Assessing Rodrigo Duterte’s First Hundred Days in Office

Even before declaring his candidacy for President of the Philippines last November, Rodrigo Duterte was no stranger to controversy. Throughout his time serving as the mayor of Davao City, a major urban center on the southern island of Mindanao, Duterte had acquired a reputation as a tough-talking populist with an unusually aggressive approach to fighting crime. His overt support for the so-called Davao Death Squad, a vigilante group responsible for killing over 1,400 suspected criminals and drug users since 1998, earned him the nickname “The Punisher.” Although his support for such groups provoked outrage from many human rights organizations, Duterte’s policies proved to be quite popular among residents of Davao City, who credited him with restoring social stability and relative prosperity to a city that used to be known as the “murder capital” of the Philippines.

After insisting for months that he was “not qualified for higher public office,” Duterte was eventually persuaded to run for president by his supporters, who held various demonstrations urging him to reconsider his decision. However, even these supporters could not have anticipated some of Duterte’s more controversial statements made during his campaign. Only a few weeks after announcing his candidacy, Duterte received criticism after calling Pope Francis a “son of a whore” for allegedly causing traffic jams in Manila during his 2015 visit to the Philippines. In April, Duterte made a crude joke about an Australian missionary who was raped and killed during the 1989 Davao hostage crisis, drawing the ire of both Australian and American government officials. When asked about China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea (often referred to by Filipinos as the “West Philippine Sea”), Duterte facetiously declared that he would ride a jet ski to the disputed Spratly Islands and erect a Philippine flag.

In the end, Filipino voters paid greater attention to Duterte’s promises to fight drugs and crime on a national scale using the same brutal methods he employed in Davao City. Most notable was his pledge to kill 100,000 criminals during his first six months in office and dump their bodies in Manila Bay. Although statements like this would typically hurt a politician’s chances of being elected, many Filipinos saw Duterte as the answer to their problems. Despite significant economic progress made under outgoing President Benigno Aquino III, nearly a third of the population continues to live on less than $3.10 per day, and violent crime still affects many people’s lives. Furthermore, Filipinos have become fed up with the country’s traditional political class, which is dominated by entrenched family dynasties. Following a trend that has become all too familiar in the world lately, Duterte’s perceived outsider status helped secure his electoral triumph. With 6.6 million more votes than his closest rival, Duterte was declared the winner on May 30, and he was inaugurated as president exactly one month later.

With this context in mind, it is time to evaluate Duterte’s first hundred days as President of the Philippines. Unsurprisingly, his war on drugs has garnered the most media attention, and for good reason. According to the Philippine National Police, as of October 15 over 4,300 people have been killed during the campaign. Of these, over 2,700 were the victims of extrajudicial and vigilante-style killings. Given that Duterte has over five years left in his term, these initial numbers are enough to cause serious concern. Authorities recently claimed that more than 700,000 drug suspects have surrendered to police, despite the fact that the country lacks suitable rehabilitation centers to treat them all. Experts worry that without the necessary infrastructure in place, many of these users will eventually relapse into addiction. Furthermore, they argue that the underlying conditions that lead to drug violence, namely poverty and social disorder, have not yet been addressed. If anything, the drug war is only exacerbating these problems. Various gangs have taken advantage of the situation to label their rivals as drug pushers, and their total disregard for due process has caused a further breakdown in the rule of law. As we will see, the consequences of Duterte’s campaign are manifesting themselves in virtually every aspect of life in the Philippines.

During his time in office, Duterte has already managed to dramatically change the direction of Philippine foreign policy. For most of its history as an independent nation, the Philippines has been a staunch ally of its former colonizer, the United States. From 1947 until 1992, the United States maintained and operated several military facilities on the island of Luzon, most notably at Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base. Since 1951, the two countries have been bound by a mutual defense treaty, which was reinforced as recently as 2014 with the signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The US-Philippine alliance has taken on particular importance in recent years with the rise of Chinese irredentism in the South China Sea. In 2012, a Philippine warship tried to arrest Chinese fishermen in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, leading to a standoff that lasted for months. Following this incident, the Philippines took China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, arguing that China’s “nine-dotted-line” claim over the South China Sea is inconsistent with international law. In July, the tribunal ruled in Manila’s favor, although Beijing has since refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of this decision.

From the very beginning, Duterte appeared to show a dangerously poor understanding of the Philippines’ diplomatic interests. During his presidential campaign, Duterte stated that he would like to hold bilateral talks with China if the current Philippine strategy of litigating its claims at The Hague fails to produce results within two years. Military experts have argued that this approach would play right into Beijing’s hands, as it would undercut the efforts of other claimants to form a joint front against China’s territorial ambitions. Once Duterte was inaugurated in July, things only got worse. Before attending an ASEAN summit last month in Laos, he called Barack Obama a “son of a whore” after the United States threatened to bring attention to human rights violations committed during his war on drugs. Although Obama tried to shrug off this insult, a week later Duterte called for American special forces to withdraw from Mindanao, where they have been helping Filipino troops fight several Islamic terrorist groups and a communist insurgency. Soon afterwards, he told his defense secretary to buy weapons from Russia and China instead of the United States, and to end joint patrols with American vessels in the South China Sea. In response to further criticisms of his war on drugs, Duterte recently threatened to halt the implementation of the EDCA.

