Philippines’ Firebrand

(Bloomberg) -- 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 the overthrow of 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 veered onto another course in 2016 as dissatisfied voters turned to Rodrigo Duterte, a fiery populist who has waged a deadly war on drugs and shifted the country’s international loyalties. 

The Situation

Duterte has lived up to his tough-man image, and some. The Philippine president's anti-drugs campaign has claimed thousands of lives — many by vigilantes — and resulted in human rights abuses. Duterte placed the southern island of Mindanao under martial law, responding to violence involving militants linked to Islamic State, and talked about extending military rule to the entire nation. While the former Davao City mayor was elected on an anti-corruption platform, Duterte and his family found themselves subject to an official investigation over bank transactions equivalent to about $19 million. Duterte denies any wrongdoing and says he'll quit if he or any family member is found guilty of corruption. His son Paolo, vice mayor of Davao City, has also denied involvement in a high-profile drug-smuggling case. Duterte does not take kindly to criticism and has issued expletive-laden or crude ripostes to the Pope, the European Union and former U.S. President Barack Obama. He’s even called God “stupid.” He has also withdrawn from an international court investigating his drug war and shuffled his nation’s loyalties closer to China and Russia and further from the U.S., its major military ally since the 1950s. While Duterte, 73, maintained strong public approval ratings through the worst of the drugs war, accelerating inflation began to bite into his popularity in the second half of 2018. His harshest critic, Senator Leila de Lima, was jailed in what she said was a politically motivated move. Duterte was also able to replace the nation's top judge who had spoken out against his drug war.

Philippines’ Firebrand

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. Its democracy has become splintered, with multiple parties competing in a political climate focused on personalities 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. It also left a legacy of widespread corruption. Even so, the economy began to build momentum in the 2000s, with the World Bank praising the Philippines as Asia’s “rising tiger” in 2013 as the country earned its first-ever investment-grade credit rating. Duterte vowed to continue the investment-heavy economic policies of Aquino, who was prevented from seeking reelection by a one-term limit on presidents imposed after Marcos’s reign. Even with the economic gains, more than a fifth of the population remains in poverty, partly because of regular natural disasters, including the devastating Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. 

Philippines’ Firebrand

The Argument

Duterte’s critics see him as possibly the biggest menace since Marcos and 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. Xi Jinping became the first Chinese president to undertake a state visit in 13 years in November, signing a framework agreement to jointly develop oil and gas resources with the Philippines in a disputed part of the South China Sea. Duterte’s approach contrasts with Aquino’s move to take the case to an international tribunal, which the Philippines won. Duterte has brushed off concerns that he’s undermined Philippine sovereignty in opening the doors to Chinese investment, with little to show in return, saying close ties with the U.S. and Europe had previously failed to produce material gains for the country. Other challenges for the president include Manila’s gridlocked traffic, which Duterte promises to solve with a promise of a “golden age” of infrastructure; underemployment that puts 16 percent of workers with advanced degrees in low-skill jobs; and the migration of educated Filipinos overseas.

Philippines’ Firebrand

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The Reference Shelf

  • A Philippine Political Science Journal study on Philippine dynasties.
  • A QuickTake on Duterte's deadly drugs war.
  • Human Rights Watch  reports on alleged police deceit, while Amnesty International  recounts the “murderous war” on the poor.
  • 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.
  • Bloomberg News examines the transformation of Duterte's hometown, Davao City, to determine why the Philippines elected its mayor as president.

    Norman P. Aquino contributed to the original version of this story.

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