The Duterte Phenomenon

The Duterte Phenomenon: the Philippines does politics a little differently.

This month the Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte, a tough-talking maverick largely unknown outside his own country, as President.

The Western media has been completely wrong-footed by Duterte, and has even compared him to Donald Trump. But Duterte is a far more complex character and if he reminds me of any politician, it is Alex Salmond of Scotland’s SNP. The two men play the politics game very alike — something the rivals of both have come to rue.

Despite the ignorance of the outside world, Duterte is by no means an unknown quantity in the Philippines. Over the last four years, in my travels there, I have become used to the affection with which ordinary people — living hundreds of miles from his bailiwick — speak of him. He is ‘Rody’ or ‘Digong’ and in text, sometimes D30.

Duterte’s city, Davao on the southern island of Mindanao, is one of the three largest in the Philippines, with a population greater than several European nations. He has proven himself a skilled manager of the city’s finances over the decades of his rule. He has fought and won eleven elections — not a bad score for any political animal. While claims for the security and low levels of crime in Davao may be exaggerated, people there regard him as a true defender of the peace.


When one of the Vice-Presidential candidates, Alan Trillanes, put out a story, in the last days before the election, that Duterte had 17 million USD (equivalent) that he had not declared — a tricky matter for a career public servant earning less than 50,000USD per annum to explain — Duterte dealt with it in typical style, turning the story on its head and severely damaging his enemy when he, finally and after extracting the maximum of drama, released his accounts. This is no rookie at the game of politics, but a master.

In other ways too, Duterte’s gamesmanship is remarkable. All through last summer he dithered and denied. Yes, he would stand, then no, he wouldn’t. And again and again, for months. Some began to call him ‘flip-flop’ on social media. But the joke was on us, because by the time he finally announced that he was going to stand for President and filed his notification, only days before the deadline, millions of ordinary Filipinos were literally begging him to stand. You can’t buy that kind of electoral boost; Duterte did it with brilliant — if Machiavellian — manoeuvring.

Death Squads

Davao, Duterte’s city, is known to have freelance death squads, which have attracted the attention of the United Nations’ Commission for Human Rights. Thousands have been summarily executed by these thugs, usually because they had been denounced as criminals. Duterte, it is alleged, did nothing to stop these killings and, if anything, used them as political capital. Davao was safe, he claimed, because criminals are too frightened to operate in it.

Does Duterte order the killings? It’s unthinkable. For all his ‘man of the people’, tough-guy persona, he is a lawyer by profession and has repeatedly proven himself as such. That he would put himself in a position where he might be arrested and charged is so unlikely that it may be discounted; and there have been twenty years in which such charges could have been brought. The Davao Death Squads do exist; but the overwhelming likelihood is that Duterte has nothing to do with them — except to claim the credit for making his city safer.

Whether or not Duterte is innocent is of academic interest in any case, because the fact is that his Teflon coating has dealt with the brickbats. Knowing Duterte’s track record, investigators will go blind with paperwork before they get anywhere near the truth, by which time his presidency would likely be over. Duterte is now 71 and his life in politics is drawing to an end.

Enough of the man; but what has made the Philippines elect him? He won 38% of the vote in a multi-party election with 80%? turnout. (David Cameron would so wish.)


In tactical terms, the establishment Liberal Party were completely blindsided by the candidacy of Senator Grace Poe. Poe is a foundling and had also acquired US nationality, at which time she renounced her Philippines one; so her candidacy faced a legal challenge. Presidents must be both Filipino by birth and Philippines citizens. Many believed that Poe would not be allowed to stand.

However the Supreme Court, in a majority decision, upheld her right to

Grace Poe

participate. Poe, although relatively inexperienced and lacking real ‘star quality’, found herself pitted against the Liberal Party’s Mar Roxas, who is experienced, competent and has even less star quality.

Poe’s candidacy meant that these two were — belatedly — trying to win votes from exactly the same demographic. In a race of two lacklustre horses, each, in the end, took around half that vote.

That this left a hole as big as a house for Rody Duterte to charge through became obvious to many observers very soon but not, alack, to the Administration. While it is true that incumbent President Aquino did call, in the last week, for the parties to ‘come together’ to stop Duterte, what he meant

Mar Roxas

was that Poe should stand down to let Roxas take her votes. This, unsurprisingly, did not persuade Poe. (Meanwhile other pundits were calling for Roxas to stand down for the same reasons — which cries were similarly ignored.)

The Philippines does not have a two-stage voting system such as in France, where the various candidates are thinned down to two in the first poll and the winner decided in the second. In the Philippines, there’s one vote and whoever gets the most votes wins. In a French-type system, Mar Roxas and Rodrigo Duterte would be facing off in another round and the chances are that Roxas, despite his blandness — I am always reminded of John Major; competent but dull — would win comfortably, assuming a majority of Poe’s voters switched to him. However, such is not the case.

The Reasons Why

In political terms, the impetuses for Duterte are complex. First is the ongoing civil strife, in the southern island of Mindanao especially. Aquino has supported the attempts of the Muslim minority there to extend the autonomous region they live in and deepen its powers.

