This article is a collaboration between The Atlantic and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
MANILA—On a recent afternoon, Antonio Carpio, a retired Filipino supreme court judge, stood before a few hundred students at Manila’s prestigious De La Salle University, charts and maps displayed on screens either side of him, and denounced both China and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for undermining the national interest of the Philippines.
Carpio, seen as a potential presidential candidate in the next election, in 2022, didn’t have to remind his audience that for several years Beijing has occupied the fish- and resource-rich reefs and shoals off the Philippine coast in the South China Sea, defying a ruling three years ago by a United Nations arbitration tribunal. Carpio’s audience was also receptive to his argument that the populist president of the Philippines, now a bit more than halfway through his six-year term, has essentially declined to press his own country’s claims on what international law has affirmed to be its maritime territory. “The Chinese aggression is the gravest external threat to the Philippines since World War II,” Carpio told the students. Looking toward the next presidential election, Carpio said, “We have to ask every candidate, ‘Are you with us in protecting Filipino territorial rights?’”
The students warmly applauded. Though an elite university in the capital is not exactly Duterte’s base of popularity, China is unpopular across the Philippines. Duterte himself has been called “Duterte Duwag”—“Duterte Coward” in Tagalog—on social media because of what Carpio says is his “submission to the will of China.” The local press is full of commentary using the word vassal to describe the way they see the Philippines in its relationship to China under Duterte. Polls show that 87 percent of Filipinos favor a stronger defense of Philippine maritime territory.
That’s not even the only thing about Duterte that is not widely approved. While a majority of Filipinos support Duterte’s signature “war on drugs” in principle, they do not approve of the extrajudicial killings that have taken place (the government admits to 6,000 such killings since Duterte’s election, whereas human-rights organizations put the figure at more than 20,000). More generally, it’s not hard to find Filipinos, especially among the professional classes—journalists, lawyers, academics—and university students who see Duterte as a grave danger to their country’s democratic traditions and rule of law.
But here’s the paradox: Despite all of that, despite the awkward fact that Duterte is the only elected president on the planet being investigated for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, despite his insulting language about women, his attacks on the press, and his capo di tutti capi style of rule, despite his use of the country’s judicial machinery to prosecute political rivals, he enjoys the highest approval ratings of any Filipino leader at this stage of their term in office in recent history. In many ways, Duterte’s political success illustrates many of the reasons strongman and populist leaders the world over, including Donald Trump, are able to bypass crises or challenges that would torpedo a more typical politician.
“This is a man who admits to killing,” Marites Vitug, a prominent journalist and author, told me, a mixture of wonderment and resignation in her voice, “and yet he’s popular.”
Mahar Mangahas, the founder and head of Social Weather Stations, or SWS, a leading independent polling company in the Philippines, echoed that sentiment. “People don’t like his drug killings. They don’t like his foul mouth. They don’t follow him when he hates the United States and likes China. It’s very curious. Why are the views of him so favorable when he’s such an ugly person?”
In some ways, understanding Duterte’s popularity involves a general theory of strongman appeal. Both in the Philippines’ neighborhood of Southeast Asia, a sprawling region of 620 million people, and elsewhere in the world, autocrats—elected and not—appear to be gaining momentum.
But even in the company of neo-authoritarian rulers from Brazil to Hungary to Thailand, Duterte is an extraordinary and in many ways inexplicable figure. The Philippines is, after all, the country that 34 years ago, in a movement known as “People Power,” overthrew a dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Yet Duterte resembles Marcos in many respects. In fact, in a gesture of tremendous symbolic importance early in his presidency, he had Marcos’s remains moved from their obscure burial place and installed, with a military honor guard and a 21-gun salute, at Manila’s national cemetery. The move seemed to say that the days of People Power were in the past, and that strongman rule is the wave of the present.
Duterte, moreover, is exceptionally popular even by the standards of other figures with transgressive manners and populist appeal. Trump may enjoy the unshakable loyalty of around 40 percent of the American electorate, but Duterte’s approval rating has been persistently around 80 percent. This political power was on full display in legislative elections last year when every one of the 12 candidates Duterte endorsed for the country’s 24-seat senate was elected. Unlike Trump, there was no midterm setback for Duterte.
What explains this remarkable phenomenon? For one, Duterte resorts to methods that are by now well established in the global strongman’s toolbox: He uses social media to tarnish opponents, deploying an army of internet trolls to pounce on anybody who publicly criticizes him, a move that serves to intimidate those who have not yet spoken out. When Vitug, the journalist, published a book which criticized Duterte’s abandonment of the Philippine territorial claim, not only was she attacked on social media, but the country’s main bookstore chain declined to put the book on sale, apparently out of fear of retaliation from Duterte. He has taken other classically autocratic steps, such as using the judiciary to muzzle the press and political opponents: Last year, Maria Ressa, the editor of the independent investigative news website Rappler, was indicted on charges of tax evasion; meanwhile, Leila de Lima, a sitting member of the senate who, like Ressa, chastised Duterte for extrajudicial killings, recently completed her thousandth day in jail, having been convicted of taking bribes from drug dealers, a charge that is widely viewed as trumped up.
