Decoding Duterte: Philippine Leader’s Confusing Flip-Flops

Duterte Softens Stance on Gambling
  • Duterte has tweaked stance on several issues since in power
  • Investors show concern about list of apparent contradictions

Whether Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte aims to shock, inspire or just amuse, deciphering his blunt and often unpredictable rhetoric is a potential challenge for investors seeking policy clarity from the new leader.

When it comes to the war on illegal drugs, events have unfolded the way Duterte promised, with more than 800 people killed in police operations since he was sworn in on June 30. On his pledge to invest heavily in infrastructure, Duterte has impressed overseas investors, who have pumped $1.1 billion into the nation’s shares over the last three months.

But on a range of other issues, Duterte has sent more confusing signals. Some have been as innocuous as his choice of residence. Others have carried more weight, such as whether the Philippines intends to negotiate with China over territory in the South China Sea, or whether the country can live without mining, or if he really means to ban online gambling.

“We have to get used to the president -- his ranting and his off-the-cuff remarks -- but we’ll see,” said Joey Cuyegkeng, an economist at ING Groep in Manila. “Sometimes he recovers from those things.” Duterte’s spokesman, Ernesto Abella, said that while the president might use hyperbole and "edgy" or "morbid" humor in his public addresses, he was a leader who prioritized an orderly society, national sovereignty and the common good. "His North Star is the well-being of a prosperous, just and peaceful nation," Abella said in a text message.

Either way, here are seven matters on which Duterte has appeared to flip flop since he came to power.

Playing Games

At his first Cabinet meeting, Duterte ordered a halt to online gambling. He followed up with a speech on August 3 singling out then-PhilWeb Corp. Chairman Roberto Ongpin as he promised to curb big business influence on government. The Philippine gaming regulator decided not to renew PhilWeb’s contract supplying so-called ‘e-games cafes’, which offer patrons electronic casino games such as baccarat, blackjack, slot machines and video poker.

Then on August 24 Duterte said the Philippines would allow online gambling to resume, provided operators paid proper taxes and electronic casinos were located away from schools and churches.

Separating From UN

At 3am on August 21, Duterte said he may withdraw the Philippines from the United Nations, after UN officials criticized his war on illegal drugs. “Take us out of your organization. You have done nothing anyway,” Duterte, 71, said. The following day, Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay issued a clarification, saying the Philippines remained committed to the international body. “Can’t you take a joke?," Duterte asked on August 23.

“Similar to the extrajudicial killings, we regard the comments as having the potential to harm the business climate and investor sentiment,” said Kyran Curry, a sovereign analyst at S&P Global Inc., in an e-mail commenting on Duterte’s threat to withdraw from the UN.

Navigating South China Sea

After China refused to acknowledge an international court ruling in favor of the Philippines that rejected China’s claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, Duterte responded first by sticking to his pledge not to "flaunt or taunt" the decision. On August 23 Duterte said he expected to have bilateral talks with China within the year. But the next day, he warned China against invading Philippine territory, saying “it will be bloody and we will not give it to them easily.” Duterte is due to meet senior Chinese officials at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Laos the week of Sept. 5.

Living Without Mining

Riffing on the subject of mining regulations in early August, Duterte told the country’s miners, the world’s biggest suppliers of nickel, that the Philippines could live without them. “You obey or we will survive as a nation without you,” Duterte said. Three days later, in a televised speech in the southern city of Davao, Duterte tweaked his threat. He suggested that further mining permits would still be granted, while stressing there must be a limit to mining activities, saying it was time to reconfigure wealth distribution in the Philippines.

Stance on Abu Sayyaf

“You’ve never heard me say that they are criminals,” Duterte said in a July 8 speech in Davao on the subject of Islamic insurgent group Abu Sayyaf, which operates in the southwestern Philippines. With a history of bombings, extortion and targeted assassinations, Duterte said Abu Sayyaf “were driven to desperation” by failed promises made under previous governments.

Still, by the end of July he referred to Abu Sayyaf as “enemies that have to be destroyed,” and last week reiterated the bandits must be tackled: “Seek them out in their lairs and destroy them - the Abu Sayyaf. Destroy them, period.”

Where To Live

In the run up to his inauguration, Duterte often said he planned to take a commercial flight each morning from his home in Davao to the capital Manila, and return every evening. “My bed is here. My room is here. My home is my comfort zone. It’s important that I can sleep and take a shower comfortably,” he said in late May. Then in early July, Duterte announced his decision to follow predecessor Benigno Aquino by making the palace in Malacanang his official residence.

Climate Change

In mid July, Duterte said his administration would not honor the Paris pact on climate change that his country adopted along with 200 or so nations last December, arguing the Philippines wasn’t sufficiently industrialized and its requirements differed. Just days later Duterte changed tack, saying the Philippines would be willing to talk about signing the pact if it took into account his plans for the economy.

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