Many Filipinos consider this unconstitutional, since the Philippines is a unitary state with no tradition of federalism, where all citizens are equally protected under the same law. They point, amongst other things, to the existence of non-Muslim tribal peoples living in the area that would be covered and insist that this arrangement would be contrary to their constitutional rights and protections.

Nevertheless, the negotiation of a separate law, the so-called ‘Bangsamoro Basic Law’ or BBL, was a major Aquino target and looked certain to be ratified, despite its unpopularity with the 95% of the citizenry who are not Muslim.

Then, in February 2015, a military assault was organised to capture a number of known terrorists hiding in the Moro region. It was carried out by members of the Special Action Force (SAF) who were really armed policemen rather than soldiers. They were ambushed and forty-four were slaughtered by gunmen from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The fallen became instant martyrs and heroes, the ‘SAF 44’.

While blame for this catastrophic debacle fell on the shoulders of the Police General responsible, Alan Purisima, Aquino was tainted both because he was seen as accommodating of the MILF — who overnight became pariahs — and because Purisima was Aquino’s appointment. (As a result of the massacre, the BBL was not ratified.)

Duterte, whose city, Davao, is in Mindanao, is seen by many both on that island and elsewhere, as tough enough to deal with insurgents; and on the other hand, he has ‘lines’ of communication with several insurgent groups himself. Foreign observers should realise that low-level war and insurrection has been going on in parts of the Philippines, especially Mindanao but also Luzon and Visayas, since the Vietnam years. It was this that provided the justification for Marcos infamous dictatorship and the Martial Law era. Filipinos are inured to it, but heartily sick of it. It is a major reason why the tourist industry there lags so far behind, say, Thailand, despite the astonishing natural beauty. It is a sad fact that many in the Philippines have forgotten the realities of that time and see a ‘tough guy’, a benevolent dictator, as the best solution to the problems of insurrection, despite the fact that it has been tried and failed.

The next big issue is crime and particularly, drug-related crime. There is no question that drug trafficking is being used as a scapegoat for wider social ills and has allowed politicians — even Duterte — to sidestep them. However, the persistent, chronic level of crime throughout the Philippines is a major problem. That this is so is obvious by the sheer numbers of armed security guards. They are everywhere. Even small convenience stores have round the clock armed security and any bank branch will have at least three at the door. They will be armed with pepper sprays and batons but also with pistols and pump-action shotguns. That’s serious firepower right there; you don’t invest in protection like this without cause.

As well as this, there is a degree of public disorder related to alcohol. The Filipinos like to drink and when they do, they can be unruly. Compared to the Scottish ones I grew up in, Filipino towns, even late at night, are havens of peace and order; but there is a public perception that they are not.

Low-level crimes, which exist alongside much more rare and localised, but far more severe ones like ransom kidnapping and even piracy, are a constant niggle. Duterte’s promise, to clean it all up in six months, is like a breath of fresh air to a population sick to the back teeth of criminality. They know that the establishment has done nothing to curb it and the prospect of a new broom has proved very enticing.

Next, the age-old problem of Pilipino politics is that it is in the hands of a small number of wealthy and powerful clans and historically, power has passed between them since the fall of the Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. The Aquinos and the Marcoses are the best known of these. This has, unfortunately, led to obvious cronyism, nepotism and political favour, as well as the public perception of massive criminality on the part of the political class itself: in other words, corruption. Just by being from outside the cabal of powerful families, Duterte is a threat to their convenient political arrangements. This alone was probably enough to secure the man millions of protest votes.

It is a sad truth that the Philippines has become synonymous with corruption. It is much more severe than in other southeast Asian nations and some believe it is a hangover from the Spanish colonial era. Whatever the cause, it is a major problem; look at the extent to which Filipinos bemoan it, even to a foreigner. You can hardly hop on a taxi from the airport but the driver will start talking about it.

This corruption exists not only at the highest but all levels of the bureaucracy. It ranges from unfinished — but paid for — public works programmes, through the millions allocated for disaster relief which have vanished while thousands of victims, years later, are still living in refugee camps, to routine payoffs for traffic offences. The facts are that public servants are underpaid and have the power to augment their salaries through graft. So they do.

This has been going on or many years, however; why has it become an issue now?


To answer this you have to look at demographics. The Philippines is seeing an exponential population explosion. While it does have indigenous manufactory and a huge agricultural sector, two other areas have grown up as a result of the numbers of young, relatively highly-qualified people. These are Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and call-centre workers.

The former comprise everyone from maids to nurses, doctors, engineers and architects, and number around 2.3 million. The latter are by and large degree-level young people with excellent English. These two sectors contribute disproportionately to the economy and their power is growing. They constitute a new, moneyed and educated middle class.

While call-centre workers and other domestic professionals suffer the same levels of victimisation by corrupt officials as everyone else, they are inclined to be more articulate in their protest. If my own straw-polling as well as others is correct, a majority of these, by some way, were right behind Duterte. They have no memory of the Martial Law era under Ferdinand Marcos; they see a strong but fair leader, even one who might bend the rules here and there, as a force for good.

