“The Punisher,” “Dirty Harry,” “Trump of the Philippines.” These are just a few of the nicknames given to controversial Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, and for good reason. You might think that with nicknames like that, the President-elect would be some sort of anti-hero—you’d be wrong.
Gaining office on May 9, 2016, Duterte won his election on a “no more nonsense” agenda that won over the hearts and minds of the Filipino people through a populist agenda. He pushed for a dramatic lowering of crime, marital divorce, same-sex marriage, agrarian reform, traffic improvements in the capital city of Manila, and even faster internet. He marketed himself as such a vehicle for change that one of the major driving forces behind his campaign was a promise that criminal activity, specifically drug-related, would be drastically reduced within the first six months of his presidency. And it worked. Filipinos, exhausted from decades of empty promises from corrupt politicians, saw in him a type of savior. After his landslide victory, Duterte unleashed his plans for achieving this crime reduction.
Since his election, secret government “death squads” commanded by Duterte have killed more than 4,000 people in the name of his “war on drugs” and arrested more than 100,000. Meanwhile, his critics in the Filipino press are being silenced through legal loopholes utilized by Duterte and his wealthy supporters in both the government and beyond. Overall, Duterte is running a budding authoritarian government via perfectly legal means—slowly eroding one of the oldest democracies in Asia. But how is this possible?
A great deal of what Duterte is doing to the Philippine government is an example of democratic backslide, that is, when a leader plays the system to act as an authoritarian leader while posing as the head of an entirely different style of hierarchy. The type of backslide happening here is called executive aggrandizement—a slower form of democratic erosion that transitions a government into an authoritarian state. Duterte gained office through the legal process of a voter election and technically operates his twisted legislation through a parliament that is overwhelmingly in his favor. The result—a government designed around freedom that is actually placed at the beck and call of a man that has little regard for the system he has sworn to uphold.
So why doesn’t the Philippines just elect a new leader and move on? It is starting to look like Duterte’s opposition is becoming next to non-existent. Since he took office, ten Filipino mayors have been assassinated by “death squads.” Assassinations that the government claims to be linked to the “war on drugs” that Duterte is so adamant about winning. Despite this opposition denying time and time again that they were not involved in the illegal drug trade, they met their ends at the hands of the government. With possible political opponents dying off in “legal” ways, it is possible that Duterte will have next to no competition for the presidency in the future.
Where democratic presidents have to be careful about what they say in front of the media, Duterte does the opposite—taking on yet another characteristic of an authoritarian leader. He is a man that is not scared to threaten, and with the only press with freedom of speech under his rule being the media that supports him, what he says has next to no ramifications. He has been quoted saying terrible things, bragging about killing a person at the age of 16, saying he wants to “eat terrorists,” even joking about rape.
“I will just be happy to hang you. If I have the preference, I’ll hang all of you… You are putting us down. You are exerting pressure in every country with the death penalty,” said Duterte in response to European Union officials speaking out against his treatment of the people he rules. A people that are getting more and more scared to speak out against the man they thought was going to move the Philippines forward and out of a criminal era. The reality is they elected an entirely new type of criminal that has no plans to answer to any laws.
Furthermore, Duterte’s slow dismantling of the Philippine democratic system threatens the country’s relationships with its democratic allies. Officials are concerned as he appears to be breaking ties with one of the Philippines long-standing allies—the United States—while placing an emphasis on foreign relations with China and Russia. In fact, Duterte’s actions in the Philippines is quite similar to what Putin did in Russia—authoritarianization (a legal shift in the way a government operates through a leader with immense approval ratings due to a populist agenda) leading to democratic backslide and erosion. Both men built heavy support in their political systems through popular agendas, fear, bribery, etc. They slowly eliminate the people who dare to go against them in the free press (not so free anymore) through both legal and illegal means., essentially scaring away any political opposition that might threaten their office.
“The Punisher,” “Dirty Harry,” the “Trump of the Philippines.” While these names might have alluded to a type of president that was tough, strong, or a cultural phenomenon, it now points to a man with a much more sinister agenda. Rodrigo Duterte is not a symbol of law and order. Instead, he is a symbol of democratic backsliding—the real-life example of a failing system designed to give everyone a voice. Instead, there is only the voice of Rodrigo Duterte.
*Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP