Philippine Politics Under Duterte: A Midterm Assessment (2023)


Within weeks of his inauguration as president of the Philippines in June 2016, Rodrigo R. Duterte became the most internationally known Filipino leader since Ferdinand Marcos, the country’s infamous dictator, and Corazon Aquino, the iconic housewife-turned-president who championed the restoration of democracy in 1986. A great deal of media attention has been paid to Duterte’s murderous war on drugs as well as to his often crass and controversial statements. His embrace of China and his visceral disdain for the United States has garnered additional attention in foreign policy circles, and he frequently is included in media reports and scholarly articles on the rise of populism globally.

David G. Timberman

David G. Timberman is an independent scholar and development practitioner who has addressed the challenges of democratic politics and governance in Southeast Asia for over thirty years.

Although the attention to Duterte and his brutal drug war is warranted, much less attention has been paid to his administration’s broader policy agenda, its approach to politics and governance, and its broader impact on democratic institutions and norms. As a candidate, Duterte promised that he would produce real and rapid improvements in the lives of Filipinos, particularly by aggressively addressing crime and corruption. Two and a half years into his presidency, it is both warranted and possible to assess what has and has not changed under Duterte. The picture is a mixed one, with elements of change, continuity, and regression.

The Duterte government’s track record regarding human rights and democracy is undoubtedly disturbing. It has run roughshod over human rights, its political opponents, and the country’s democratic institutions. The combination of the Philippines’ powerful presidency and the malleability of most of its political institutions is resulting in significant democratic backsliding. But to focus only on Duterte fails to appreciate two other important elements: the extent to which this degradation has happened through nominally legal means, and the limited pushback to date by groups and institutions opposed to strongman rule. This working paper takes an in-depth look at the complex dynamics contributing to democratic backsliding in the Philippines.

The Duterte administration’s assault on human rights and democracy also raises the question of what the U.S. government and America’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can and should do to defend democracy in America’s former colony. The analysis concludes with a discussion of America’s extremely limited support for human rights and democracy in the Philippines since Duterte became president and offers suggestions for a more robust response.


To begin to make sense of Duterte and his approach to politics and governing, it is necessary to understand three aspects of contemporary Philippine politics: the mixed record of elite democracy since 1986; the successes and shortcomings of the Benigno Aquino III administration (2010–2016); and the particularities of the 2016 presidential election.

The Mixed Record of Elite Democracy

Liberal democracy, a legacy of America’s colonization of the Philippines (which lasted from 1898 to 1946), has always struggled to become deeply rooted in the country. The reasons given for this include cultural factors (the power of familial and clientelistic ties); religious beliefs (Catholic fatalism); colonial legacies (America’s empowerment of a land-owning elite); socioeconomic conditions (persistent poverty and inequality); and institutional factors (a presidential system with winner-take-all elections). Between 1946 and 1972, democracy struggled under the weight of elite competition and avarice, flawed economic policymaking, poor governance, and armed insurgency. In 1972, then president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, and until 1986 democracy was dispensed with in favor of a dictatorship. For nearly fifteen years, the Philippines experienced unprecedented repression and corruption.

The return to democracy following the People Power Revolution in February 1986 restored many of the pre-martial-law era institutional features and political elites. Although it is generally accurate to view 1986 as a return to elite democracy, Philippine society, the state, and modes of political competition have changed since 1972. Still, even the most positive views of democracy in the Philippines since 1986 see it as a flawed work in progress; harsher critics see it as a sham and a failure. Commonly cited flaws include elections tainted by violence and vote buying, widespread rent-seeking and corruption, policies that have benefited elites and special interests at the expense of the poor majority, and a dysfunctional justice system.

However, since 1986 democracy has been institutionalized in many ways, and at times has worked fairly well. Liberal values were central to the nonviolent People Power Revolution and informed the drafting of the 1987 constitution. This resulted in constitutional guarantees of human rights; regular, competitive elections for local and national offices; a system of checks and balances; and a free (if flawed) media and robust civil society. The Philippine military remains somewhat politicized, but since 1992 it has been reluctant to directly intervene in politics. Beginning in 1986, substantial deregulation and privatization, as well as economic integration, set the stage for strong growth in the Philippines’ gross domestic product (GDP) over most of the past decade. But even observers who applaud the post-1986 reforms have questioned if they have been broad and deep enough to produce fundamental improvements in politics, governance, and the economy.

Presidents, Political Elites, and Oligarchs

From 1935, when the Philippines became a semiautonomous commonwealth, the behavior of presidents and other powerful political and economic elites has heavily influenced the quality of the country’s democratic politics and governance.1 The Philippines is a unitary state with a winner-take-all electoral system, a presidency that exercises huge power over budgets and appointments, and congenitally weak political parties. As a result, the president plays a central role in determining policy outcomes, as well as the norms and behavior that shape politics and governance.

The second important influence on democracy in the Philippines is the country’s remarkably resilient political and economic elite. The president is limited to a single six-year term, so the power and influence of individual presidents is transitory. By contrast, political and business families such as the Marcoses, Cojuangcos, Aquinos, and Ayalas—to name just a few—have had noteworthy longevity and adaptability.2 They exert a powerful influence over elections, legislation, policymaking, regulatory bodies, jurisprudence, and the distribution of government resources.

For decades, this elite has thwarted the development of a strong state by limiting the government’s fiscal base and co-opting, corrupting, or intimidating the bureaucracy. It has stunted and distorted the Philippine economy, preferring collusion and protection over economic competition, and has been slow and selective in opening the economy to foreign competition. Because elites dominate legislative and policymaking processes, successive governments have failed to adopt and implement socioeconomic policies that address the needs of the poor and middle class. With a Gini coefficient of 0.43, the Philippines has long been one of the most unequal societies in Asia, with one of the highest levels of poverty incidence among Asia’s developing economies. Even after more than a decade of relatively strong macroeconomic growth, the incidence of poverty decreased only a little, to 21.6percent in 2015.3

Today, by the World Bank’s metrics the Philippines is a lower-middle-income country with a per capita income of $3,600 and a consumption-driven economy that has been growing at about 6.5percent per year for most of the past decade, fueled by remittances and a growing business process outsourcing sector.4 As a result, the country’s sizable, predominantly urban, middle class now comprises 15 to 20percent of the population.5 In sum, over the past quarter century, the rich have become richer, the middle class has grown but remains insecure, and about one-quarter of the population remains poor.

The Aquino Government and Limits of Reformism

The “real change” promised by Rodrigo Duterte has obscured how much positive change occurred under the administration of Benigno Aquino III (2010–2016).6 Aquino’s promise to follow the “straight path” was an effort to both appropriate his mother’s (Corazon Aquino) perceived integrity and draw a sharp contrast with the pervasive corruption associated with the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001–2010).7 Notable successes of the Aquino government included passing reproductive health and “sin tax” reform laws, implementing twelve years of basic education, extending public finance reform, expanding fiscal space and social spending, and making an effort to provide greater autonomy to Muslims in Mindanao. GDP growth reached 6.5percent, and by virtually every measure the country’s international standing improved significantly. As a result, Aquino remained popular throughout most of his term.

To be sure, there also were significant shortcomings and mistakes. Macroeconomic growth was slow to reduce poverty, and the government was unable to rapidly improve infrastructure, especially in traffic-clogged Metro Manila. It did little to reform dysfunctional food and agriculture policies, and could have done more to strengthen anticorruption institutions and to pass a freedom of information law. In terms of governance, Aquino was widely seen as honest, but he sometimes valued loyalty over competence and occasionally seemed to lack the empathy that Filipinos expect from their political leaders. His administration also suffered from complacency (due to the president’s personal popularity), problems communicating its accomplishments, and its failure to make the Liberal Party a more coherent and durable political party. And when it came time to choose a successor, Aquino remained committed to supporting Manuel “Mar” Roxas, his secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG)—even though opinion polls consistently indicated that Roxas would not win.8

Duterte and the Promise of Real Change

On May 10, 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, then seventy-one years old, was elected president, winning 39percent of the vote in a five-way race. Charismatic, blunt, and frequently profane, Duterte combined a Dirty Harry persona with a track record as a successful mayor of Davao City, Mindanao’s largest city. Although Duterte might appear to be unsophisticated and crude, he is politically savvy and attuned to the attitudes and concerns of average Filipinos. He ran on his reputation as an effective, no-nonsense mayor of Davao who prioritized law and order over legal protections for alleged criminals. The overarching theme of Duterte’s campaign was that his strong leadership would produce rapid change. During his campaign, he heaped criticism on the Manila-based elite, vowed to undertake a nationwide assault on illegal drugs and criminality, and promised to change the government to a federal system. His victory over Mar Roxas, who placed a distant second, signaled that the promise of change was more compelling than continuity. Even though Duterte had been popular in Mindanao before he ran for president, his victory showed that his appeal spanned regions and socioeconomic classes. The 16.6million Filipinos who voted for him appeared to believe that he could deliver real change.

Duterte’s victory surprised many and shocked some. In the wake of his election, political analysts have grappled with what it says about contemporary Philippine politics. The reasons why he won are complex, suggesting that cautious and nuanced conclusions are warranted. First, the incumbent, Benigno Aquino—the embodiment of reformist elite democracy—could not run for a second term. If he had been able to run, it might have been a very different outcome.9 Second, the Philippine election law has no provision for run-offs, so there is no incentive to form coalition tickets. Had Mar Roxas and Senator Grace Poe, the two most like-minded candidates, joined forces, they might have been able to defeat Duterte. Third, Duterte ran a savvy and effective campaign. He announced his candidacy late, so the media had little time to scrutinize his record as mayor and his rivals had much less chance to attack him. His campaign mobilized large numbers of volunteers and used social media well. Fourth, all four of Duterte’s opponents had significant negatives. In contrast, Duterte, because of his personality and message, was an attention-grabbing and compelling candidate, who was able to tap into (and to some extent manipulate) middle class frustrations and “latent anxiety,” particularly about drugs and crime.10 Although the assertions of middle-class frustration seem valid for anyone who has lived in Metro Manila, Cebu, or the handful of other cities that are home to most of the Philippine middle class, the extent to which this sense of frustration and anxiety was national in scope is relatively less clear.

