The Philippines’ new President: one step backward, two steps forward?


Picture of John T. Sidel
John T. Sidel

John T. Sidel is Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science

After six years of steady economic growth, political stability and apparent efforts to improve governance and confront difficult domestic and foreign security threats under the administration of Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III, it seems there are now ample reasons for anxiety about the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte.

The landslide victory of the long-serving Davao city mayor in the 9th May presidential elections has provoked a flood of critical commentary and controversy. Enduring allegations of Duterte’s links to extrajudicial killings in Davao, Duterte’s own repeated expressions of pride in past atrocities and threats of violence to come, his occasional talk of ‘revolutionary government’, and his grotesquely sexist behaviour and comments during the election campaign have all raised understandable concerns among progressive Filipinos and foreign observers. At the same time, Duterte’s open enthusiasm for reconciliation with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its New People’s Army (NPA) has combined with expressions of interest in a bilateral agreement with China over disputed areas of the South China Sea to sound alarm bells among conservative commentators and critics in Washington, DC. Finally, Duterte’s predilection for off-the-cuff, incoherent and often self-contradictory public remarks, his refusal to attend his own official proclamation as President, and his evident ambivalence about moving (or commuting?) from Davao to Manila during his presidency have further raised eyebrows.

Duterte represents not a departure from, but rather a dirty truth about, democracy in the Philippines

Against this backdrop, at least three caveats are worth noting. First of all, Duterte’s election to the presidency is the latest iteration of a cyclical pattern in Philippine politics – described by Eva-Lotta Hedman in her 2006 book In the Name of Civil Society: From Free Election Movements to People Power in the Philippines. Since Independence in 1946, the ‘normal’ pattern of democratic competition among virtually indistinguishable representatives of the country’s oligarchy has been periodically interrupted by some kind of ‘critical juncture’. Every 15-17 years, aspirations, grievances, conflicts and tensions build up to challenge the narrow constraints and limitations of oligarchical democracy. Such crises led to the ‘People Power’ uprising against Marcos in 1986 and the popular mobilisation leading to the fall of Estrada in 2001. Thus Duterte’s emergence and triumph has come, as it were, right on schedule, suggesting some kind of return to ‘normality’ will follow in due course.

Second, there is a great deal of exaggeration and hypocrisy in the avowed alarmism expressed with regard to Duterte’s personal history and public profile. As mayor of Davao in 1988-98, 2001-2010 and 2013-16, he reached a modus vivendi with the residues of the CPP/NPA’s armed guerrilla movement that had entrenched itself in the city’s slums but was brutally diminished by the US-backed anti-communist counterinsurgency campaign waged by Corazon Aquino’s administration in the late 1980s. Meanwhile, over the past three decades, Duterte has worked hand-in-glove with the major Mindanao-based agribusiness and Cebu-based commercial interests that dominate Davao’s economy in a broad-based ‘local growth coalition’ to encourage investment in Mindanao. His belated entry into the 2016 presidential race came with the blessings of former president Fidel Ramos (1992-98), who championed economic liberalisation and close ties with the United States, and remains an influential fixture in the political establishment.

Thus for all his ‘leftist’ leanings, ‘maverick’ persona and ‘tough guy’ antics, Duterte is in many ways a very mainstream Filipino politician. After all, he is the scion of a political dynasty with deep roots in both Cebu province and Davao city. His own direct involvement in both extrajudicial killings and opportunistic alliances with residual elements of the Left is emblematic of the broader history of the re-establishment of oligarchical democracy in the Philippines since the mid-1980s. Duterte represents not a departure from, but rather a dirty truth about, democracy in the Philippines, thinly veiled behind the veneer of ‘reformism’ and ‘good governance’ promoted by the outgoing Aquino administration.

There is a great deal of exaggeration and hypocrisy in the avowed alarmism expressed with regard to Duterte’s personal history and public profile

Third and finally, Duterte’s rise from the provinces to the presidency represents a new promise of change. Just as the 2014 Indonesian presidential elections saw the victory of former Surakarta mayor and Jakarta governor Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, the Philippines is now seeing a ‘local boy done good’. This is arguably long overdue. Over the 1990s and 2000s, much attention was devoted to the ‘participatory’ and ‘reformist’ style of Naga mayor Jesus Robredo and the ‘populist’ profile and provision of free health care offered by long-time Makati mayor Jejomar Binay. In 2010, Binay won the vice-presidency and Robredo was appointed Secretary of the Interior and Local Government, a post he occupied until his death in 2012. Thus the 2016 victory of Duterte (over Binay) – and of Leni Robredo, widow of Naga mayor, as Vice President – suggests that the country’s diverse crop of dynamic city mayors now offers a rich pool of potential ‘talent’ for national-level political contests in the Philippines.

In short, there may be good reasons to expect both more continuity and more positive forms of change in the Philippines under Duterte than the doomsayers have suggested. As seen in his record as mayor of Davao, Duterte is strongly anti-smoking, concerned to promote the representation of ethnic, religious and political minorities, and supportive of gay marriage as well as forms of contraception, family planning and population control long opposed by the conservative hierarchy of the Catholic Church. He is keen to pursue peace talks with the CPP/NPA, and he is likely to extend and expand negotiations with armed Muslim rebel groups over the future of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Duterte is concerned about infrastructure and transportation bottlenecks, and is keen to explore ambitious new plans for railway construction across Luzon as well as Mindanao. At the same time, he appears to be a strong proponent of economic liberalisation, as seen in his attacks on the entrenched duopoly in the telecommunications market and his support for an amendment of the Constitution to reduce restrictions on foreign investment, alongside his avowed commitment to engineer a shift to a federal system of government.

Only time will tell if and how Duterte delivers on the diverse set of promises and threats of change in the Philippines he invoked and inspired over the course of his campaign for the Philippine presidency. Filipino voters are cynical, savvy and sophisticated, and by a large margin they preferred his pugnacious style. This choice should be respected rather than derided and disavowed. It is only to be hoped that Duterte will not overly disappoint his supporters or confirm the worst fears of his critics, and that Duterte’s years in office will bring new forms of prosperity and progress to the Philippines.

Related activities

view all
view all
view all
Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo