Government and governance, International relations, Social policy | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia

5 October 2016

The Philippine President courts controversy abroad but enjoys high popular approval at home. Phidel Vineles takes a look at whether he will he deliver the economic development his country needs.

The maverick Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is creating waves on the world stage. Last month, prior to his departure for Laos to attend the ASEAN Summit, he warned President Barack Obama not to question him about extrajudicial killings. In his typical foul-mouthed style, Duterte had earlier cursed other world leaders such as the Pope and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Despite his uncouth behaviour, Duterte has huge popular support among Filipinos.

The appeal of strong-man leadership is deep-seated in the Philippines. After 30 years of democratic promise followed by failure from reform-minded presidents, there is no compelling reason against trusting a nonconformist politician from Mindanao. People can see in Duterte someone who can make significant improvements to the country. For many Filipinos he is the “alternative leader” that the Philippines really needs. Duterte has many firsts as a president, which distinguish him from his predecessors. He is the first president from Mindanao, the first president to centre his national policy agenda on a “war on drugs”, and also the first Filipino president to admit publicly that he is a socialist.

These firsts appear to translate into popularity rather than prejudice among Filipinos. According to a recent Pulse Asia survey, Duterte has a 91 per cent trust rating. Such an overwhelming level of public support is common for every president in their initial months in office. Generally, the public wants to give the president a chance to fulfil his mandate. However, predicting whether the public trust will remain high is hard. The only certainty is that if public trust in Duterte does remain at current levels, it will further encourage his administration to vigorously pursue its policies as part of the “war on drugs.”

More on this: Duterte and the return of the authoritarians

With the backing of strong public support, Duterte seems confident brushing aside international criticisms about extra-judicial killings and human rights violations. This was evident when he warned Obama not to raise human rights issues with him in Laos. He also caught the attention of delegates during the East Asia Forum of the ASEAN Summit. Agence France-Press quoted Indonesian diplomats as saying that Duterte showed pictures of the killings of Mindanao Muslims by US forces in the early 20th century and Duterte said: ‘These are my ancestors that they killed. Why now we are talking about human rights.’

Some have described Duterte as being everything a typical Asian diplomat is not. The discussions of ASEAN leaders are usually non-confrontational with things well-rehearsed in advance, or at least they were until Duterte came onto the scene. It may be considered as internationally irresponsible behaviour by others, but Duterte was praised by his Filipino supporters who considered his remarks about the early 20th century US killings as a kind of antidote to the grievances of the past.

In ASEAN discussions, domestic agendas should not be put ahead of the ASEAN common agenda. The Philippines will never forget the aforementioned past atrocities, but reconciliatory foreign policy must be pursued to advance the country’s national interests. Take for example Laos, a country heavily bombed by the US during the Vietnam war, but one that is engaged in strengthening its relationship with the US.

Nevertheless, according to Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay, Duterte’s diplomatic debut was impressive to some leaders. In fact, Duterte accepted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s invitation to visit Japan during the bilateral meeting between the Philippines and Japan on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit. Several policy analysts also lauded Duterte’s more conciliatory and pragmatic approach towards China, who Filipino foreign policy analyst Richard Heydarian describes as a diplomatic dove. However, Heydarian said that Duterte had shown that the country’s relations with US, although remaining strong, are no longer “sacrosanct”.

More on this: “The Punisher” takes the Philippines Presidency

But while Duterte’s “war on drugs” received a bouquet of praises from his supporters, what the country really needs are strong institutions that will bring prosperity and development. It is more advisable for the government to exert additional efforts on achieving inclusive institutions, as this will spur long-term economic growth for the country. With the strong popular support he enjoys, Duterte should devote himself more to establishing inclusive institutions in the Philippines so that his favourite phrase – ‘change is coming’ – will become reality.

According to economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, in their book Why Nations Fail, inclusive political institutions accompanied by inclusive economic institutions bring about sustainable development. They argue that such institutions and the strong presence of the rule of law create a virtuous cycle: if the laws applied equally to everybody, then no individual or group can rise above the law, which leads to a more equal distribution of income and the empowerment of a broad segment of society. The argument simply explains that eradicating crime and corruption must start with strengthening the rule of law. For example, if the justice system in the country is slow, then it would be much better to introduce urgent reforms.

The problem with extra-judicial killings in the Philippines is that the majority of the victims are poor and from disadvantaged groups, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s ‘Kill List’. The government needs to address the issue of extra-judicial killings committed by vigilantes, especially after Foreign Affairs Secretary Yasay said that the current administration condemned these acts. Moreover, it’s important that the drug war not affect the country’s other branches of government. Last month, Duterte had threatened to declare martial law if the Supreme Court did not cooperate with him on his war against drugs. It also diverts attention away from important economic policy changes, especially in addressing high poverty and income inequality in the country.

Although domestically popular, Duterte’s political strongman style is not enough to address the Philippines’ woes. His leadership style would be better if his policy agenda centred on strengthening the country’s institutions.

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Vineles, Phidel. 2016. "Maverick From Mindanao - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.