The Duterte Government’s Priorities and Policies

Upon assuming office on June 30, 2016, Duterte assembled an eclectic cabinet that included law school classmates, long-time associates from Davao, ex-military officers, business leaders, and representatives of the communist left. His diverse coalition came together through personal loyalty, regional affinity, and political opportunism. It included many political figures who had been sidelined during the Aquino administration, most notably former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and members of the Marcos, Estrada, and Villar families.

Now seventy-three years old, Duterte’s world view is heavily influenced by nationalist and leftist thought dating from the 1960s and 1970s, as well as by his twenty-two years of experience as mayor of Davao City. In Davao, he combined a hardline approach to law and order with socially progressive and pro-business policies. As mayor he was both a paternalistic patron and a fearsome boss whose orders had to be followed. As a result, he has little tolerance for scrutiny or challenges to this authority. He sees the country as beset by existential threats of drugs, crime, and corruption. As befits Philippine culture, his approach is highly personalistic: he presents himself as the only leader strong and decisive enough to save the nation. As for his frequently crude and threatening rhetoric, anthropologist Nicole Curato has called his approach “crass politics” that, though objectionable to many, communicates multiple messages:

Duterte may be offending the norms of respectful communication when he prefaces his remarks with “mother fucker,” but he brings to the surface the collective frustration many feel. He may not offer the clearest policy, but he puts forward the sincerest discourse of sympathy.... Duterte’s gutter language establishes the urgency of saving the republic. Including “kill” and “death” is essential to the president’s vocabulary for the country is at war, and his politics of “I will” demands quick, albeit painful, solutions.11

Key Concerns and Priorities

The Duterte government’s top priorities include combating illegal drugs and crime, promoting rapid infrastructure development, sustaining economic growth and making it more inclusive, enhancing peace and development in Mindanao, and reorienting the Philippines’ foreign relations. To support these goals, the government has significantly increased spending on infrastructure, raised the salaries of government employees, expanded existing social development programs, revived the stalled peace process with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), entered into negotiations with the communist insurgents, and established a closer relationship with China.

Space constraints do not permit a full discussion of the government’s domestic and foreign policies. Instead, the following sections discuss three policy areas that offer insights into the Duterte administration—economic policymaking, peace and development in Mindanao, and constitutional change—and discuss in greater detail the ongoing war on drugs.

Economic policies and performance. As a candidate, Duterte showed little interest in economic policy issues. To reassure nervous domestic and foreign businesses, his campaign developed a ten-point economic agenda that largely continued the Aquino government’s economic policies. Since taking office, Duterte’s two principal economic priorities have been to accelerate economic growth and make it more inclusive, and to significantly increase spending on much-needed infrastructure. Key features of the government’s approach to the economy include running a larger deficit, adopting a more statist approach to infrastructure development, and continuing increases in social spending.

In 2017, GDP growth was 6.7 percent, and it is projected to be about 6.5 percent in 2018. The government, under its “Build Build Build” program, has significantly increased spending on infrastructure and has ambitious plans to build new rail lines, a subway, highways, and bridges in the coming years.12 To finance spending on infrastructure and social services, the government has embarked on a multiphase tax reform program. The first package of reforms was signed into law in December 2017; the second and more controversial package is with Congress. Inflation has been increasing, averaging 4.8percent for January to August and reaching a nine-year high of 6.7percent in September and October.13 Higher oil and food prices, excise taxes associated with tax reform, and the weak peso have all fueled inflation.

Duterte and Mindanao. Duterte is the first president from the southern island of Mindanao, and his election was a significant political milestone for the Philippines. Home to about 25percent of the nation’s population, Mindanao is a promising but vexing mix of economic opportunity and underdevelopment, ethnic and religious diversity, and multiple forms of armed conflict. Under Duterte, progress on the political and security front has been mixed. This is in large measure due to the May 2017 occupation of Marawi City, in Lanao del Sur province, by Islamist extremists affiliated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State. It took five months of combat operations for the Philippine military to regain control over the extensively damaged city. In response to the Marawi crisis Duterte imposed island-wide martial law, which remains in effect. The rehabilitation of the city is expected to cost more than $1 billion.

But before Marawi exploded, the Duterte government had done little either to revive the stalled effort to pass legislation providing for greater Muslim autonomy or to adopt federalism, an approach that many in Mindanao consider important for the island’s future. The government had entered into a series of on-again, off-again talks with the communist insurgency, which still has a significant armed presence in eastern Mindanao. Currently, the process has stalled and appears unlikely to produce a breakthrough.

The most significant accomplishment pertaining to Mindanao was the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) in July 2018. The BOL translates into law many of the provisions included in the 2014 peace agreement between the Aquino government and the MILF. Under the BOL, a new political entity, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, would replace the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The BOL is an important step forward, but multiple challenges remain, including possible objections to its constitutionality, a forthcoming plebiscite scheduled for late January and early February 2019, and the actual establishment of the new autonomous entity.

The fading prospects for constitutional change. As a candidate, Duterte ran against the widely perceived political and economic dominance of “imperial Manila” and promised to change the Philippines into a federal state. This platform was not unprecedented: since 1992, there have been recurring initiatives for charter change (or “Cha-Cha,” in the colloquial expression), and all of them have failed. Duterte’s popularity and political dominance seemed to enhance the prospects for success this time. But during most of his first two years in office, he showed limited interest in this complex and contentious issue of federalism. He appointed a twenty-two-member Constitutional Commission, and received its proposed draft constitution in early July 2018. The commission suggested eighteen federated regions and kept the directly elected presidency. Cha-Cha is now in the hands of the Congress. If both houses agree to change the constitution, the revised charter will be subject to a national plebiscite.

Over the past year, opposition to both the substance and process of Cha-Cha has grown. Senators are elected in a nationwide constituency, so many of them see federalism as a threat to their political influence and ambitions. Others criticize the process for being tightly controlled and nonparticipatory. Several of Duterte’s own economic managers have raised concerns about the economic costs and uncertainties that would accompany such a fundamental change. A recent Pulse Asia survey indicated that most Filipinos have little knowledge of the 1987 constitution and 66percent are against changing it. The same survey also found that 69percent have little or no knowledge of federalism and only 28percent favored changing to a federal system.14

As of December 2018 it appears unlikely that Cha-Cha will happen before the May 2019 midterm elections. The outcome of these elections—and particularly, the future composition of the Senate—may determine whether Cha-Cha will be revived in the next legislative term.

The War on Drugs and Its Consequences for Politics and Governance

Duterte’s principal priority has been a highly punitive approach to illegal drug use, which he sees as an existential threat to the country’s social fabric. His nationwide war on drugs has applied the approach that he used in Davao City, giving the police free rein to deal with suspected drug users and pushers with little concern for legal niceties. It also has involved a lesser-noticed campaign against government officials allegedly complicit in the drug trade. This approach has resulted in the deaths of thousands of suspected drug users and pushers—mostly young males living in poor urban neighborhoods—at the hands of the police or unidentified assailants. The police claim that many of these deaths were the result of the suspects resisting arrest, but evidence from journalists and human rights groups shows that many were premeditated extra-judicial killings (EJKs).15 The number of EJKs is difficult to determine and disputed—in part because the government and Philippine National Police (PNP) intentionally obfuscate the data—but estimates range from 6,000 to 12,000 deaths.16

This loss of life is the most horrific and immediate consequence of the drug war. But the drug war itself is a sign that the Philippine government has abdicated its responsibility to protect human rights and respect the rule of law. EJKs violate both the Philippine Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which the Philippines is a signatory), particularly the provisions concerning the presumption of innocence and adherence to due process. Given the attention that human rights organizations and the media have paid to the drug war, it is worth looking more closely at the reasons for it and some of its broader consequences.17

Why is Duterte singularly focused on drugs and crime? It is not surprising that crime is a major problem in the Philippines, given its high level of poverty, underresourced and corruption-prone law enforcement agencies, and glacially slow judiciary. Criminal activities, in the form of smuggling, illegal gambling, drugs, trafficking in persons, and money laundering, are significant features of the Philippine political economy.18 Studies by International Alert suggest that the illicit economy in Mindanao plays an important role in sustaining the multiple conflicts across the island.19

Crime has been a political issue intermittently since the 1960s. Marcos pointed to criminality and lawlessness as a justification for martial law in 1972, and Joseph Estrada’s image as a crime fighter was an important aspect of his political appeal in the late 1990s.20 Crime also corrupts politics and undermines institutions. Politicians and the police have long participated in, protected, or otherwise benefited from criminal activity. The proceeds from these illegal activities have been an important source of financing for some politicians as well as for terrorist groups. At the community level, drug use and drug-related crimes have long been recognized as serious social problems. By the late 1990s, the importation (primarily from China), local production, and use of methamphetamine hydrochloride (known as shabu in the Philippines) was a major issue for law enforcement and the courts.21 In public opinion surveys prior to 2016, crime usually came just behind unemployment and food prices in the list of people’s main concerns. Survey data also showed a complex trend during the Aquino administration: fewer people were victims of crime, but more were worried about encountering drug addicts. Under Duterte, the official estimates of drug use have increased significantly—suggesting that they were either understated before or are being overstated now.22

Since the early 2000s, there has been a growing awareness of the problem of narco-politics, mostly involving mayors and other local officials thought to be complicit in the drug trade.23 However, it would be an exaggeration to assert that the Philippines is becoming a narco-state, where state institutions have been penetrated by the power and wealth of drug lords and the economy depends heavily on the production or distribution of illegal drugs. Nevertheless, Duterte sees it differently. Although he was not the first presidential candidate to run against drugs and crime, he was the first to frame drugs as an existential threat and to be explicit about the brutal approach he would use to solve the problem.

