New Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte’s bark worse than his bite

The 71-year-old champions minorities’ rights but fears of return to bad old days remain

Given that Rodrigo Duterte made an election pledge to execute 100,000 criminals and dump their bodies in Manila Bay, it's fair to expect the newly-elected president of the Philippines will be tough on crime and corruption, two of the biggest problems the southeast nation faces.

However, his support for LGBT rights, his backing for the equal treatment of women in government – ironic given his campaign trail “joke” about taking part in gang rape – and his conciliatory approach to conflict with China over disputed islands in the South China Sea are seen by some as evidence that his bark may be worse than his bite.

Certainly there is more complexity in his message than the headline quotes about Viagra parties and insulting the pope would suggest, but there is always the fear of a return to the bad old days of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was ousted in 1986 after 21 years of violence and oppression.

Duterte's campaign manifesto was low on details. He played up to his tough guy nicknames, the Punisher or Duterte Harry after the Clint Eastwood character Dirty Harry. Analysts expect him to run the Philippines in a similar fashion to the way he ran Davao City for 22 years, being tough on crime but displaying a surprisingly enlightened approach to social issues, which is one of the reasons he dislikes the comparisons with Donald Trump.


“Donald Trump is a bigot. I am not,” he has said.

Two of the policies he has already made known, to ban alcohol in public places and introduce a nationwide curfew for children, have been widely welcomed as they show a resolved approach to dealing with two issues widely blamed for contributing to crime.

Grievance politics

“Duterte’s victory is a product of . . . a climate of grievance politics that has allowed strongman candidates like Duterte and Marcos to capture the imagination of a large section of the society, which is sick and tired of traditional politicians and post-Marcos dictatorship oligarchs,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, political analyst and associate professor at De La Salle University in Manila.

He has proved particularly popular among the four million Filipinos overseas foreign workers (OFWs).

“Many OFWs, sick and tired of corruption and incompetence at home, see in Duterte a decisive leader than can overhaul a broken nation. Democrat fatigue and autocratic nostalgia is kicking in, obviously,” said Heydarian.

Outgoing president Benigno Aquino was popular, but unable to convince the electorate to replace him with his candidate, suggesting people are tired of the big families that run the country. Aquino's mother is ex-president Corazon Aquino, while his father, also called Benigno, was an assassinated opposition leader.

“Duterte is popular in all classes in society, which is unusual. He does not belong to the old Manila political elite and is seen as someone who could possibly break the system of having political clans and dynasties dominate the political system,” said one senior European source based in Manila.

Activists are watchful, asking if the election of the 71-year-old lawyer will result in a regression of human rights.

"That need not be the case. Duterte's electoral victory will obligate him, after he takes office next month, to extend human rights protections to all the people of the Philippines," said Phelim Kine, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia.

“The onus is on him to demonstrate that he will exercise his power to defend those rights, rather than undermine them.”

Foreign relations

On foreign policy, Dutarte will have to take a more measured approach and rein in some of his comments.

When Australian ambassador Amanda Gorely and US ambassador Philip Goldberg condemned his campaign joke about how he wished he could have been first in line in the deadly gang rape of an Australian missionary, he told them to "shut their mouths".

This may work on the campaign trail, but the Philippines relationship with the US is extremely important to the country.

“I expect the Duterte administration to adopt an equi-balancing strategy towards both China and America. The focus will be on pragmatic, ‘development-oriented’ engagement with China, with a potential negotiation of a joint development agreement in the South China Sea. But I expect security ties with America to remain robust, for no Filipino president can afford to alienate its superpower treaty ally,” said Heydarian.

For the time being, ordinary Filipinos feel they have won a victory.

Maria from Cebu, who is working in a Shanghai hotel, hopes the new president will solve the corruption in the Philippines.

“These drug lords are a big problem and no government has ever been able to do anything about them. He was mayor in Davao; maybe he can do in the whole country what he did there,” she said.