There’s something reminiscent in this of the Marcos years, when the country’s leading opposition figure, Benigno Aquino Jr., was imprisoned for years on manufactured charges of weapons possession and subversion. A few months ago, a mysterious, hooded man who gave his name as “Bikoy” claimed in a YouTube video that he was a former drug-cartel associate in possession of documents showing drug money pouring into the accounts of the Duterte family. The unfolding of events following the video gets complicated, including the arrest of the man claiming to be Bikoy and his retraction of the sensational claim. But the main consequence was that the Duterte government charged some 30 people, including a former three-term senator, Antonio Trillanes, and Duterte’s own vice president, Leni Robredo, with “inciting sedition.” (Robredo was not an ally of Duterte’s; she’s a member of the opposition Liberal Party and was elected on that party’s ticket.) The aim of the accused persons, the charge says, was “to agitate the general population into making mass protest with the possibility of bringing down the president,” hence “inciting sedition.”
At times, Duterte’s public positions seem so outrageous and so contradictory to his country’s sense of pride that it is remarkable he manages to stay in power at all, much less hold on to his sky-high approval rating. Last summer, a few days after a Chinese trawler rammed and sank a Philippine boat operating in traditional Philippine fishing grounds, Duterte echoed China’s statements, calling it “a little maritime incident.” When this sparked calls for his impeachment, he reacted with typical scorn. “Me? Will be impeached? I will jail them all,” he said.
Duterte did shift rhetorical gears for a while, promising to defend his country’s maritime claims, and Beijing helped soothe offended feelings by apologizing for the sinking of the Philippine boat. But when Duterte went to China soon afterward, his fifth visit since becoming president, he committed himself, not to defending his country’s sovereignty but to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Beijing.
In January, in an apparent fit of pique over American human-rights criticism of his regime, Duterte announced that he was ending the Visiting Forces Agreement, which serves as the legal basis for U.S. military cooperation with the Philippines. The move seems likely to be unpopular with many Filipinos, if for no other reason than that it removes yet another obstacle to China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea.
Duterte himself probably leans toward China for a couple of reasons. Like other regional strongmen, he appreciates that Beijing, unlike Washington (even under Trump), doesn’t criticize him for human rights violations such as the drug-war killings. China is also the emerging Asian powerhouse, so Duterte’s argument—that the Philippines has little capacity to go to war with it over disputed territories and should instead seek a friendly relationship—has a logic, and appears to persuade many in the country.
Yet a deeper reason for Duterte’s popularity is simply the force of his personality. As the sociologist and author Walden Bello, a prominent Duterte critic, put it to me, “The charismatic figure can get away with anything, even murder.” Bello was speaking of the thousands of drug-war dead, about which Duterte has been spectacularly unrepentant. “My God,” the president has been quoted as saying, “I hate drugs, and I have to kill people because I hate drugs.”
“People are very aware of the killings, but at the same time, they feel that Duterte’s eliminated the criminals,” Bello says, speaking specifically of a poor, teeming Manila neighborhood near where he lives, a place that has seen many extrajudicial killings. “The thugs, the street-corner boys, are no longer there. Women can walk the streets safely. I don’t know if their lives are actually better than before, but the perception is that they are. They’re pro-Duterte because they feel he’s cleaned up the place.”
Even if, as Bello and others say, Duterte’s coarse, unconventional way of talking helps him connect with ordinary people, that’s also because these voters, like others around the world susceptible to a populist appeal, have been disconnected with traditional figures of respect, and this may be the ultimate key to Duterte’s success. Bello speaks of a “deep disillusionment with liberal democracy” in the Philippines, which Duterte didn’t create but certainly encourages. “It’s the feeling that the liberal elite was all corrupt do-nothings,” Sam Ramos-Jones, a Yale-educated business consultant here, told me.
It is true that for decades, power in the Philippines has largely been in the hands of a succession of wealthy elites who generation after generation have dominated Philippine politics, enjoying their memberships in the verdant Polo Club and socializing at the opulent Manila Hotel, some of them deeply tainted by financial abuses. Joseph Estrada, the president from 1998 to 2001, was removed from office by what’s called “People Power II,” prompted by claims of vast corruption. His successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, was imprisoned on corruption charges after she left office. (She was later exonerated by the supreme court and became an ally of Duterte’s.)
Duterte, then, marks a kind of end of the People Power spirit for the simple reason that the spirit never delivered on the expectations that created it in the first place.
“People Power was experienced by Filipinos as a great triumph against dictatorship,” Jayson Lamchek, a former lawyer in the Philippines who is now a researcher at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy in Australia, told me. “But in terms of corruption, the post–People Power governments became indistinguishable from the Marcos regime. The only difference was the rhetoric of human rights and democracy, which people increasingly perceived as a sham.
“It’s no surprise,” he continued, “in that sense, that so many Filipinos seem willing to squander the spirit of 1986, curse human rights and democracy as useless, and turn instead to a strongman to change things.”