Why has Duterte made illegal drugs his signature issue? In addition to viewing drugs as a cancer on society, there is an ugly political logic. Combating drugs and crime was central to his reputation as an effective mayor of Davao City. Moreover, public acceptance of the Davao Death Squad, a shadowy group that specifically targeted suspected drug dealers, petty criminals, and homeless youth, showed the low cost and high returns of mounting an extra-legal war on drugs and crime.24 As president, Duterte’s nationwide war on drugs continues to play well across most socioeconomic segments of society, particularly as long as the principal victims are the urban poor.

The drug war also offers a potent and useful political narrative in which Duterte alone possesses the moral authority to rescue the country from the dangers posed by drug pushers and other criminals. As Peter Kreuzer, a German researcher, has observed:

Duterte not only successfully established crime as the most pressing problem, but also made the unconditional fight against this threat into a hallmark of a comprehensive “we” group. Given the assumed absoluteness of the evil to be combated, any criticism of the president has been silenced. Detractors are suspected of being supporters of the criminal threat to society, and any reference to due process can be ignored.25

This narrative of drugs as an existential threat has been used to justify imprisoning opposition Senator Leila de Lima (a prominent critic of Duterte’s drug war), to exercise control over local officials, and to frame the motivation of the Islamic extremists who took over Marawi City26

Public attitudes about the war on drugs. Most Filipinos believe that Duterte’s war on alleged drug users and pushers is a draconian but necessary response to a serious social problem. Survey data have shown strong but softening support for it: in December 2016, 85percent of those surveyed voiced satisfaction, though by June 2018, only 78percent were satisfied.27 At the same time, almost three out of four Filipinos (73 percent) believe that EJKs happen, almost as many are concerned that they might be a victim of an EJK, and a large majority think that it is important for the police to capture suspects alive.28

Why is there such strong public support for the drug war? One explanation offered is that it reflects widespread disillusionment with the Philippine justice system. Certainly, rich and powerful Filipinos enjoy near-total impunity while many poor and middle-class Filipinos see the system’s high costs, delays, partiality, and corruption. However, the degree of alienation should not be overstated: few Filipinos ever go to court, and surveys indicate that the judiciary and the police both enjoy moderately high approval ratings.

A second explanation is that Duterte has successfully dehumanized suspected drug pushers and users and turned them into a threatening “other” to be eradicated by any means available. As such, they do not deserve legal protections, rehabilitation, or empathy. This view might erode if the war on drugs expanded to target alleged drug users in the middle and upper classes.

A third explanation is that the drug war, despite its excesses, is seen as a welcome example of government responsiveness. It is rare for multiple government authorities—including the PNP, national government agencies, and local government officials—to work together to address pressing social issues. This whole-of-government approach appears to have produced results. According to the PNP, the national crime rate (excluding murders) has declined more than 20percent over the past two years, and surveys suggest that Filipinos feel more secure. In a June 2018 Pulse Asia survey, 69percent said that the Duterte administration’s efforts to eradicate the drugs is his most important accomplishment, with the fight against criminality ranking second.29

The drug war’s impact on the Philippine National Police. The PNP is the government institution most deeply involved in implementing the drug war—known locally as Oplan Double Barrel or Oplan Tokhang—and therefore most directly affected by it.30 The involvement of PNP elements in EJKs is well documented and beyond dispute.31 Some broader consequences of the PNP’s involvement are worth examining in greater detail.

Although largely overlooked by most analyses, the PNP, and its predecessor the Philippine Constabulary, have long been at the nexus of politics, crime, and the rule of law. As historian Alfred McCoy has shown, Philippine presidents and local officials have used the police as an essential tool to assert their authority, bolster their legitimacy, selectively fight crime, and control dissent.32 As the principal law enforcement agency, the PNP has a long history of being vulnerable to corruption, particularly in the highly lucrative areas of illegal gambling, drugs, and smuggling. Some of this corruption stems from individual greed, but it also is the product of low salaries, the complicity of politicians, and the multifaceted shortcomings of the justice system.

As mayor of a city that at times was wracked by political and criminal violence, Duterte considered the police to be a central pillar of his government. He established close relationships with many in the police and gained an intimate understanding of how the police operate. Thus, it is not surprising that Duterte and the PNP have a symbiotic relationship.

In the context of Duterte’s drug war, individual police officers face difficult choices. Journalist Sheila Coronel describes the complex considerations that influence police behavior today:

Policemen weigh the continually shifting balance of incentives and risks as they seek to deter crime, advance their careers, please their political patrons, and make money, while also evading exposure and prosecution. Yet in the end, these policemen often also believe they are upholding order and helping keep the peace. They are specialists in violence—practitioners in the skills of lethal force—who improvise often morally and legally questionable workarounds to the constraints of a broken justice system.33

The longer-term consequences for law enforcement from the war on drugs may be highly damaging. The Brookings Institution’s Vanda Felbab-Brown has warned about its potentially corrupting influence:

Inducing police to engage in de facto shoot-to-kill policies is enormously corrosive of law enforcement, not to mention the rule of law. There is a high chance that the policy will more than ever institutionalize top-level corruption, as only powerful drug traffickers will be able to bribe their way into upper-levels of the Philippine law enforcement system.... Moreover, corrupt top-level cops and government officials tasked with such witch-hunts will have the perfect opportunity to direct law enforcement against their drug business rivals as well as political enemies, and themselves become the top drug capos.34

Moreover, assuming that eventually there will be a president who no longer sanctions EJKs by the police, the seeds have been planted for a potentially divisive and dangerous debate over how to handle human rights abuses that the PNP carried out during the Duterte era.

Other collateral damage. Duterte’s war on drugs has had less dramatic but significant consequences for other aspects of governance in the Philippines, including the justice system, public health, and local governance.

Impact on the justice system. The war on drugs has further stressed the Philippines’ overburdened justice system. The volume of cases to be investigated, prosecuted, and tried, as well as the number of alleged offenders awaiting trial in detention facilities, has increased dramatically. A comprehensive picture of the impact on the justice system is beyond the scope of this working paper, but some of the available data point to these burdens. In 2016, there were 28,000 drug arrests—a 44percent increase over 2015—and more than 47,300 drug-related cases were filed.35 During the first 10 months of 2017, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency conducted 34,744 drug enforcement operations, with 66,672 arrests.36 In 2017, about 70,700 drug-related cases were filed in court, and about 21,400 were reviewed.37 According to the Supreme Court, as of 2017 more than 289,000 drug cases had been filed in the country’s lower courts.38

As a result, drug suspects and convicts are crammed into the Philippines’ already packed jails and prisons. According to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Corrections, in 2017 the national prison system held 41,500 inmates, more than double its capacity. Data from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, which oversees provincial and municipal jails, show an even more disturbing situation. As of May 2018, there were over 141,000 detainees—of which about 70percent were drug-related cases—held in jails that were 582percent overcapacity.39

Ultimately, the legal dimensions of the war on drugs will test not only the capacity of the justice system, but also the jurisprudence, values, and autonomy of the Philippine judiciary. In November 2018, a Regional Trial Court issued the first legal judgment against the PNP, finding three policemen guilty of murdering Kian Delos Santos, a seventeen-year-old the policemen claimed was a drug runner who resisted arrest. Currently, there is one case before the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the PNP’s official plan for eradicating illegal drugs.

Impact on public health. The government’s punitive approach to reducing drug use also has important consequences for public health. It has overwhelmed the country’s paltry rehabilitation capacity and is having a negative effect on drug-linked diseases. As of mid-2017, the Philippines had only forty-eight drug rehabilitation facilities and only about fifty medical personnel trained in addiction medicine.40 According to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, close to 990,000 “drug personalities” voluntarily surrendered in 2016, and by May 2017 that number had grown to 1.2million people.

The war on drugs has had predictable negative effects on drug-related public health problems. According to Vanda Felbab-Brown:

[A] crucial goal of drug policy should be to enhance public health and limit the spread of diseases linked to drug use. The worst possible policy is to push addicts into the shadows, ostracize them, and increase the chance of overdoses as well as a rapid spread of HIV/AIDS, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and hepatitis. In prisons, users will not get adequate treatment for either their addiction or their communicable disease.... Even prior to the [sic] Duterte’s brutal war on drugs, the rate of HIV infections in the Philippines has been soaring due to inadequate awareness and failure to support safe sex practices.... Duterte’s war on drugs will only intensify these worrisome trends among drug users.41

Impact on local politics and government. Duterte’s almost singular focus on the drug war has far-reaching consequences for the country’s local politics and governance. In many respects, subnational government in the Philippines is highly decentralized, but most local government units (LGUs) are dependent upon central government funding and grapple with the challenge of unfunded mandates. LGUs are key actors in the drug war, and local officials need to juggle multiple and sometimes conflicting priorities, including protecting their citizens, cooperating with local law enforcement, and demonstrating results to central authorities. And as reported by Rappler, a respected Philippine news website, the drug war has caused a major shift in LGU priorities:

At the local level, the drug war has changed the way barangays [the smallest LGUs] spend their funds.... Traditional social services such as medical clinics or feeding programs for malnourished children are no longer budget priorities. Through a number of policy incentives as well as strict supervision by the DILG, the priority at the barangay level has now become the monitoring and surveillance of drug suspects and the rehabilitation of drug users who have surrendered.42

There also is a darker dimension to the drug war at the local level. Peter Kreuzer notes the pressure and intimidation experienced by local officials:

It has become highly problematic for local political elites to evade the president’s injunction to participate in the anti-crime killing spree that is engulfing the Philippines.... The various reshuffles are placing more hard-line police officers in command positions. Furthermore, these officers are well aware that results measured in dead bodies are expected of them. In addition, police officers and politicians alike have been publicly denounced as supporting and profiting from drug crimes and thus threatened not only with being indicted, but also with becoming victims of extrajudicial executions themselves. Most officials then choose to fall in line with the president.43

Duterte’s Subversion of Democratic Institutions and Norms

The Duterte government’s approach to eradicating illegal drugs, besides being inhumane and misguided, has negative consequences for the rule of law, governance, and politics. But that is not the full extent of the damage being done to the Philippine polity. This section provides an assessment of the Duterte government’s impact on democratic institutions and norms.

