The Philippines After 100 Days of Duterte

On June 30 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was elected the 16th president of the Philippines. That means that this Saturday, 8 October 2016, marks his 100th day in office. Over the course of these past 100 days, Duterte has become controversial as a result of his incendiary statements and support for extrajudicial killings of drug users. By examining why Duterte managed to pull off a victory last summer, it is possible to identify an important force that has defined domestic and foreign policy of his first 100 days in office.

He has compared himself to Hitler, stating that he would be happy to massacre millions of drug users. He has called Barack Obama a “son of a bitch” and has told him to “go to hell.” He has threatened to turn away from the United States and towards China and Russia. He has called Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, a “fool.” For such a crass candidate to be elected, it is natural to postulate that perhaps his opponents had even greater flaws. Let’s see how he stacks up to his opponents, many of whom were leading in the polls for much of the race.

At first, Jejomar Binay was the favorite. He had been the Vice President under former president Benigno Aquino III. He was the first to declare his candidacy and as a result held first place in early polls. Over time, however, his candidacy began to unravel in the face of corruption allegations. His performance in the polls began to waver, and once his popularity started falling it never stopped. He finished 4th place in the election.

Of all the candidates, Grace Poe performed the best in the early polls. Although she is a member of the senate, she is considered more of a political outsider than Binay. She has been a member of the senate only since 2013 and ran as an independent. As election date neared, however, Duterte overtook Poe in the polls. While she continued to lead against the second place candidate, Mar Roxas, she nevertheless lost to him narrowly to take third place.

Like Binay, Mar Roxas is a member of the political establishment. He was one of the most experienced candidates. He was the nominee of the Liberal Party, which is led by Aquino. As a result, he is viewed by many as a “traditional politician” who sacrifices principles and authenticity in order to win votes. For that reason, he trailed the less experienced Poe in the polls for much of the race. Nevertheless, he surpassed her to win second in the race. His reputation as a traditional politician, however, still kept him from taking first.

Besides Binay’s corruption, there appears to be little wrong with these candidates. Poe and Roxas were both qualified to be President, and neither approached the abrasiveness of Duterte. Thus Duterte’s victory cannot be explained by the shortcomings of his political opponents. So what does explain it? It turns out that the explanation while be quite familiar to readers in The West.

An analysis of polling shows that the “traditional politicians”–Binay and Roxas–were not popular with the people. Poe and Duterte, on the other hand, were seen as freer from the constraints of traditional politics. Duterte, with his outlandishly apolitical remarks, even more so than Poe. As a result, he won the trust of 91 percent of the Philippine people. Sound familiar?

This narrative is one that is playing out across The West. The people are rejecting establishment candidates in favor of apolitical politicians. Voters punish political experience and reward honesty. Just as in the United States, where Hillary Clinton is seen as untrustworthy and Trump’s unapologetic hyperbole gives him an aura of authenticity, Duterte’s rejection of the political orthodoxy gave him an advantage over his opponents. So if Duterte’s appeal is largely based off of his outsider status, how has this affected his first 100 days in office?

The Philippine claims in the South China Sea mean that cooperation with the United States is much easier than cooperation with China
The Philippine claims in the South China Sea mean that cooperation with the United States is much easier than cooperation with China

Duterte has delivered on his single biggest issue–his war on drugs. Tens of thousands of drug users and dealers have been arrested, and roughly 3600 have been killed. Thus Duterte is not all bark; he has shown some bite as well. Yet some of his most controversial statements should be taken with a grain of salt. The Obama administration, for example, has largely downplayed his threats to pivot towards China and Russia. Especially considering Philippine interests in the South China Sea, the alliance between the Philippines and the United States remains as important as ever. Thus while Duterte may be in favor of pursuing more independent foreign relations, much of the political and military establishment is against any significant changes.

Clearly, Duterte’s outsider status has had a significant effect on his domestic policy. But while his unorthodox ways have dented the Philippines’ international reputation, it is precisely in international affairs that establishment ideas continue to reign supreme. Thus the first 100 days of Duterte have seen many of his outlandish promises fulfilled domestically, but the unpopularity of his incendiary remarks within the foreign policy establishment means that the damage to international relations is more to reputation than to actual diplomatic ties.

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