Philippines' Firebrand

New President Targets Drug Dealers, the Pope and Obama

By | Updated Nov 14, 2016 6:39 AM UTC

Take 7,100 islands, add 100 million people, throw in a twist of corruption, an unhealthy slug of poverty and a dab of dynastic politics, and what do you get? A recipe for disaster, you might think. And yet the Philippines has been simmering nicely enough as a developing democracy since overthrowing the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Recent years have been marked by relative stability and economic growth that's outpaced most of Southeast Asia. But the Philippines may be veering onto another course after dissatisfied voters turned to a fiery new president, one who is set to face serious challenges, and perhaps create a few.

The Situation

Rodrigo Duterte, nicknamed The Punisher for his vigilante-style approach toward criminals, vowed to stamp out crime within a year of becoming president. Three months into his term, some 3,000 suspected drug dealers and users had been killed as part of his war on drugs. Human rights groups protested, as did the U.S. and the United Nations. The outspoken Duterte threatened to withdraw the Philippines from the UN and unleashed an expletive-laden warning against U.S. interference that prompted President Barack Obama to snub a meeting. Other targets of his fiery tongue have included the Pope and the European Union. On foreign policy, Duterte shifted his nation closer to China and Russia and away from the U.S., its major military ally since the 1950s. Duterte has declared a “state of lawlessness” after a bombing in his home city of Davao City, where he served as mayor for 22 years. While a September poll showed Duterte enjoyed the trust of 86 percent of Filipinos, financial markets were less forgiving: the nation's currency and bonds tumbled in his first three months in office. The 71-year-old Duterte secured a landslide in the May 9 presidential election following an anti-establishment campaign that tapped into middle-class frustrations over crime, public services and corruption.

The Popular President Hating on Obama, UN, and the Pope

The Background

After centuries of Spanish and U.S. rule, the Philippines finally got to determine its own fate as the conclusion of World War II ended Japanese occupation. What emerged has developed into a splintered democracy of multiple parties that’s fostered a political climate focused on personality over policy and dominated by powerful dynasties. Benigno Aquino, Duterte's predecessor, is the son of former President Corazon Aquino, whose People Power Revolution ended Marcos’s 21-year rule. The Marcos era was marked by brutality — an estimated 3,000 people were killed and 35,000 tortured — and by extravagance epitomized by his wife Imelda’s shoe collection and a $25 million stash of artwork. Marcos's reign prompted a one-term limit on presidents that prevented Aquino from seeking reelection, as well as leaving a legacy of widespread corruption. By boosting spending on agriculture, infrastructure and education, Aquino landed big punches with the economy. Soaring growth that’s averaged 6.2 percent over the past six years led the World Bank to praise the country as Asia’s “rising tiger.” The Philippines earned its first-ever investment-grade credit rating and Aquino proclaimed an end to its “sick man of Asia” tag. Yet a quarter of the population remains in poverty, partly because of regular natural disasters including the devastating Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Duterte has vowed to continue Aquino's economic policies.

Sources: Malaysia's Department of Statistics, Thailand's National Economic and Social Development Board, Statistics Indonesia, Philippine Statistics Authority

The Argument

Duterte’s critics see him as possibly the biggest menace since Ferdinand Marcos, and even a threat to democracy itself. On the international stage, Duterte has upended his country's strategic alliance with the U.S., saying it was "time to say goodbye" to America and that foreign policy now "veers towards" China.  He even agreed to hold talks with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea — an approach that contrasts with Aquino’s move to take the case to an international tribunal. After the Philippines won that case in July, Duterte called for “restraint and sobriety.” He has also courted the military after opponents warned of discontent in an army with deep-rooted links to the U.S. Other challenges for the president include Manila’s gridlocked traffic, underemployment that puts one-fifth of workers with advanced degrees in low-skill jobs and the migration of educated Filipinos overseas. Philippine watchers say winning the election may prove easier for Duterte than the task of dealing with entrenched political elites and bringing substance to his promises.

Source: Asian Development Bank

The Reference Shelf

  •  A Philippine Political Science Journal study on Philippine dynasties.
  • A BBC story on the vigilantes who are killing drug dealers.
  •  World Bank country information on the Philippines.
  • A government website set up to retrieve missing art from the Marcos collection.
  • A Bloomberg Markets magazine story on the risk of squandering the gains under President Aquino.
  • The Guardian’s guide to the Philippine elections.
  • Bloomberg News examines Davao City's transformation to determine why the Philippines elected its mayor as president.

First published May 5, 2016

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Norman P Aquino in Makati at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Grant Clark at