Just Hardball Politics as Usual?

Some observers of Philippine politics might argue that Duterte is only the most recent example of presidents who exercise fully the levers of executive power to advance their political and policy agendas. In this light, he is perpetuating and perhaps perfecting the hardball politics that every president has practiced since 1986. To be sure, Duterte’s predecessors all used a mix of persuasion and inducements to advance their agenda, and no president has been above using intimidation and subterfuge to get their way at times. Therefore, the “politics as usual” view has some superficial validity. But a deeper assessment shows that the Duterte presidency is qualitatively different from its post-Marcos predecessors because of its willingness to intimidate the opposition, weaken institutional checks, and discard democratic norms.

The Duterte presidency is fundamentally different from post-1986 administrations in its unrelenting use of intimidation to weaken any challenges to its authority. Duterte’s brutal drug war sends a powerful message regarding his willingness to use extra-legal means, including EJKs, to achieve his goals. Unlike previous administrations, Duterte and his supporters routinely use lawsuits, incarceration, and social media trolling to intimidate opponents and critics. As sociologist Randy David has observed:

Compared to Ferdinand Marcos, Mr. Duterte has performed the art of intimidation with consummate skill. Without warning, he calls out the name of his prey, denouncing him or her in the strongest possible terms, and publicly announces that he or she, or they, are in his line of fire.... The public has learned to take these instances of public vilification of targeted figures as part of the Duterte style of rule. People know these are not empty threats. Indeed, the public takes them as synonymous with the President’s exercise of political will.44

In some cases, Duterte’s threats may simply reflect his impetuous personality and desire to dominate media coverage. However, his statements and actions also send the message that no one is safe from his attacks and that opposing him is a high-risk venture.

Disabling Democratic Checks and Balances

As a former mayor, Duterte is used to governing by decree and by dint of his personality, popularity, and unrivaled authority. In Davao City, he had no strong political opposition, significant institutional checks, or close media scrutiny. Peter Kreuzer, writing in 2009 (when Duterte was mayor), presciently observed:

Duterte makes abundantly clear that there can be security, but only he himself can provide it. Security is provided according to his personal ideas of justice and adequateness. In his political symbolism, Duterte clearly is above the law. It is him, who indicts, passes judgment and orders the executioners to do their job. It is a personalized fight between those who do not follow the rules and the rightful vigilante whose rules reign supreme.45

As president, Duterte has repeatedly expressed his disdain for those who oppose his policies, and has taken numerous steps to silence his critics and weaken institutional checks:

  • Led by Solicitor General Jose Calida, the government has weaponized the legal system to attack political opponents. This began in early 2017 when opposition Senator Leila de Lima was imprisoned on nonbailable drug-related charges.46 Groups allied with Duterte, as well as some leftist organizations, have filed multiple lawsuits against former president Aquino and former budget secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad, a longtime leader of the Liberal Party. Most recently, in September 2018 the government arrested Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, a vocal critic of Duterte. The government claimed that a presidential pardon granted to Trillanes by Benigno Aquino in 2011 was invalid, therefore making Trillanes ineligible to serve as senator.47
  • Duterte has repeatedly disparaged or threatened the leaders of key accountability institutions like the chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the chairwoman of the Office of the Ombudsman. Followers of Duterte threatened to seek the impeachment of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, but her term ended in July 2018. Most disturbingly, in March 2018 Solicitor General Calida filed a quo warranto petition against then chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, and in May 2018, the Supreme Court—which currently is dominated by Macapagal Arroyo appointees and in time will be dominated by Duterte appointees—took the unprecedented and arguably unconstitutional step of removing its own chief justice.48
  • The government has threatened the mainstream media with lawsuits and nonrenewal of franchises.49 These threats have been directed at media owners like the Rufino-Prieto family, which owns the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and the Lopez family, which owns ABS-CBN, the country’s largest TV network. In January 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission revoked the operating license of the highly respected news website Rappler, alleging that it has foreign owners and therefore is in violation of the constitution. In November, the Department of Justice said that it had grounds to indict both Rappler and its founder Maria Ressa for tax evasion and failure to file tax returns.50 Meanwhile, on social media, critics of the government are routinely harassed and threatened.
  • Finally, Duterte has periodically raised the specter of declaring martial law nationwide or forming a revolutionary government that would no longer be bound by the constitution. Declaring martial law would be constitutional, at least initially, but would be extremely polarizing politically. However, declaring a revolutionary government would be an extra-constitutional act. It seems likely that these statements are intended as trial balloons to gauge public and elite reactions.

The Prospects for Pushback: Political and Institutional Checks on Duterte

President Duterte’s continued popularity is not surprising. His base of support is rooted in his persona, his tough approach to fighting drugs and crime, his proto-populist policies, and the Philippines’ continuing economic growth. Moreover, Duterte and his supporters have demonstrated an impressive ability to put their opponents on the defensive. They portray individuals and groups associated with the Aquino administration as incompetent or corrupt elitists. They accuse defenders of human rights of protecting drug peddlers and criminals. They charge the mainstream media with being partisan and disseminating “fake news.” What then, are the existing and potential checks on Duterte?

Countervailing Institutions and Actors

A brief scan of the political landscape suggests that most institutions and actors that can serve as checks on Duterte are weak, divided, or under attack.

  • Provisions in the 1987 Constitution place checks on the duration of martial law and the powers than can be exercised under it. Today, the powers granted to the president and the military during martial law are limited in ways that did not exist when Ferdinand Marcos used martial law as the foundation for his dictatorship. However, it is still possible that the constitution will be rewritten, which could include expanding the scope for declaring martial law and increasing the powers exercised under it.
  • Since 1986 the jurisprudence of the fifteen-member Supreme Court has been eclectic, defying simple characterization. Based on its decisions over the past two years, it is clear that the court does not see itself as a bulwark against Duterte’s exercise of presidential power. Moreover, the court’s autonomy and integrity have been seriously compromised by the unprecedented removal of Sereno from chief justice at the behest of Duterte’s solicitor general.
  • The Commission on Human Rights has limited authority and a small staff and budget. Without the cooperation of the PNP and government prosecutors, its impact has been further diminished. The dramatic increase in EJKs has highlighted the relative powerlessness of the commission, as well as the divisions and weaknesses that characterize human rights NGOs in the Philippines.
  • The mainstream political opposition is weak and on the defensive. This is the predictable consequence of the power of the presidency, Duterte’s popularity, and the chronic weakness of political parties. The Liberal Party has been decimated by defections, and its leadership (and other members of the Aquino coalition) have struggled to craft a counternarrative and strategy. Aquino has been largely silent, and until recently the putative leader of the opposition, Vice President Leonor “Leni” Robredo, has kept an intentionally low profile.
  • The national democratic left has been divided by Duterte’s policies. Since 1986, the “Natdem” left—the legal political parties and mass organizations associated with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)—has enjoyed a relatively small but well-organized following. But it also suffers from factionalism and antiquated leadership and doctrine. Its unity has been weakened by the contradictions inherent in Duterte’s policies. To woo over this section of the opposition, Duterte invited members of the left into his cabinet, entered into peace talks with the CPP and its armed wing, New People’s Army (NPA), and has been vociferously anti-American. At the same time, other policies of his are anathema to the left: the human rights abuses associated with the drug war, his empowering of the PNP and the armed forces, his threats to declare martial law, and his decision to break off peace talks. As a result, the left has been slow to unify in opposition to Duterte.
  • The Catholic Church is an influential voice in Philippine society and politics, but it is not monolithic and its views do not always prevail. Initially, Catholic bishops were divided over Duterte and how to engage him, especially because of his popularity and the public’s support for the drug war. But over time, their cautious response to EJKs has become more critical.51 Duterte has openly disparaged the church, calling it corrupt and hypocritical, and at one point ranted about God being “stupid.”
  • Civil society organizations (CSOs) and coalitions in the Philippines can play an important political role through their policy advocacy, efforts to make government more transparent and accountable, and ability to mobilize protests. However, the political impact of civil society is reduced by partisan and ideological differences, the narrow focus of most CSOs, and inadequate financial and human resources. Many of the CSOs that worked closely with the Aquino government are now suspect and on the defensive. Yet major universities, especially those in Manila, remain important centers for critical analysis and debate.
  • Philippine and foreign businesses were reassured by the Duterte government’s ten-point economic plan, which promised considerable continuity, as well as the appointment of Davao-based businessman Carlos “Sonny” Dominguez as finance secretary. Most businesses support the increased government spending on infrastructure, but reactions to Duterte’s tax reforms have been more mixed. Businesses also have differing views on China’s growing economic role and the desirability of federalism. Given the power of the presidency, the business community tends to be reluctant to criticize a sitting president. However, this could change if businesses feel that they are being hurt by poor macroeconomic management or excessive cronyism or corruption.

It is important to note that there is a typical arc of presidencies, which begins with high approval ratings, strong congressional support, and minimal opposition. Following the midterm elections, the power of the president often begins to diminish as political and business elites position themselves for the next presidential election.

The Potentially Pivotal Role of the Armed Forces

The senior leadership of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has a tradition of generally respecting civilian primacy, but the AFP nonetheless influences politics and policymaking in a variety of important ways. First, if there is a leadership crisis, like there was in January 2001, following the aborted impeachment trial of then president Joseph Estrada, and the AFP chooses to withdraw its support from the sitting president, it virtually guarantees the end of that presidency. Second, the AFP’s longtime efforts to combat domestic armed insurgencies make it an influential actor in Mindanao and other conflict-affected areas. Under Duterte, the role of the AFP in Mindanao has been elevated further with the imposition of island-wide martial law. Third, the AFP has a strong say in determining national security policy. Over the past decade, the focus of the AFP’s mission has shifted from internal security to a growing concern with external threats, particularly from China. Finally, because of the AFP’s long-standing ties to the U.S. military, the AFP is an important stakeholder in the Philippines’ bilateral relationship with the United States.

