Three years ago, as Hillary Clinton was making final preparations for her U.S. presidential campaign, Philippine Secretary of the Interior Manuel “Mar” Roxas was planning his own bid for the presidency—one in which he would run as the default candidate of the Philippines’ ruling elite. A buoyant economy, as well as the apparent success of the economic and social reforms passed by Roxas’ boss, President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, made him confident of victory. But during the 2016 campaign, Roxas was effectively attacked by a populist challenger who derided him as incompetent, soft on crime, and out of touch with ordinary people. And like Clinton, Roxas lost. In May 2016, Rodrigo Duterte—a local political boss who had overseen large-scale extrajudicial killings during his time as mayor of Davao City—was elected president of the Philippines, with Roxas finishing a distant second.
Why did the Philippines, a seemingly stable electoral democracy, prove so vulnerable to Duterte’s strongman challenge? The 2016 election revealed that despite surface-level calm, a systemic crisis of the Philippines' political order had been building for years. Although Aquino had remained personally popular, his liberal reformist agenda had been slowly sapped of its legitimacy by administrative bungling, a failure to address structural problems or root out institutionalized corruption, and at least one major scandal. This created an opportunity that was skillfully seized by Duterte.
LIBERAL REFORMISM’S DEAD END
Since the end of Ferdinand Marcos’ corrupt dictatorship in 1986, Philippine politics have been dominated by an agenda that I call “liberal reformism,” which has emphasized civil liberties (honored more in the breach than in the observance), good governance (usually conceived of in terms of rooting out corruption), and market-based economic reform as the keys to the country’s developmental success and democratic consolidation. This agenda, which tends to skirt more fundamental questions of inequality and redistribution, has proved popular among members of the Philippine elite, including powerful interest groups such as the Catholic Church and big business.
Duterte’s predecessor, Noynoy Aquino, was a politician
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