Erik De Castro / Reuters Duterte poses with Philippine soldiers, August 2016.

Thrilla in Manila

The Promise and Peril of Duterte's First Three Months

Three months into office, Rodrigo Duterte, the newly minted president of the Philippines, enjoys unparalleled political influence. By some indicators, he is the most powerful Filipino leader since the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship ended three decades ago. Duterte, moreover, is in a unique position to overhaul the country’s domestic political landscape, as well as its foreign policy. 

Duterte was elected in May as a tough-talking outsider who astutely tapped into the anti-establishment sentiment of the Philippine electorate. Since then, he has rapidly consolidated power. Although he hails from a relatively minor political party (PDP-Laban), Duterte now enjoys supermajority support in the Philippine Congress, where his allies have seamlessly marginalized any voice of opposition. Over the next few years, he is set to appoint 11 of 15 justices at the Philippine Supreme Court, and his so-called shock and awe campaign against illegal drugs has raised his standing with the Philippines’ law enforcement agencies. Even the armed forces are warming to their new leader—Duterte has visited 14 military camps within less than a month, and promised to double military members’ salaries, expand their benefits, guarantee support for their families, and enhance their health facilities and emergency medical care.

The Filipino public has also rallied behind Duterte to an astonishing degree. Duterte only received a plurality of votes during the presidential elections, with one of the lowest pre-election trust ratings. But the most recent survey suggests he now enjoys a whopping 91 percent approval rating—the highest on record. Neither growing global concern over Duterte’s war on drugs nor his spate of undiplomatic behavior is likely to dent his domestic popularity or influence, at least for now.

That popular support has given him the space to recast the Philippines’ foreign policy. Over the past few months, he has broken one diplomatic taboo after another, ranging from diplomatic flirtation with China to vulgar, unorthodox tirades against the European Union and the United States. The results are at best ambiguous, but taken together they signal a potential shift South China Sea dispute—he has decided not to press his country’s territorial claims against China, even though an international arbitration court recently sided with the Philippines—could contribute to the peaceful resolution of the crisis; at the same time, it is undermining Washington’s efforts to mobilize regional pressure against Beijing’s growing maritime assertiveness. Almost single-handedly, the Filipino strongman is reshaping the regional order. Almost single-handedly, the Filipino strongman is reshaping the regional order.

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