OFWs have for decades suffered at the hands off corrupt immigration and customs officials. Allegedly, their ‘balikbayan boxes’ — essentially duty-free gifts for those at home — are routinely pilfered and the contents presumably sold, or outrageous and unfounded ‘customs charges’ are applied — which can be unapplied on payment of a bribe.

The fury of the OFWs went full beast mode when a scam at the Philippines’ largest airport, NAIA, as well as others, was made public. Passengers going through the final security check would be detained and told that there was a live bullet in their baggage. Either the victim could pay a bribe or miss the plane. This became known as the ‘tanim-bala’ scam.

Several high-profile incidents like this last year, which, unusually, were publicised, opened a floodgate of resentment. The scammers’ mistake was in picking on a foreign traveller, a US citizen who was a missionary, and who not only refused to cough up, but went very public indeed, bringing the US Consulate into the case. Thus the can of worms was opened and we learned that for over two decades, police, security guards and baggage handlers had been extorting from thousands if not hundreds of thousands of passengers a year. And the most victimised group was, of course, the OFWs.

It turned out that of the detentions for ‘tanim-bala’ — that were actually recorded, and nobody knows how many were not — only 3% actually resulted in an investigation. In other words, in 97% of recorded cases, the victim coughed up the bribe, typically ten to twenty USD, and was released.

Despite over 50 of the staff at NAIA being suspended over this, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. OFWs were incensed at a patrician, establishment Administration that was not only, they believed, corrupt in itself but connived with corruption at every level of the bureaucracy. And President Benigno Aquino III symbolised that corruption.

So when Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-talking, joking, affable but firm mayor from Davao, who comes across like everybody’s favourite uncle, wears jeans and checked shirts, lives in an ordinary house and drives an ordinary car, blasts in and says, ‘You leave it to me, I’ll sort this mess out,’ he is like a messianic superman, an answer to so many prayers. At last, someone who understands ordinary people and who is prepared to actually do something about their hardships. And a quirk in the Pilipino electoral system has allowed this maverick, this Lone Ranger brandishing metaphorical silver pistols and gunning for the bad guys, to break through.

Conspiracy Theories

We cannot know what will happen next. Social media is alive with a conspiracy theory that the establishment intends to oust Duterte and seize power again. The scenario goes like this: Duterte will impeached — for something — and Liberal Party Vice-President-elect Leni Robredo will take over. This despite Robredo’s impeccable history and her assurance that she will work with Duterte and not against him.

Leni Robredo

However, when did a conspiracy theorist ever heed facts or personal reputations?

This conspiracy theory, which has been stoked by the dictator Marcos’ son, ‘Bongbong’ who ran a close battle with Robredo for the VP slot, may have provoked Duterte into his first major political mistake, before he has even taken power. In defeat, Marcos has proven bitter and petulant, but his support is roughly contiguous with Duterte’s.

In the Philippines, the Vice-Presidency is a non-executive, ex-Cabinet position, without any portfolio at all. The Vice-President is elected completely separately from the President and may not be in the same party — indeed, the two might be arch-rivals.
At the same time the President has absolute power to appoint the Cabinet.

A statesman would have probably have given Robredo — a proven and accomplished politician — a portfolio and Cabinet post that would not have demeaned her…Foreign Affairs, for example, where Duterte is weak.

While he won the Presidency by a clear majority over his nearest rival, Duterte remains a minority President, with 62% of the population having voted against him. Bringing Robredo into his Cabinet would have been an olive branch to the majority who were defeated by the electoral system, while at the same time keeping her from getting into any mischief. ‘Keep your friends close but your enemies closer,’ they say and I suspect Duterte would have liked to do that, but feared a backlash from his own supporters as a result of Marcos’ post-facto allegations of electoral foul play. That’s politics.

Is Duterte the Lone Ranger?

Notwithstanding what, on the face of it, appears to be an early slip, Rodrigo Duterte is a consummate politician. He knows exactly where every crack in the ice is and his great talent, apart from his ability to appeal to the public, has been in knowing how to skate within a hairsbreadth of them, always staying just on the safe side.

The Philippines remains, potentially, a vibrant and dynamic regional power, crippled by corruption, poverty and internal strife. It is a nation of young people and many of them are highly educated. It has vast natural resources and is, literally, a tropical paradise; not for nothing is it called the ‘pearl of the Orient’.

If Duterte can re-unite and revitalise this disparate and riven nation, then he might just be the Lone Ranger after all. But it’s a big ‘if’.

Also published on Medium.

4 Replies to “The Duterte Phenomenon”

      1. We were in Davao when Duterte was mayor. Never felt safer in any city anywhere in my life. Street crime was virtually non-existent despite the poverty.
        Bit of a police state but hey you can’t argue with the man’s results. Watched him give a speech on TV talking about foreigners smuggling drugs into Mindinao. Not often you hear a public speaker say ” they may arrive as passengers but I assure you they will leave as cargo!”

  1. I got into site via my surf of Duterte’s news. Great article.
    Believe it or not when I listen/watch Duterte’s speech,
    there is really something spiritual about him ( forget the cursing).
    He meant well. The Philippines will become the new Singapore.

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