Written by Pauline Eadie.

‘Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power’. ― Abraham Lincoln

President Rodrigo Duterte’s leadership style is that of a ‘man of action’. He likes to get the job done and he likes to do it fast. His campaign slogan ‘change is coming’ resonated with a populace fed up with creaking infrastructure, a convoluted legal system, deeply entrenched inequality, bureaucratic inertia and a political system characterised by oligarchy, patronage and competing yet entrenched political dynasties.

Leadership at Home

More than a year into office, Duterte’s approval ratings remain high across all classes in Philippine society. This is despite the fact that thousands of individuals have been killed in the course of the so-called war on drugs since he took office in June 2016. Apologists for the ‘war on drugs’ argue that the deaths are the result of resisting arrest, whilst others argue the killings are justified or the result of self-defence during police raids. Critics argue that the war on drugs operates on the basis of extrajudicial killing and amounts to no more that state sanctioned murder. Duterte’s response to his critics has been vociferous. When the EU called for restraint, he called them ‘sons of bitches’ and ‘crazies; when his policy was called into question by the United States Congress, he dismissed the US as lousy. He was similarly unfazed by threats to put him on trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. In Duterte’s world, you sacrifice your human rights when you become involved in drugs.

The Philippines as a society is extremely accepting of hierarchy; leaders expect and frequently get subservience. There is little or no ideological commitment amongst politicians, and for reasons of political expediency it is common to switch loyalties to whichever party finds itself in power. This happened after Duterte was elected, and as a result there is no effective opposition party in the country.

Duterte’s supporters claim he has a zero tolerance towards police violence.  However, Duterte himself has gone on record saying that he will protect police officers that kill people in the course of the war on drugs. He has also made it his business to silence arch critic Senator Leila de Lima, who currently languishes in prison on charges of drug trafficking. De Lima argues that her current predicament is due to her public criticism of Duterte’s ‘death squad approach’, a modus operandi he honed during his tenure as mayor of Davao City in Mindanao.

Duterte was initially accommodating of left wing sentiments, in terms of civil society activism at home and amongst the exiled Filipino community abroad. Yet, recently relations have soured. Rather than construct a credible opposition force, the Philippine left remains disjointed; both sides have been reduced to mud slinging in recent weeks. Meanwhile Duterte is very careful to keep the security services on side. This was evidenced by his declaration of unwavering support in his 2017 State of the Nation (SONA) address. No doubt Duterte is mindful that the Philippine military is politicised, not averse to coup attempts, and capable of aligning with the left in order to overthrow the government, as evidenced by EDSAs I and II.

Leadership Abroad

On the basis of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, Duterte chose to set aside a United Nations ruling stating that China had no legal basis for its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Duterte argued that there was no point in pursuing the issue with China as politics in the region were changing and no one could stand up to the Chinese anyway. Duterte is not scared of conflict, but he knows the underfunded and under resourced Philippine military cannot stand up to China alone.

Duterte’s relationship with the US continues to remain somewhat ambivalent. Duterte infamously called former US President Obama a ‘son of a whore’ when he questioned his human rights record, and stated that the Philippines had no need for foreign aid that came with conditions. Nevertheless, the Philippines quietly accepted US military support against ISIS linked militants in the besieged city of Marawi. Presidential relations also thawed after US President Donald Trump noted Duterte was doing ‘a great job’ in the war on drugs. Recently Duterte referred to himself as ‘a humble friend’ of the US to visiting US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. When Duterte assumed office he announced that he would pursue an independent foreign policy. Yet, in reality no country is autonomous in terms of foreign policy. All Duterte can do is hedge his bets against the other power players in the region – particularly the US and China.

Leadership: Context, Culture and Critique

Duterte’s leadership style is the result of the impunity he enjoyed during his years as mayor of Davao City. Duterte has openly admitted he was involved in killings whilst mayor, although his acolytes are usually left to backtrack on such statements. Frequently his comments have been dismissed as harmful exaggeration or jokes. Davao was consistently ranked as one of the safest cities in Asia. However, it also enjoyed the distinction of having one of the highest murder rates in the Philippines. Duterte’s iron fist approach is now in evidence across the islands, as crime rates are down but murder rates are up.

The Philippines as a society is extremely accepting of hierarchy; leaders expect and frequently get subservience. There is little or no ideological commitment amongst politicians, and for reasons of political expediency it is common to switch loyalties to whichever party finds itself in power. This happened after Duterte was elected, and as a result there is no effective opposition party in the country. The Philippines is also a collectivist society; loyalty is preferred to individualism and loyalty will be rewarded by care from the family or group. A negative reading of this would say that far from being a noble trait, loyalty is used to ensure obedience and is akin to emotional blackmail. At the national level, these traits play out as a lack of criticism to the father of the nation – Duterte.

Meanwhile, in the virtual world, an army of ‘cyber trolls’ are paid to shut down criticism of Duterte. Duterte derided a recent University of Oxford report which highlighted this phenomenon as coming from a ‘school for stupid people’. He admitted that trolls were used during the election campaign, but denied that they were still active. However, one only has to look at the comment trails on newspapers such as the Philippine Daily Inquirer and Twitter to see that trolls are still busy spreading rather unimaginative opprobrium. Critics of Duterte are most often derided as yellow (a reference to the Liberal party), foreign (and therefore not entitled to an opinion), stupid, or worse.

One of the most interesting questions about Duterte’s leadership is not why does he behave the way that he does; it is why the population of the Philippines accepts his behaviour? Perhaps it is the legacy of former subjugation; perhaps it is a reflection of increased individualism within Philippine society and a relatively content middle class; perhaps it is a lack of a meaningful alternative or all of the above. Until now Duterte has been riding high in the popularity stakes. Yet, even he is not infallible. Indeed, the recent slaying of high-school student Kian Loyd in a botched police raid has captured the indignation of the Filipino people, and galvanised a renewed resistance to Duterte’s bloody drug war. The real character of Duterte will surely be tested when his critics more effectively coalesce and the public mood shifts, as it surely will.

Pauline Eadie is an Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Her most recent edited book is The Evolution of Military Power in the West and Asia: Security Policy in the Post-Cold War Era (Routledge with Wyn Rees). She is currently primary investigator for a three year ESRC/DFID ‘Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research’ funded project entitled ‘Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda’. This project is run jointly with colleagues at The University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China and The University of the Philippines, Diliman. She tweets at @EadiePauline. Image Credit: CC/ Wikimedia Commons.


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