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Sampa Kundu
The “Unpredictable” Duterte: It’s Too Early to Imagine the “Filipino Way” in the Making
02 Jun 2016


Rodrigo Duterte -- often referred to as “The Punisher” for his behavior during his tenure as mayor of Davao City -- is set to become the next president of the Philippines on June 30. His election campaign and triumph at the polls have attracted enormous attention from world leaders, policy makers, academicians and members of the media; but, his victory was more or less a foregone conclusion.Outgoing President Benigno Aquino III tried in vain to generate anti-Duterte sentiment among common Filipinos just two days before the election on May 9. Duterte’s accomplishment was complete when two of his strongest contenders, Grace Poe and Mar Roxas, acknowledged their defeat to him immediately after the election. Duterte won despite the fact that he used bizarre language during his election campaign to disgrace different people, including a dead Australian missionary who had been raped, and none other than Pope Francis; challenged Filipino allies the US and Australia to undo their diplomatic ties with Manila; portrayed his limited knowledge on the economy; and being known for his notoriety for being extremely harsh on criminals in Davao City, where he served as mayor for more than two decades; and finally, for doubts raised about the unprecedented growth in his personal financial assets during his time in government.


In the last few years, the economy of the Philippines has achieved notable progress, especially in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), per capita GDP, total investment, national savings and employment generation. (See Table 1) However, from Table 2, it is evident that despite all the economic prosperity achieved by President Aquino, the Philippines is still one of the least developed economies within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Its unemployment rate, at 6.4 percent, is the highest in ASEAN. (See Table 2) The ratio of trade to GDP is only 45.5, higher than only Indonesia and Myanmar in ASEAN. The country has a population of 99.14 million, but 25 percent is still living below the poverty line.1


Table 1: Selected Indicators of the Philippines

Source: IMF2


Table 2: Selected Indicators of ASEAN Countries

Source: ASEAN Stat3


The life of a common Filipino is further complicated by rampant corruption, inadequate infrastructure, ineffectual government, the old-hat political leaders and governments dominated by a few affluent families. All of these factors helped Duterte to win the hearts of Filipinos. Not to be forgotten is the fact that it was his leadership that helped Davao City to become free from crime to a great extent. In order to ensure that police in Davao City did not accept bribes and that law and order in the city were maintained, Duterte used to go for regular night patrols to monitor every nook and cranny of the city. Despite his robust and allegedly insensitive attitude toward criminals, he was appointed by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to serve as an anti-crime consultant to her government. In addition, he was instrumental in making a Muslim and a Lumad politician as deputy mayors, because he believed that local and indigenous concerns of these communities would be best served by them. However, Duterte is not a complete outsider in Filipino politics. His family originally came from Cebu, where they were involved in district-level and region-level politics. Duterte’s daughter served as the mayor of Davao City while he himself was the vice-mayor between 2010 and 2013. However, the fact that he hails from Mindanao and represents the South of the country, unlike his predecessors, who all came from Manila, helped him win the presidency. The Philippines is arguably exhausted with the country’s feudal politics, which has its roots in well-heeled political families from Manila. Furthermore, Duterte promised to work with the country’s best economists to continue the economic breakthroughs achieved during Aquino’s administration and improve the country’s dilapidated infrastructure.


Duterte’s foreign policy is likely to be a tad different from what his predecessor Aquino pursued. For Aquino, the US and its allies were Manila’s closest friends. Under his leadership, the US was allowed once again to make Subic Bay a base for its military, after three decades of not being able to do so. Under US influence, Manila facilitated the visit by several American naval warships to the disputed South China Sea in order to uphold the right to freedom of navigation. However, Duterte’s personal relationships with the US, Australia, Singapore, and ASEAN members are not without problems. In 2002, an American citizen was accused of setting off a dynamite explosion in his hotel room in the Philippines and was later taken back to the US by FBI agents. Following this incident, Duterte indicated that the US was not respecting the national law of the Philippines. Duterte has reportedly also expressed his objections to the US-Philippines Balikatan Joint Exercises. Duterte has also not backed off from his controversial comment on the dead Australian missionary, who was raped in a Davao City prison riot in the late 1980s; he apparently asked the Australian ambassador to sever diplomatic ties with Manila because the ambassador expressed his antagonism toward Duterte’s unsolicited opinion on the event. Furthermore, in 1995, Duterte was allegedly involved in burning the Singaporean flag after a Singaporean national was convicted for the murder of a Filipino woman and her child. Moreover, while campaigning during the election, Duterte’s remarks on the 1995 incident and his circulation of a forged photo of the Singaporean prime minister endorsing Duterte on Facebook again created indignation between the two countries. On the other hand, Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua was among the first foreign envoys in the Philippines who met Duterte after his success in the election. During his election campaign, Duterte said that he will continue the stance toward multilateral negotiations followed by Aquino on the disputes over maritime claims in the South China Sea. He has also encouraged China to invest more in the Philippines and engage in further economic cooperation. Under Benigno’s leadership, the Philippines was the last founding member to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).


Because Duterte has agreed to seek assistance from the country’s best economists to lead the Philippines towards a path to growth, it can be expected that Aquino’s economic accomplishments will be sustained and preserved. However, his foreign policy is still very unclear and unpredictable. The tribunal court at The Hague is expected to give its verdict on the South China Sea disputes between the Philippines and China in the coming weeks, and it is widely expected that the ruling will be in favor of Manila. But, China has rejected being a part of this arbitration case, and given Duterte’s personal attributes, it is really difficult to foresee how he will set the discourse of future Filipino foreign relations. With his maverick leadership, Duterte will definitely set a new Filipino Way; but only time will tell who will benefit from it and who will pay for it.


Sampa Kundu works as a Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, India.





1. “Data -- the Philippines,” The World Bank, at, accessed on May 17, 2016.


2. Report for Selected Countries and Subjects, International Monetary Fund, at, accessed on May 17, 2016.


3. Selected Key Indicators, ASEAN Stat, as of Sept. 9, 2015, at, accessed on May 17, 2016


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