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The Interpreter's best of 2016: The Philippines' Duterte

It's been a wild ride since Rodrigo Duterte became President of the Philippines.

 Rodrigo Duterte in Singapore on 16 December (Photo: Bryan van der Beek/Getty Images)
Rodrigo Duterte in Singapore on 16 December (Photo: Bryan van der Beek/Getty Images)
Published 29 Dec 2016 

On 9 May Rodrigo Duterte, a long time and popular Filipino mayor little known outside the country, was elected President of the Philippines. Lowell Bautista wrote on the stunning victory:

The Philippine electorate, afflicted with grievance politics and thirsty for change, overwhelmingly supported Duterte whose appeal crossed age groups, social class and demographics. On election day, he enjoyed a massive lead of over five million votes compared to the administration-supported candidate Manuel Roxas.  Duterte won despite having no coherent or practical national economic plan. His campaign platform offered no solid, long-term foreign policy plans. In contrast, he boasted he had two wives and several girlfriends, made a necrophiliac joke about a murdered Australian missionary, and vowed to extra-judicially kill criminals. Not suprisingly, the prospect of a Duterte presidency elicited anxiety in the business community and sent shock waves overseas.

Barely a month after Duterte's inauguration an international tribunal delivered its long awaited verdict on the South China Sea territorial dispute between the Philippines and China. The Philippines, under Dutertes predecessor, had challenged Beijing's controversial nine-dash line. The ruling was unequivocally in favour of the Philippines. The world held its breath. And Duterte soon had everyone gasping. Lowy Institute nonresident fellow Malcolm Cook parsed the new president's views on the US:

During the presidential campaign, Rodrigo Duterte questioned the utility of the alliance with the US and threatened to severe ties with the Philippines' largest source of foreign direct investment, remittances and military assistance after the US Ambassador chided him over a particularly offensive and misogynist 'rape joke.' Duterte prides himself on his militant leftist political origins, the main source of rabid anti-Americanism in the Philippines, opposed US-Philippine military exercises when he was mayor of Davao City, and wants closer, more economically focused relations with China. More recent reported comments again crudely criticising Ambassador Goldberg and contrasting the US negatively with China could reinforce this view of a pending bilateral break.

Political observers in the Philippines are still fine-tuning their 'Duterte filters' to figure out what are real statements of policy versus off-the-cuff remarks versus brain freezes.

In September Duterte branded Barack Obama a 'son of a whore'. Cook noted the 'diplomatic faux pas' was symptomatic of Duterte's maverick persona and his determination not to let becoming president change the way he sets about doing (and saying) things:

Duterte’s undoubted success as mayor, broad public support, lack of an effective legislative opposition and fierce pride all push against a change of approach. Criticism of his conduct as president, especially from outside his circle of trusted kumpares, will carry little weight (and may even be counterproductive). 

There is a steep learning curve from being mayor of less than two million to president for more than 100 million. Duterte is the only one who can mount it. His behaviour over his first 70 days as president (culminating in his comments on the tarmac at Davao International Airport earlier this week) reveals just how big a challenge this is. 

A month later, Cook wrote Duterte had doubled down on his China pivot.

Duterte pronounced his state visit to China as 'the defining moment of my presidency', expansively claimed that a quarter of the Philippine population (including himself) are Chinese descendants, contended that China was the Philippines' 'only hope economically', and hoped that President Xi Jinping would find it in his heart to give the Philippines a railway.

In a speech to an overseas Filipino audience on the same day, Duterte repeated his 'son of a whore' reference for President Obama while stating 'No more American influence. No more American exercises. It's time to say goodbye, my friend. Your stay in my country was for your own benefit'.

The anti-America rhetoric was playing well at home. Erin Cook noted that at the 100 day mark, President Duterte had 'sky-high approval ratings'. But there are still plenty of Filipinos who are not fans and Erin recounted how one Senator, Leila de Lima, was taking the fight to the president, determined to stop the ever-increasing death toll from Duterte's war on drugs.

This week, de Lima has turned to the international community, banking on increasing global coverage and condemnation of Duterte’s administration. The International Criminal Court 'should start to think about investigating already or doing an inquiry into the killings as crimes against humanity', she said on Monday, as reported by the Guardian.

While it’s unlikely Duterte, who is unabashedly uninterested in what the international community has to say about his leadership, will cower to the Hague, this feud is an important one. Polling and coverage both show overwhelming support for Duterte’s stance on crime but there is sizable dissent among human rights activists. The attacks on de Lima, both directly through Duterte and other government officials and indirectly through their supporters, demonstrate the frightening lengths the president will go to in order to stifle opposition and settle old scores. Earlier this month, Duterte said he was 'tempted' to declare martial law, echoing an earlier threat. These are ominous signs so early on in his six-year term.

On the economic front though, things are ticking along nicely in the Philippines, reported Greg Earl in a December update. This is part due to the fact that the president isn't meddling much though there is some exasperation that the colourful president is attracting too much attention:

The country produced the fastest growth rate in Asia in the last quarter on the back of the previous administration’s steady, pragmatic policies. Duterte has been chaotic and colourful so far, but business figures say he has chosen a good economics team and accepts central bank independence. They say they are optimistic about a big increase in infrastructure spending, a reduction in business red tape and possibly even a watering down of the economic nationalist rigidity in the constitution.

International economic experts say the country has the domestic demand momentum along with fiscal and monetary policy space to see out any Trump-related global turbulence or diplomatic backlash against Duterte. But the business figures say they are unhappy that Duterte’s political antics are distracting attention from the economic fundamentals.

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