Duterte, the Filipino Strongman

What Rodrigo Duterte's Election Says About the Philippines

Rodrigo Duterte, Philippine presidential candidate and a local mayor, raises his fist during a motorcade campaign at Cainta Rizal, east of Manila April 12, 2016. Romeo Ranoco / Reuters

On May 9, the Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial and tough-talking mayor of Davao City, to be its next president. Thanks to rhetoric that resembled that of a U.S. presidential candidate, the Filipino elite and international media took to calling Duterte the “Donald Trump of the East.” Duterte was a political outsider only a few months ago and had a slim chance of even remaining in the tight presidential race. But economic dissatisfaction, rising crime rates, and popular frustration catapulted his fringe candidacy to victory.

Duterte comes from the margins of the Philippines’ ruling establishment. To win the election, he had to confront a formidable set of rivals with superior political machinery, resources, and family ties. But in the end, Filipinos gravitated toward Duterte’s strongman aura and uncompromising rhetoric against crime, drugs, and corruption. Duterte’s bluster may have helped him get elected, but now he must deal with the challenge of meeting his voters’ expectations.

The last six years of President Benigno Aquino III’s term saw the Philippines go from being the “sick man of Asia” to “Asia’s rising tiger.” His prudent fiscal policies and good governance initiatives gave the country one of the world’s fastest growth rates. At the same time, Manila cracked down on corruption by arresting several senators, the country’s former national police chief, and even Aquino's predecessor, former Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, as well as some of her key government allies. International investors and the global media hailed Aquino’s efforts, the results of which seemed to represent a turning point in Filipino political culture by placing the issue of bureaucratic corruption at the center of the nation’s discourse like never before.

But tens of millions of ordinary Filipinos benefited little from their country’s economic success. Aquino’s anticorruption efforts targeted his political rivals and were largely ineffective. Not a single high-profile figure accused of corruption has been put in jail. One of them, Senator Juan Ponce

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