and murdered in the Philippines.
Duterte’s political career began as mayor of Davao city in 1988 after having been in the prosecutor’s office from 1977 until his appointment as vice mayor in 1986. Duterte was re-elected mayor twice over the subsequent decade and was only barred from re-election in 1998 by term limits. He then successfully ran for a seat representing Davao in the Philippines House of Representatives. In 2001, he was elected mayor of Davao City once more, term restrictions came into play again in 2010 and Duterte was elected vice mayor. Duterte returned to the mayor’s office in 2013 with his son, Paolo serving as vice mayor.
Duterte’s campaign was a pledge to wipe out corruption, poverty and inequality, drug trafficking and addiction in the Philippines. His campaign was able to generate an all-encompassing legitimacy creating an alliance between different classes, genders, generations and political affiliations because it touched on the most basic and fundamental issues in the country; from heavy traffic in Metro Manila to inequality. Publicly expressing popular beliefs and opinions held deep in the psyche of most people worked in Duterte’s favour. Davao City was used as an example of his zero-tolerance stance on crime and abilities to improve the status of the Filipino people. Duterte boasted that under his leadership, the city became one of the most peaceful cities in the Philippines. He publicly admitted to the existence of the ‘Davao death squad’ and endorsed police killings of suspected drug dealers and addicts.
Duterte has not opted for politically correct statements even during his presidential campaign. He boasts about killing people while still mayor of Davao city, being a womaniser (when leaders are generally looked upon to promote socially acceptable behaviour and be examples of model citizens) and shows blatant disrespect for human rights, due process and international institutions. Duterte also has no qualms in using physical violence in order to attain political goals, yet the Filipino people chose him as their president. Duterte’s election as president could be a sign that the Filipinos had lost faith in the democratic values and rule of law promised by previous leaders and were ready for a leader who would do whatever it takes, however drastic those steps, to tackle the issues faced by the country. His election can also be attributed to the growing global populism trend usually driven by feelings of relative personal deprivation, a general view of society being in decline, lack of political power and a belief that people are not getting what they deserve.
The Filipinos elected Duterte because they see him as someone who can implement policies that will actually bring change; they see him as being authentic. His controversial statements, nicknames such as ‘The Punisher’, comparisons to the USA’s Donald Trump and accusations of being part of the Davao death squad did not deter the Filipinos from voting for Duterte. This can be attributed to the Filipinos being so frustrated with previous leaders and their ‘democracy’ that they were willing to take a risk on Duterte in order to improve the status of their country.
The question this brings is whether president Duterte’s style of politics will yield positive results for the Philippines or will he only create a culture of lawlessness and disregard for human rights, due process and international institutions. It also remains to be seen what his presidency will mean for the Philippines’s foreign policy direction in South East Asia given the ending of the century-long strategic relationship with the USA in favour of stronger ties with China and Russia.
Ms Remofiloe Lobakeng holds a BA Hons in International Politics from UNISA and is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.