Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Duterte unchecked

The startling crackdown on those critical or deemed to be disloyal to the president.

Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, in May. (Photo: Thierry Falise/Getty)
Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, in May. (Photo: Thierry Falise/Getty)
Published 17 Jan 2018 

Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, is a quarter of the way through his single six-year term under the current constitution. So far, he is changing the office of the president and the Philippine political system much more than it is changing him. The checks and balances that are supposed to constrain and channel executive power are being left unchecked and unbalanced. And the most fundamental change to the Philippine political system desired by Duterte  replacement of the current constitution with federalism   is only starting to take vague form on the horizon.

The list of measures under the Duterte administration is startling. Currently, they include:

  • Rappler, an influential news portal led by Maria Ressa attacked by the president and his supporters repeatedly, awaits a Securities and Exchange Commission decision to revoke its license.
  • The president is threatening not to renew the television franchise ABS-CBN, the leading television company that President Marcos seized when he invoked martial law in 1972.
  • The leading broadsheet newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, was sold to a business tycoon with close relations to the president.
  • The House of Representatives is conducting impeachment hearings against the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, Maria Lourdes Sereno.
  • Duterte has established a new anti-corruption commission to investigate the Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales.
  • The chairperson of the Commission on Higher Education, Patricia Licuanan, has resigned before the end of her term under pressure from the presidential palace.
  • Vice President Leni Robredo continues to be excluded from cabinet meetings.
  • Senator Leila de Lima remains incarcerated.
  • Local elections scheduled for October 2016 have not been held.
  • Mindanao island, which accounts for a fifth of the national population, remains under martial law, with Duterte not ruling out extending martial law to other regions. He has also suggested he might declare a revolutionary government.
  • As part of the early federalism discussions, House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez has publicly mused about cancelling the midterm elections scheduled for October 2019.
  • As part of the early federalism discussions, Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III has speculated about extending Dutertes term in office.

While the Duterte government and its many vocal supporters assert that that each of these actions is discrete and fully justified, the growing number of actions and their common features (including the large number of senior female government officials, politicians and journalists targeted) strongly suggest the opposite.

Together these moves are in favour of reducing constraints to the presidential agenda and those it serves, and are focused on those critical or deemed to be disloyal to the president and his agenda.

Yet Duterte’s approval and trust ratings, 80% and 82% respectively, are at an all-time high. The biggest democratic check on the presidential prerogative continues unchecked, not by the president or the executive but by the electorate itself. 

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