The Duterte administration has claimed that its objective is to pursue an “independent foreign policy.” In theory, this would not be a bad strategy for the Philippines, if it were able to successfully balance Chinese and American interests. Chinese companies have already offered to fund several major infrastructure projects in the Philippines, including a new railway system for Mindanao and a drug rehabilitation center near Manila. In this sense, Duterte does have a lot to gain from increased cooperation with Beijing. However, his actions so far have only served to increase the Philippines’ dependence on China while alienating the United States and other potential allies. This is not to say that Duterte should only cooperate with the United States, but it is hard to see how completely abandoning a major partner will end up serving Philippine national interests.

Duterte’s economic performance so far is more ambiguous. To the surprise of many observers, he has mostly sought to maintain pro-business policies inherited from previous administrations. Under Benigno Aquino III, the Philippines enjoyed some of the highest economic growth rates in Asia, and the country’s budget deficit was reduced from 5% of GDP to only 0.9%. In particular, the service sector has flourished thanks to the presence of a young population with highly desirable English-language skills. Because of these successes, the first part of Duterte’s eight-point economic agenda stresses the importance of continuing current macroeconomic policies. Other plans include increasing public spending on infrastructure to 5% of GDP, attracting foreign investors by reducing red tape, promoting development in rural areas, and strengthening the education system. This sensible agenda has gone a long way to reassure domestic businesses that the government has growth in mind.

Despite these hopeful signs, the negative economic impacts created by Duterte’s war on drugs are starting to become painfully clear to the Philippine leadership. Potential investors worry that the damage being done to democratic institutions and the rule of law will greatly outweigh any benefits from a diminished drug trade. Furthermore, Duterte’s outlandish and unpredictable public statements have contributed to an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that is not at all conducive to economic stability. For example, in the immediate aftermath of Duterte’s profanity-laced rant against Barack Obama last month, foreign funds pulled an estimated $58 million from local equities. Several weeks later, the Philippine peso sunk to a seven-year low against the U.S. dollar, and credit rating agency S&P Global warned that Duterte’s unstable leadership could prevent the country from improving its credit rating. Although his administration seems to have some understanding of macroeconomic fundamentals, it has not yet grasped the importance of political risk management.

One positive element of Duterte’s presidency that has been largely overlooked by the international media is his commitment to reducing disparities among the country’s various geographic regions. The Philippines has long been divided into three major island clusters: Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao. Historically, most of the country’s economic and political development has been concentrated in Luzon, which contains Metro Manila and other highly urbanized northern areas. As a result, Luzon wields a disproportionate amount of influence on almost all aspects of public life in the Philippines. It receives the lion’s share of public infrastructure investment. The national language is based on Tagalog, which has its origins in the immediate vicinity of Metro Manila. As of last year, nineteen of the country’s twenty-four senators were from Luzon. All these factors have contributed to the impression that “Imperial Manila,” as it is often called, needs to share some of its power with the rest of the nation.

As far as many Filipinos are concerned, Rodrigo Duterte is the perfect man for this job. Having lived in Davao City since his early childhood, Duterte is the first Mindanaoan to become President of the Philippines. He is also only the fourth president of Visayan descent, with his father having been a native of the region (Duterte’s native language is Cebuano, the most widely-spoken Visayan language). Simply put, Duterte’s roots are far away from Metro Manila, which is reflected in some of his policy preferences. First, the president has been a major advocate for federalism, arguing that giving local governments more autonomy is the only way to evenly distribute wealth across the country and address the conflict in Mindanao. Furthermore, there have already been signs that Duterte plans to allocate more public funds to peripheral regions. For example, in his first State of the Nation Address, Duterte pledged to complete several major railroad projects in the Visayas and Mindanao, which have long been neglected by the government in favor of commuter trains in Luzon. Finally, the president’s connections in Mindanao have allowed him to make major progress in peace talks with the communist-led National Democratic Front (NDF), which has waged a guerrilla war on the island against the central government since 1969.

With all of these changes taking shape, could it be possible that we are currently witnessing a turning point in Philippine history? I would argue that the long-term effects of Duterte’s policies will come in less expected areas. For starters, although the drug war will have a lasting impact on Philippine society, it will not serve its intended purpose. As similar campaigns in the United States and Latin America have shown, drug addiction cannot be eliminated by attacking the supply chain alone. Law enforcement must be combined with efforts to control the demand for illegal substances, which requires alleviating poverty and creating effective rehabilitation centers. The Philippines has failed to do either of those, and so it is quite possible that once the campaign runs its course, the only long-term results will be weakened democratic institutions and economic instability. In terms of foreign policy, Duterte’s much-discussed pivot to China seems to be supported only by the president himself. Despite his attempts to bring attention to historical grievances dating back to the early 20th century, public opinion polls show that most of the population continues to view the United States in a far more favorable light compared to China. Furthermore, both Philippine and American officials appear to remain committed to the future of the bilateral relationship. Once Duterte is out of office, we can expect the alliance to resume as if nothing happened. Ultimately, the president’s most important contribution to the future of the Philippines may come in the form of federalism. If he can overcome the resistance of the country’s traditional elites, Duterte might just be able to create some real change in the Visayas and Mindanao.

Matthew Appel

Author: Matthew Appel

Matthew Appel is a sophomore at the Elliott School majoring in international affairs and economics. Before coming to GW, he spent a year studying Russian overseas through the State Department\'s NSLI-Y language program. He is particularly interested in China and the post-Soviet republics. In his spare time, Matthew enjoys running, traveling, and watching the English Premier League.