Rodrigo Duterte won the Philippine presidency in 2016 in part because he promised to take on the country’s traditional elites and disregard norms and institutions. The bellicose former mayor of the southern city of Davao appealed to some voters with his transgressive, straightforward and charismatic political style.
He has remained extraordinarily popular in office — a study of Philippine public opinion released in September found three-quarters of the country were satisfied with his performance — as he oversaw a war on drugs that undermined the rule of law. Indeed, the war on drugs has resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings, according to organizations such as Human Rights Watch.
With Duterte nearing the end of his single six-year term as president as prescribed by the Philippine Constitution, which was crafted after the Marcos dictatorship to prevent another autocrat from serving multiple terms, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many of the contenders to replace him — contenders who could include Duterte himself — are likely to continue the country’s democratic regression. After all, Duterte’s undemocratic and transgressive actions appear to have worked for him, and some of his potential successors are current or former close political allies and, therefore, understand how the combative president built his popularity.
Until recently, Duterte looked as if he was going to try and stay in power himself, seeking to remain de facto president by running for the vice presidency next year on a ticket with one of his political allies. In early September, his PDP-Laban Party nominated him for the vice presidential role. Last week, however, Duterte surprisingly declared he would not run for the post.
But given Duterte’s history of saying one thing and then backtracking on that statement a short time after, he may well seek the vice presidency after all. (Reuters went as far as to say that that “last-minute changes were still possible, as in 2015 when Duterte entered the presidential election race at the eleventh hour.”)
The vice presidency has historically been a ceremonial job in the Philippines and is elected separately from the presidency, but there is little reason to believe Duterte would treat it that way. Serving with a close ally or family member as president, Duterte likely would act as the de facto ruler of the country, in a similar fashion to what Vladimir Putin did from 2008 to 2012, when he was prime minister of Russia while ally Dmitry Medvedev was president. Being vice president also would immunize Duterte from lawsuits and criminal cases against him for the conduct of the war on drugs.
In a de facto second term, Duterte probably would further tarnish Philippine democracy, which already has become shakier under his rule. In his current term, he has not only spearheaded a war on drugs but has also damaged the independence of the Supreme Court and ordered the imprisonment of critics. Under Duterte, the Philippines has regressed in the annual rankings compiled by Freedom House, which monitors the level of freedom in each country.
But even if Duterte doesn’t run for the vice presidency, top candidates to succeed him as the country’s head of state seem ready to follow his lead in degrading a democracy that once was the strongest in Southeast Asia.
One contender who has already filed papers for his presidential candidacy — boxing star-turned-politician Manny Pacquaio — has been a longtime supporter of Duterte (though he has since broken with the president) and an enthusiastic advocate of the bloody drug war. Pacquaio has even called for the reintroduction of firing squads in the Philippines to kill drug dealers. (The Philippines does not have capital punishment.)
Another top potential contender, Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio, is currently mayor of Davao. In this position, she seems to act with the same disregard for the law as her father. When a local sheriff in Davao moved slowly to implement one of her orders (which might have been an illegal order), she is alleged to have asked for the sheriff to be beaten up.
What’s more, given that Duterte is her father, it would seem plausible that she would work to prevent any real investigation of the war on drugs, its killings and the police and politicians, including her father, who ordered and oversaw them. Were she to block investigations, she would only add to the culture of impunity that plagues the country.
Duterte-like politicians could win the presidency again, and, if Duterte does go back on his word and runs for the vice presidency next year, he would have a fighting chance at it. A poll published in July suggests that a ticket combining Sara and Rodrigo Duterte would win the presidency and the vice presidency.
Having a Duterte-like figure as the country’s head of state, or Duterte himself as vice president, is also likely to deal a major blow to democracy in Southeast Asia, which has stumbled badly in the past 15 years.
Countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Indonesia have all regressed democratically over this time. Both Myanmar and Thailand have faced coups, while government opposition and civil society in Cambodia have been quashed. Indonesia has also witnessed a growing crackdown on civil society as well as little enforcement against political corruption.
The Philippines had been the region’s most solid democracy since the end of the Marcos era and so its regression under Duterte hurts the rest of Southeast Asia as a whole. Under prior presidents such as Benigno Aquino III and Fidel Ramos, the Philippines had openly advocated for democracy in other regional states, but Duterte no longer plays that role. After the Myanmar military seized power in February, Duterte skipped the ASEAN summit on the situation there.
Other Southeast Asian leaders seem to be thinking the same way as Duterte as well. Hun Sen, who has been prime minister or co-prime minister of Cambodia since 1985, has hinted he will serve as leader until at least 2028.
And in Indonesia, still the freest of the ASEAN nations, President Joko Widodo, who by law is limited to two terms, has raised the idea of pushing through constitutional amendments. Although the Indonesian leader denies that the aim of the revisions would be to allow him to run for another term, speculation is swirling that he will utilize an amendment to get a chance to run for a third term. If Widodo does get a third term, he could do lasting damage to Indonesian democracy — as well as democracy in Southeast Asia as a whole.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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