In recent years, the AFP appears to have become more professional and less political, but all presidents still cultivate the support of the AFP leadership. Duterte has appointed numerous former officers to senior civilian positions in his government. He knows a number of them from when he was mayor, and he appears to believe that military officers will be more effective administrators and less prone to corruption than civilians. He also wants to bolster support within the military for his national security policies, including negotiating with the communists and embracing China. He has courted rank-and-file soldiers and police, visiting many military bases and raising salaries.

To date, Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana and the AFP leadership have shown they understand the constitutionally mandated role of the military and are committed to military professionalism. The AFP has avoided being drawn into the antidrug campaign, and to date the army appears to have administered martial law in Mindanao with competence and restraint. However, given mandatory retirement ages, the senior leadership of the AFP changes fairly rapidly. Therefore, routine leadership changes could bring to the fore senior officers who are more political.

A final potentially important issue is the uncertain extent to which members of the AFP agree with the Duterte administration’s approach to addressing the country’s national security challenges. Some members of the military may likely object to his pivot to China, his willingness to negotiate with communist insurgents, and his fixation on the drug war. Other military officials may also feel that the AFP’s domestic role has become unacceptably overextended by the Marawi crisis in 2017, the administration of martial law across Mindanao, and the continuing threat of Islamist extremism.

The Importance of Public Opinion

Public opinion in the Philippines is frequently measured by credible survey firms and closely monitored by all politicians. As a result, public support for the president is an important factor in perceptions of presidential power. Duterte has remained popular because he entered office with an energized base of support and because elements of his persona and policies appeal across socioeconomic classes. What might cause public support for Duterte to soften?

  • Duterte promised real change within a matter of months. Although most Filipinos probably knew that his timeframe was unrealistic, he is now well into the third year of his administration and there has been little or no change on many fronts. The economy continues to grow, but the benefits of growth have not been quickly or widely shared. Likewise, it will be years before the benefits of the government’s infrastructure program will be widely experienced.52 Meanwhile, the push for federalism has been erratic and appears to have stalled. Scholar Nicole Curato suggests that support for Duterte is “conditional not fanatical.” According to her, “He may be able to get away with murders, but not with broken promises.”53
  • Deteriorating economic conditions. The Philippine economy is likely to continue to grow at around 6.5percent for the foreseeable future. But as has been the case in the past, strong GDP growth does not necessarily result in rapid improvements in the incomes of poor Filipinos. Instead, inflation—which currently is at a nine-year high—has an immediate and tangible impact on consumers, especially the poor and retirees. In addition to the spike in inflation, the depreciation of the peso and the uncertainties associated with a change to a federal system pose risks to the economy’s performance.
  • Corruption begins to undermine Duterte’s moral authority. Every presidency is tainted by corruption to a greater or lesser degree. There is little evidence that Duterte enriched himself while he was mayor of Davao City, and as president he has dismissed—though not necessarily punished—members of his administration suspected of corruption. But his push to rapidly increase spending on infrastructure, combined with the weakening of accountability mechanisms, almost guarantees more corruption and malfeasance in government. As Joel Rocamora has observed: “People turned against Erap [Joseph Estrada] not because of his performance as president, but because they changed their judgment of the man. Judgment shifted from the rational to the moral sphere.”54
  • Unease with becoming “another province of China.” The rapidity, degree and tone of Duterte’s embrace of China—and commensurate distancing from the United States—are not without political risks. Many Filipinos have some Chinese blood, so there is not the same level of sensitivity about ethnic Chinese domination of the economy as is found in Indonesia and Malaysia. However, some Filipinos have less-than-positive views of Chinese nationals residing in the Philippines because they are seen as being associated with the drug trade, gambling, and illegal mining.55 Surveys indicate that Filipinos have a high level of trust in the United States and a low level of trust in China, and four of five Filipinos believe that it is “not right” to accede to China in the South China Sea.56
  • The emergence of an appealing alternative. To date, the opposition to Duterte lacks a leader (or group of leaders) who offers a compelling alternative to the president and his policies. The government’s targeted assault on opposition leaders, including the arrests of Senators de Lima and Trillanes, is partly to blame, but the opposition’s weakness also stems from its limited pool of potential leaders. After maintaining a low profile for most of the past two years, Vice President Leni Robredo has become more vocal in her criticisms. Besides Vice President Robredo, other potential challengers include those whom Duterte has attacked: Senators de Lima and Trillanes and former chief justice Sereno. Moreover, former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was elevated to speaker of the house in July 2018, also may be positioning herself as a possible successor to Duterte.

Is Duterte a Populist? And Does It Matter?

In recent years, “populist” has become a convenient adjective to describe a growing number of political leaders, including Duterte. But as a term intended to categorize a particular approach to politics and governing, populism is frustratingly expansive. Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser describe populism as a “thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonist camps, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite.’”57 To this can be added Jan-Werner Muller’s observation that, “In addition to being anti-elitist, populists are always anti-pluralist.... When running for office, populists portray their political competitors as part of the immoral, corrupt elite; when ruling, they refuse to recognize any opposition as legitimate.” Muller also notes that populists in power tend to frame their rule as a response to a crisis or an existential threat.58 Finally, Steven Levitsky and James Loxton point to two additional traits of populist leaders: they claim to be political outsiders and they establish a personalistic linkage to voters.59

Using these criteria, Duterte certainly has some populist traits. His Mindanaowan roots, crass language, and brusque behavior set him apart from most of the national political elite. In his campaign, he ran as a Manila outsider, and portrayed the members of the elite associated with the Aquino government as incompetent and corrupt. As president, he has framed the problems of drugs and crime as an existential national crisis and portrayed drug users as a dehumanized “other.” His efforts to intimidate political opponents and critics clearly are anti-pluralist.

However, other aspects of Duterte’s politics do not comport with populism. Although he portrays himself as a political outsider, he is from a prominent political family and served as mayor of a major city for twenty-two years. Even as he criticizes some members of the political and business elite, in practice he has allied himself with powerful members of the political establishment—most notably Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the Marcos, Estrada, and Villar families. And while Duterte is more antagonistic toward powerful taipans and conglomerates than Benigno Aquino was, he appears more interested in ensuring that they support him than in reducing the concentration of economic power.

Duterte has increased spending for social programs and some of the government’s policies, such as higher salaries for government employees, free irrigation, and tertiary public education, can be viewed as populist. But to date his core fiscal and macroeconomic policies are more neoliberal than populist. However, if Duterte’s popularity declines, there is a risk that his government will adopt economic policies that are more statist and populist.

Finally, to date Duterte has not created a mass movement or highly personalistic political party typically associated with populist leaders. According to Joel Rocamora, “Digong [Duterte] may bring the popular medjo bastos (rudeness) into political discourse, but he does not bring citizens into formal processes of political participation. In contrast to populists who mobilize people, Digong like Estrada is a demobilising populist.”60 Reflecting this perspective, as well as the more general challenge of building political organizations in the Philippines, efforts to create a pro-Duterte grassroots movement, Kilusang Pagbabago (Movement for Change), appear to have faltered. In its stead, Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, has established Hugpong ng Pagbabago (Faction for Change), a Mindanao-based political party widely viewed as her vehicle for entering national politics. The putative failure of the former and the creation of the latter demonstrate the continued dominance of traditional dynastic politics.

In sum, describing Duterte as a populist provides a convenient but not entirely accurate label to characterize a complex, somewhat contradictory politician with a disparate policy agenda. Still, the growing literature on populist leaders generally depicts them as being toxic to liberal democracy, so the Duterte-as-populist narrative provides a valid but limited frame for viewing his impact on democracy.

Democratic Backsliding: How Far, How Fast?

With the challenges currently facing liberal democracy in the United States and elsewhere, the concept of democratic backsliding has taken on new saliency. According to Nancy Bermeo, backsliding, in its broadest sense, is “state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain existing democracy” (emphasis added).61 A 2015 study on democratic backsliding, written by Ellen Lust and David Waldner for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), suggests that backsliding is best conceived as

a change in a combination of competitive electoral procedures, civil and political liberties, and accountability, and that backsliding occurs through a series of discrete changes in the rules and informal procedures that shape those elections, rights and accountability. These discrete changes take place over time, separated by months or even years, and the end result is not predetermined: backsliding may result in democratic breakdown, or it may not, and can occur within both democratic and authoritarian regimes.62

The term “backsliding” is particularly appropriate for low-quality democracies like the Philippines, where concerted and sustained efforts are required to improve the quality of democracy. Absent that, backsliding is inevitable. How serious is the problem of democratic backsliding in the Philippines, and is the country on the way to democratic breakdown? In answering these questions, it is important to start by recognizing the sources of democratic resiliency in the Philippines.

Democratic resiliencies. Elite democracy was practiced before martial law was declared in 1972 and after the restoration of democracy in 1986. It often was not pretty, and it failed in a number of important ways. But many Filipinos take pride in people power, and norms of constitutionalism, political competition, free speech and media, and autonomous civil society have fairly deep roots. A variety of influential institutions, including the Catholic Church, many schools and universities, and most of the media, embrace and promote democratic norms. Moreover, the alternative to democracy—authoritarianism—is not an abstraction, at least to older Filipinos who experienced the Marcos dictatorship.

Broad support for democracy among Filipinos has been consistently borne out in surveys. A 2018 Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey showed that 78percent were satisfied with how democracy works and 60percent always preferred democracy.63 Surveys also consistently show a high degree of satisfaction with the country’s democratic institutions, including the Senate, House of Representatives, and Supreme Court. So while Filipinos tend to be fairly cynical about the motivations and integrity of politicians and government officials, they are used to enjoying political freedoms, lively political debates, and competitive elections.

Vulnerabilities. At the same time, multiple conditions in the Philippines make it vulnerable to democratic backsliding.

  • Socioeconomic conditions. Inequality, the uneven distribution of benefits from economic growth, and an apparent sense of middle-class insecurity and vulnerability may make the poor and middle class receptive to promises of simplistic quick fixes.
  • Presidentialism and weak institutions. The combination of a powerful presidency and generally weak and malleable political institutions gives the president wide latitude. If a president does not respect democratic institutions and norms, many other political actors will follow suit.
  • The weakness of collective action. This applies particularly to political parties and civil society organizations. In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt underscore the important role that political parties historically have played in containing extremist demagogues. But in the Philippines, parties are abysmally weak, and to date have been unable to provide compelling alternative leaders or narratives. Although the Philippines boasts a robust civil society, as of yet it has not been an effective counterforce to Duterte.
  • Generational change. Most Filipinos under the age of forty-five did not directly experience either the abuses of the Marcos era or the nonviolent People Power Revolution that forced him from office in 1986. Moreover, because school curricula have glossed over the period and the younger members of the Marcos family (particularly his children) have been able to revamp his image, public understanding of the severe damage done by the Marcos dictatorship has been diminished.64 As a result, younger Filipinos know only the freedoms and disappointments of thirty years of elite democracy. This may make them less protective of the democratic freedoms that were lost during the Marcos era.

Death by a thousand cuts? In How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt describe the incremental demise of democracy:

Many government efforts to subvert democracy are “legal,” in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts.... Because there is no single moment—no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution—in which the regime obviously “crosses the line” into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells. Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.65

This observation is highly relevant for the Philippines under Duterte. Two and a half years into his presidency—with the very important exception of EJKs—his government still operates largely within the bounds of the constitution. He has not muzzled the media, outlawed the political opposition, or canceled elections. Despite his threats, he has not declared nationwide martial law or created a revolutionary government. Nevertheless, the extent to which he has used the powers of the presidency to run roughshod over human rights and weaken democratic checks and balances is unprecedented.

Levitsky and Ziblatt also observe that “without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be.” In particular, they point to the importance of two norms: (1) mutual toleration, the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and (2) forbearance, the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.66 Duterte’s actions clearly violate both of these norms. To be sure, they have been frequently disregarded in the past, but under Duterte any pretense of honoring them has disappeared. As Lisandro Claudio and Patricio Abinales have noted, “Duterte is the first Philippine president to not render even the minimum obeisance to liberal democratic politics.”67

Bermeo points to the challenge of responding to gradual or incremental backsliding: “Slow slides toward authoritarianism often lack both the bright spark that ignites an effective call to action and the opposition and movement leaders who can voice that clarion.” To date, Duterte hasn’t triggered “the bright spark,” and the opposition to him has yet to generate compelling new leaders or political movements.

But even where there is backsliding, there may be grounds for optimism that it can be reversed. As Bermeo notes:

Incremental and ambiguous change preserves mixed landscapes wherein one set of institutions or ideas can correct others. As long as some electoral competition takes place, power can be clawed back. When civil society is allowed some space, countermobilization can occur. Because backsliding reflects incentive structures, changed incentives can reverse negative trends.68

The election-driven overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, as well as the electoral defeats of then president Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka in January 2015 and then prime minister Najib Razak in Malaysia in June 2018, give at least some credence to Bormeo’s cautious hopefulness.

Summing Up: A Mixed Record Delivering Change and an Uncertain Future

Thus far, how much real change has Duterte’s presidency produced? And what does this suggest for the future? To date, there has been real change in several areas. The first is the drug war and the damage it has inflicted on the rule of law, the professionalism of the PNP, and other aspects of governance. Second is the weakening of democratic institutions and norms. Third is a portion of the government’s economic policies, particularly the increase in spending on infrastructure and a few populist social programs. Fourth is the reorientation of the Philippines’ foreign relations to move closer to China and pullback from the United States, the United Nations, and the liberal norms espoused by the international community. Finally, the possibility of constitutional changes, up to and including federalism, would be highly significant for the Philippines.

Alongside these changes, there are important elements of continuity. So far, there is considerable continuity in most macroeconomic policies and public financial management. The government also has continued to expand (with some tweaks or rebranding) most preexisting social development programs. Finally, the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law was the culmination of a decades-long process.

Under Duterte, there also are worrying signs of regression back to some of the worst aspects of traditional Philippine politics. First is the emphasis on highly personalistic leadership: Duterte’s presidency is all about him and not about institutions. Second, little effort has been made to reduce the entrenched power of political dynasties and oligarchs—except those that might challenge Duterte. Instead, Duterte has been willing to ally with traditional political leaders who have shown little interest in reforming politics and governance. Third, his administration has adopted a somewhat more statist approach to economic development. Finally, Duterte’s selective pandering to 1960s-style anti-U.S. nationalism, which exaggerates the influence of the United States and sometimes is used to deflect public attention away from the shortcomings of far more important domestic actors, is an unwelcome development.

Looking ahead, it seems likely that there will be a continuing struggle between elites and other groups who desire a strongman and those who believe in the desirability of democracy, even the flawed version that has been practiced in the Philippines. The best-case scenario is a gradual reassertion of checks and balances brought about by a softening of public support for Duterte, a growing recognition of the damage being done to Philippine democracy, and more unified and effective pushback against his antidemocratic actions. But it is also possible that the country’s contentious politics could move in dangerous directions. This might be the case if Duterte declares nationwide martial law or manages to ram through major changes to the 1987 constitution. Alternatively, if Duterte, who is in poor health, were to resign or be incapacitated before the end of his term, members of his coalition might try to block Vice President Robredo from succeeding him. Under any of these scenarios, there is a risk of mass mobilization (both for and against Duterte) that could lead to extraconstitutional and potentially violent forms of people power. This popular uprising, in turn, could tempt or compel the PNP and AFP to take sides. The Philippines would then be in perilous, uncharted territory.

American Support for Human Rights and Democracy in the Philippines

American diplomats often boast of the strong people-to-people connections that exist between the United States and the Philippines, principally because of the large Filipino-American community in the United States. But America’s institutional engagement with the Philippines is surprisingly thin, even though the country is a former colony, a major treaty ally, and a fellow democracy. There are two reasons for this state of affairs. First, historically the bilateral relationship has been dominated by military/security ties, key elements of which include the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, the presence of two massive U.S. military bases in the Philippines until the early 1990s, the post-9/11 Global War on Terror, and most recently the U.S. response to China’s assertion of sovereignty in the South China Sea. Second, the Philippines’ moderately sized economy has been less open to foreign investment and less export-oriented than many other East Asian economies. As a result, though U.S.-Philippines economic ties are not insignificant, they are small compared to the United States’ relations with larger and more open economies in the region.

U.S.-Philippines Relations: Less Than Meets the Eye

During the Obama and Aquino presidencies, the bilateral relationship was the most cordial it had been since the Fidel Ramos administration (1992–1998). During the six-month period following the election of Duterte and before the election of Donald Trump, the bilateral relationship went into a downward spiral. The nadir came in early September 2016, prior to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Laos, when it was reported that President Obama would raise human rights issues in his one-on-one meeting with Duterte. In a news conference before the summit, Duterte angrily rejected being lectured by Obama and famously said, “Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum.”69 In response, Obama canceled the meeting with Duterte. In September 2016, $4.5million in U.S. State Department funding intended to assist Philippine law enforcement was shifted to maritime security. In November of the same year, the State Department suspended the sale of 26,000 military assault rifles to the PNP. The arrival of a new U.S. ambassador, Sung Kim, in early December, a month after Trump’s election, provided an opportunity to reset the bilateral relationship.

Today, U.S. foreign policy is shaped by a president who expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers and has shown little interest in defending human rights and democracy. The Duterte administration is pro-China, much more transactional in its relationship with the United States, and intolerant of any foreign criticism of human rights abuses associated with his drug war. Washington now finds itself with limited influence with regard to the Duterte government. Unlike China and Japan, the U.S. government cannot compel American corporations to fund large infrastructure investments.70 Moreover, the Philippines is not dependent on foreign aid, so it can take or leave US development assistance. This is exactly what it did in December 2017, when Manila withdrew from being considered for a second Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact worth over $400million. The Philippines no longer met the MCC’s minimum requirements in the areas of rule of law and controlling corruption, so it withdrew in order to avoid the embarrassment of being turned down by the MCC Board of Directors.

The nongovernmental foundations of U.S.-Philippine relations are also surprisingly weak. University-to-university ties are limited, and only a few American universities offer Philippine studies. The involvement of American foundations—even those that traditionally have had an interest in Southeast Asia such as the Ford, Henry Luce, and Open Society Foundations—is minimal. And in the realm of public diplomacy, the passage of time has diminished the ranks and influence of champions of close U.S.-Philippines relations such as former senators John McCain and Richard Lugar, former representative Stephen Solarz, former secretary of state George Shultz, and former ambassadors Stephen Bosworth and Nicholas Platt, all of whom have died or retired.

The Timid American Response to the Duterte Government’s Subversion of Human Rights and Democracy

Since Donald Trump became president, the U.S. government has avoided saying or doing anything that might alienate Duterte. During the first half of 2017, the scale and brutality of Duterte’s drug war became irrefutably clear in major reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as by powerful photojournalism by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Reuters, and the New York Times. Despite this, in late April 2017, in a phone conversation with Duterte, Trump told him: “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem.... Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.”71 He also invited Duterte to the White House—an invitation Duterte later declined.

When the State Department was headed by Rex Tillerson and was itself in turmoil, the U.S. government was largely silent regarding the drug war and human rights abuses. In August 2017, when Tillerson met with Duterte at the ASEAN summit in Manila, their discussion focused on the Marawi crisis and terrorism and did not include the human rights violations associated with the drug war. The State Department’s 2017 human rights report on the Philippines acknowledged that “extrajudicial killings have been the chief human rights concern in the country for many years and, after a sharp rise with the onset of the antidrug campaign in 2016, they continued in 2017.... Concerns about police impunity increased significantly following the sharp increase in police killings.” However, it seemed to suggest that the drug-related EJKs were not all that different from other human rights abuses in the Philippines.72

In June 2018, the United States joined thirty-seven other members (out of forty-seven total) of the United Nations Human Rights Council to sign a statement on human rights in the Philippines issued by the government of Iceland:

We urge the government of the Philippines to take all necessary measures to bring killings associated with the campaign against illegal drugs to an end and cooperate with the international community to investigate all related deaths and hold perpetrators accountable.... While acknowledging that drug use in the Philippines is a serious problem, actions to tackle drug abuse must be carried out in full respect of the rule of law and compliance with international human rights obligations.73

This statement appears to be the strongest public statement with which the U.S. government has been associated, but it received little attention in the media. On the same day this statement was issued, the United States pulled out of the Human Rights Council.

The U.S. Congress expressed some initial concern over the situation in the Philippines, but has not taken any meaningful action. In May 2017, senators Ben Cardin and Marco Rubio introduced a bill, the Philippines Human Rights Accountability and Counter Narcotics Act of 2017 (S 1055), which would restrict arms sales to the PNP and provide up to $25million in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 to support human rights groups and assist the Philippines in dealing with its drug problem. The bill was referred to the Foreign Relations Committee and has languished there since. In the House of Representatives, in July 2017 the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing on “The Human Rights Consequences of the War on Drugs in the Philippines” that was highly critical of Duterte’s war on drugs. But there has been no subsequent action.

Although the U.S. embassy in Manila might be engaged in quiet diplomacy regarding human rights, conversations with Filipino human rights leaders suggest that little has taken place. USAID’s Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DRG) portfolio in the Philippines funds conventional rule-of-law, civil society, and local governance programs, but stays well clear of anything that addresses democratic backsliding. Because of their dependency on USAID and State Department funding, democracy promotion organizations like Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republican Institute have not responded in a major way. The Asia Foundation in the Philippines, which relies more on Australian than U.S. funding, does some work on the rule of law, but also shies away from anything that might antagonize the Duterte government. Only the National Endowment for Democracy has significantly increased its funding in support of democracy in the Philippines, from under $500,000 in 2015 to over $1million in 2017.

The Case for a More Robust American Response

Nancy Bermeo has observed, “When backsliding yields situations that are fluid and ill-defined, taking action to defend democracy becomes particularly difficult.”74 This is true for “small d” democrats both inside the Philippines and abroad. Given the long-standing dominance of U.S. military and security interests and the Trump administration’s lack of interest in defending democracy, it is especially difficult for the U.S. government to formulate a suitable response.

Still, the United States has a unique historical relationship with the Philippines, one that needs to be considered alongside purely strategic considerations. The Philippines’ political system is modeled after America’s, and for more than a century the Philippine elite’s attitudes and behavior have been shaped by America’s influence on the country’s educational system, economy, and politics. The U.S. government has long and influential relations with the AFP and, to a lesser extent, the Philippine police. And when Philippine leaders have shown a commitment to democratic politics and governance, the U.S. government has been quick to proclaim solidarity. Therefore, at a time when human rights and democracy are under attack in the Philippines, the U.S. government and American NGOs ought to support Filipino-led efforts to defend human rights and democracy. Doing so would have the added benefit of showing Filipinos that the U.S.-Philippine relationship is not only about advancing U.S. security and economic interests.

Moreover, the Philippines is not China, Vietnam, or Cambodia, where the prospects for democracy are negligible in the short to medium term. The situation in the Philippines is dynamic, and investments in human rights and democracy have the potential to make a difference. Despite Duterte’s efforts to weaken checks on his power, there are civil society, media, religious, and educational organizations—and even some members of the business elite— that are committed to defending democracy. Like Trump in the United States, Duterte has become a catalyst for a struggle between vastly different visions of what kind of country the Philippines can and should be. This is a contest Filipino democrats need to win; but in doing so, they will need to offer something better than just a return to the pre-Duterte status quo.

Naturally, there are no quick or easy fixes. The goal of more robust American support for democracy in the Philippines should be twofold: first and most immediately, to promote greater solidarity among “small-d” democrats in the Philippines, the United States, and around the world, and second, to improve and expand the sharing of ideas and strategies for how to defend and strengthen democratic institutions and norms. Illustratively, in the near term, the United States could support Filipino efforts on the following fronts:

  • improve understanding in the Philippines of effective approaches to countering illegal drugs;
  • develop effective responses to the Duterte government’s anti–human rights narrative and broaden the community of human rights supporters and activists; and
  • promote solidarity and sharing lessons for defending human rights and democracy by supporting visits to the Philippines of human rights advocates, democratic political leaders, and scholars on democracy.

Longer term, Americans and Filipinos should work together to address common challenges to preserving and improving democracy. This could include joint efforts to:

  • improve the role of media/social media in democracy;
  • reform political finance and strengthen political parties;
  • strengthen school-based and civic education on human rights and democracy; and
  • build university-to-university ties, including scholarly collaboration on key aspects of Philippine politics and society (such as poverty and inequality, criminality and the illicit economy, Supreme Court decisionmaking, and the political role of the middle class).

Finally, a U.S. House of Representatives controlled by the Democrats holds out the possibility of greater congressional attention to the situation in the Philippines. Members of Congress should consider pushing the Trump administration to apply Magnitsky Global Act sanctions to current and former PNP leaders responsible for EJKs.

A more robust American response will prompt some Filipinos to accuse the United States of meddling in the Philippines’ domestic affairs. Duterte’s supporters will almost certainly portray it as effort to destabilize his government. Therefore, support must be transparent and nonpartisan, and those providing it will need to be prepared to take some heat. Ideally, this should not be a solely American project—it should involve democratic groups elsewhere, including in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

As long as strategic and security interests dominate U.S. policy toward the Philippines, and with the U.S. Congress largely consumed with domestic politics, it is unlikely that the U.S. government will take meaningful steps to support human rights and democracy in the Philippines. Therefore, American NGOs, foundations, and universities will need to step up and take the lead. But ultimately, it will be the actions of Filipino democrats that matter most.

About the Author

David G. Timberman is an independent scholar and development practitioner who has addressed the challenges of democratic politics and governance in Southeast Asia for over thirty years. He experienced first-hand the Philippines’ democratic transition in 1986–1988 and has been a visiting professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila. He has held staff positions with the Asia Foundation, the National Democratic Institute, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Management Systems International. His publications include: A Changeless Land: Continuity and Change in Philippine Politics (1991); Cambodia and the International Community: The Quest for Peace, Development and Democracy (co-edited with Frederick Brown, 1998); The Philippines: New Directions in Domestic Policy and Foreign Relations (editor, 1998); Curbing Corruption in Indonesia 2004-2006: A Survey of National Policies and Approaches (co-authored with Soren Davidsen and Vishnu Juwono, 2006); and Budget Reform in the Philippines: Using the Budget as a Tool for National Transformation (co-edited with Ronald Mendoza, 2019). He holds degrees from Tufts University and Columbia University’s School of International Affairs.


In the course of producing this paper, numerous people generously provided me with insights and assistance. My thanks go to Ronald Mendoza, David Garner, Marites Vitug, Sheila Coronel, Carmela Fonbuena, Benedicto Bacani, Jerome Abesamis, Jojo Abinales, Allen Hicken, and Jade Wong-Baxter, as well as to several other people who prefer not to be acknowledged. However, the views expressed are mine alone and do not reflect the views of any of the organizations with which I am or have been affiliated.


1 This is not to ignore the considerable influence that the United States has had on Philippine politics and policymaking post-independence, but U.S. influence has declined significantly over the past quarter century.

2 Although the Philippine political elite is frequently referred to as an oligarchy, the true oligarchs are the twenty or thirty richest tycoons and their families, most of whom have created the large business conglomerates that dominate the Philippine economy. Political families (such as the Marcoses and Cojuangcos) are wealthy by almost any standard, but the business families (such as the Sys, Gokongweis, Ayalas, and Aboitizes) control vast business empires and have personal net worths in the billions of dollars. Little scholarly attention has been paid to how these families influence politics and policymaking.

3 “Poverty Incidence Among Filipinos Registered at 21.6% in 2015 - PSA,” Philippines Statistics Authority, October 27, 2016,

4 “World Bank Open Data,” World Bank, accessed December 13, 2018, for per capita income see and for economic growth see

5 There is no internationally accepted definition of the middle class. For the Philippines, see Jose Ramon G. Albert, Raymond E. Gaspar, and Martin Joseph M. Raymundo, “Why We Should Pay Attention to the Middle Class,” Philippine Institute for Development Studies, July 2015,

6 “President Duterte Renews Promise of Gov’t Full Support to Private Partners,” Presidential Communications Operations Office, November 26, 2018,

7 “Aquino: Pick Good Leaders for Eventual First World Status,” Rappler, December 29, 2015,

8 Mar Roxas had been a popular senator, who stepped aside in 2010 and ran for vice president so Benigno Aquino could run for president. After narrowly losing the vice presidential race to Jejomar Binay, he then held several cabinet positions under Aquino.

9 Another oddity of the Philippine electoral system is that voters select the president and vice president separately and not as a single ticket. As a result, since 1992 all elected vice presidents have been affiliated with parties different from the president’s. This has had multiple perverse consequences, including causing the vice president to become a rival of the president’s preferred successor.

10 See Julio Teehankee, “Was Duterte’s Rise Inevitable?” in Nicole Curato, ed., A Duterte Reader: Critical Essays on Rodrigo Duterte’s Early Presidency (Manila: Ateneo de Manila Press, 2017), p. 52. On “latent anxiety,” see Nicole Curato, “Politics of Anxiety, Politics of Hope: Penal Populism and Duterte’s Rise to Power,” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 35, no. 3 (2017): pp. 91–109.

11 Nicole Curato, “We Need to Talk About Rody” in Curato, A Duterte Reader, p. 30.

12 See “People’s Budget 2018,” Department of Budget and Management, Republic of the Philippines, February 2018, p. 28,

13 In November, inflation moderated a bit, to 6.0 percent. “Philippines Inflation Rate,” Trading Economics, last modified December 5, 2018,

14 Support for Cha-Cha and federalism is significantly higher in Mindanao. See “June 2018 Nationwide Survey on Charter Change,” Pulse Asia, July 16, 2018,

15 An extrajudicial killing (EJK) is the purposeful killing of a person by a governmental authority without the sanction of any judicial proceeding or legal process.

16 See Ana P. Santos and Rodion Ebbighausen, “Investigating Duterte’s Drug War in Philippines — Facts and Fiction,” Deutsche Welle, May 9, 2018,

17 Philippine organizations that have documented human rights abuses associated with the war on drugs include the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, domestic human rights organizations, and the Catholic Church. International organizations include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the New York Times, and Reuters. Both the U.S. State Department and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have noted and expressed concern about the high number of drug-related killings.

18 Dev Kar and Brian LeBlanc, Illicit Financial Flows to and From the Philippines: A Study in Dynamic Simulation, 1960–2011 (Washington, DC: Global Financial Integrity, February 2014); and Friedrich Schneider, “Out of the Shadows: Measuring Informal Economic Activity,” in Terry Miller and Anthony B. Kim, eds., 2016 Index of Economic Freedom (Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation, 2016), 35–50.

19 See Francisco J. Lara and Steven Schoofs, eds., Out of the Shadows: Violent Conflict and the Real Economy of Mindanao (London: International Alert, 2013).

20 See Alfred McCoy, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).

21 The growing concern with illegal drugs prompted passage of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act in 2002. The act established new penalties for illegal drugs, created special courts to hear drug-related cases, tasked the Department of Health with treatment and rehabilitation, and created the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).

22 According to a 2016 DDB survey, there were 1.8million drug users in the Philippines, accounting for 1.8percent of the total population. But in his inaugural State of the Nation address in July 2016, Duterte stated that there were 3.7million “drug addicts” in the country. In 2017, the government estimated that approximately 4.7million people were using or trafficking in illicit drugs. In 2015, the PDEA reported that 8,629 barangays (approximately 20percent of the country’s villages) reported drug-related crimes. In 2017, the PDEA claimed that 24,848 barangays—nearly 60 percent—reported drug-related crimes during the first ten months of 2017. See U.S. Department of State, 2018 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (March 2018), p. 252.

23 For an excellent discussion of illicit drugs and politics in Mindanao, see Rufa Cagoco-Guiam and Steven Schoofs, “A Deadly Cocktail? Illicit Drugs, Politics and Violent Conflict in Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao,” in Lara and Schoofs, Out of the Shadows, pp. 85–117.

24 According to Human Rights Watch, “There, the ‘Davao Death Squad’ had killed hundreds of drug users, street children, and other petty criminals. While denying involvement in the death squads, Duterte endorsed their killings as an effective way to combat crime, relishing his ‘Duterte Harry’ nickname and reputation.” See “‘License to Kill’: Philippine Police Killings in Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs,’” Human Rights Watch, March 2017, p. 4.

25 Peter Kreuzer, “‘If They Resist, Kill Them All’: Police Vigilantism in the Philippines,” Peace Research Institute Frankfurt Report no. 142 (Frankfurt: Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, 2017), p. 32.

26 Ellen T. Tordesillas, “In the Name of Drugs Again,” ABS-CBN, October 27, 2017,

27 Social Weather Stations (SWS), Second Quarter 2018 Survey, September 20, 2018.

28 Pulse Asia September 2017 survey and SWS September 2017 survey.

29 As reported in “War on Drugs Most Important Achievement of Duterte – Pulse Asia,” Rappler, July 23, 2018,

30 Oplan Double Barrel is the PNP’s official two-track strategy for combating drugs: (1) reducing demand by identifying and apprehending (or killing) alleged drug users and (2) reducing supply by apprehending or “neutralizing” “high-value” drug traffickers. Oplan Tokhang is the process by which police or local officials visit households to identify suspected drug users and pressure them to desist and submit to rehabilitation.

31 According to Human Rights Watch, “While the Philippine National Police have publicly sought to distinguish between suspects killed while resisting arrest and killings by ‘unknown gunmen’ or ‘vigilantes,’ Human Rights Watch found no such distinction in the cases investigated.” “‘License to Kill’,” p. 13.

32 McCoy, Policing America’s Empire.

33 Sheila Coronel, “Murder as Enterprise: Police Profiteering in Duterte’s War Against Drugs,” in Curato, A Duterte Reader, p. 170.

34 Statement of Vanda Felbab-Brown, Hearing on the Human Rights Consequences of the War on Drugs in the Philippines, at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, U.S. House of Representatives, July 20, 2017,

35 “2016 Annual Report,” Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, 2017, p. 40.

36 “2018 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report,” U.S. Department of State, March 2018, p. 253.

37 In November 2017, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the provision in RA 9165 that barred plea bargaining. As a result, hundreds of minor drug cases have been resolved more quickly, reducing the time the accused spend in jail awaiting trial.

38 See Lian Buan, “In Charts: Drug Cases Take Over PH Courts, Have Low Disposition Rates,” Rappler, August 28, 2018,

39 “Actual Jail Population Data,” Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, accessed December 2018,

40 In December 2016, the government opened a 10,000-bed “mega treatment and rehabilitation center” north of Manila, funded by Chinese real estate developer Huang Rulun. In 2017, the Dangerous Drugs Board initiated drug demand reduction programs through partnerships with international donors. The Department of Health is establishing in-patient drug treatment centers and is developing an outpatient drug treatment program. The Catholic Church has also initiated rehabilitation programs.

41 Statement of Vanda Felbab-Brown, July 20, 2017.

42 Mixkaela Villalon, Abbey Pangilinan, and Ica Fernandez, “Barangay Officials Make Tough Choices in the Drug War,” Rappler, May 16, 2018,

43 Kreuzer, “‘If They Resist, Kill Them All,’” p. 25.

44 Randy David, “The Duterte Method,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 22, 2018,

45 Peter Kreuzer, “Private Political Violence and Boss-Rule in the Philippines,” Behemoth: A Journal on Civilisation, no. 1 (2009): p. 59.

46 Senator Leila de Lima, the former secretary of justice under Benigno Aquino, was arrested and detained on non-bailable drug charges in February 2017. The charges against her were filed after she held hearings into killings related to Duterte’s antidrug campaign.

47 In 2003, when Trillanes was a lieutenant in the navy, he led a short-lived armed revolt against the Macapagal Arroyo government. In 2007, while he was still in jail, he ran for and was elected to the Senate, and he was reelected in 2013. In 2016, as a senator and candidate for vice president, he vociferously attacked Duterte’s integrity, and following Duterte’s election, he continued to criticize Duterte.

48 Sereno was appointed chief justice by Aquino following the 2011 impeachment of chief justice Renato Corona. Aquino bucked the court’s custom and appointed Sereno chief justice over more senior justices. As a result, although Sereno was a high-profile and widely respected voice for judicial reform, she did not exert a strong influence over the rest of the court. In two politically charged cases challenging Duterte policies—his declaration of martial law in Mindanao and a directive allowing a hero’s burial for Ferdinand Marcos—Sereno was in the minority that voted against the president’s policies.

49 This stands in contrast to the outset of the Duterte administration, when Duterte received qualified kudos from some in the media and civil society for issuing an executive order establishing freedom of information protocols within the executive branch.

50 Alexandra Stevenson, “Soldiers in Facebook’s War on Fake News Are Feeling Overrun,” New York Times, October 9, 2018,

51 See John Nery, “Which PH Institutions Are Holding Fast?,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 6, 2018,

52 The government’s ambitious goals for infrastructure are challenged by the availability of financing and by systemic weaknesses including weak bureaucratic capacity, lengthy procurement processes, and a host of implementation issues.

53 Nicole Curato, comments made at a conference on “Watching the Philippines, Reporting Duterte,” Columbia University, October 18, 2017.

54 Joel Rocamora, “How to Relate to the Duterte Administration” (unpublished paper, August 19, 2016).

55[1] Clinton Palanca, “Manila’s Pivot to Beijing Spells Peril—Not Just Opportunity—For Chinese-Filipinos,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, November 10, 2017,

56 A June 2018 SWS survey showed that China has a negative 35 net trust rating compared to a positive 60 rating for the United States and positive 46 for Japan. Of those surveyed, 81percent said that it is “not right” to accede to China in the South China Sea.

57 Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 6.

58 Jan-Werner Muller, What Is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), pp. 3–4.

59 Steven Levitsky and James Loxton, “Populism and Competitive Authoritarianism in the Andes,” Democratization 20, no. 1 (2013): pp. 107–36.

60 Rocamora, “How to Relate to the Duterte Administration.”

61 Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (2016): p. 5.

62 Ellen Lust and David Waldner, “Theories of Democratic Change: Phase 1: Theories of Democratic Backsliding,” USAID, May 13, 2015, p. 2.

63 The SWS/Asian Barometer 2014 survey showed that 79percent of those surveyed felt that democracy is the best form of government, 64percent saw democracy as being capable of solving society’s problems, and 60percent were very or fairly satisfied with how democracy works. But there also was some softening of support. The share of those who believed that democracy is always preferable declined from 54percent in 2010 to 27percent in 2014, and the share of those who “sometimes prefer authoritarianism” rose from 22percent in 2010 to 27percent in 2014.

64 Son “Bong Bong” Marcos was senator from 2010 to 2016 and then placed a close second in the 2016 vice presidential contest—an outcome he continues to challenge. Daughter “Imee” Marcos has a reputation as an effective governor of Ilocos Norte province, and plans to run for senator in 2018.

65 Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018), pp. 5–6.

66 Ibid. pp. 7–8.

67 Lisandro E. Claudio and Patricio N. Abinales, “Dutertismo, Maoismo, Nasyonalismo” in Curato, A Duterte Reader, p. 93.

68 Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” p. 17.

69 “Philippines’ Duterte Insults Obama Ahead of Scheduled Talks,” Deutsche Welle, May 9, 2016,

70 The United States is the Philippines’ third-largest trading partner, after Japan and Hong Kong/China, so access to U.S. markets remains important for the Philippines.

71 David E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman, “Trump Praises Duterte for Philippine Drug Crackdown in Call Transcript,” New York Times, May 23, 2017,

72 “Philippines 2017 Human Rights Report,” U.S. Department of State, 2017, pp. 1–2,

73 “Statement of Iceland on the Human Rights Situation in the Philippines,” Government of Iceland, June 19, 2018,

74 Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” p. 6.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.

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