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Duterte’s leadership style damaging the Philippines

After his clear and surprise victory in the May 2016 election, many observers, both critical and sympathetic, argued that Mr Rodrigo Duterte would face a steep learning curve when he took his seat in Malacanang (the presidential palace) on June 30 last year.

During his speech at the 115th founding anniversary of the Bureau of Customs in metro Manila, Philippines, in February, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that only two out of five things he says as president are true, with the other three being ‘foolishness’. Photo: Reuters

During his speech at the 115th founding anniversary of the Bureau of Customs in metro Manila, Philippines, in February, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that only two out of five things he says as president are true, with the other three being ‘foolishness’. Photo: Reuters

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After his clear and surprise victory in the May 2016 election, many observers, both critical and sympathetic, argued that Mr Rodrigo Duterte would face a steep learning curve when he took his seat in Malacanang (the presidential palace) on June 30 last year.

Being president of the Philippines is very different from being mayor of Davao City in southern Mindanao.

Learning curve proponents argue that his success in mounting this curve from mayor and local political boss to president would be decisive for the success of his administration and its political legacy.

A year into his single six-year term as president, it appears not only that Mr Duterte has not mounted this steep learning curve, he has rejected the purported need and benefits of doing so.

While there may be powerful political reasons for this rejection, the impact on the Duterte administration and its likely legacy appears quite decisive.

The longer Mr Duterte continues with his mayoral approach to the presidency, the clearer this impact and its negative influence on Philippine policy-making and broader political governance becomes.

Three differences between being mayor and local political boss and being president are particularly important for Philippine domestic politics. In all three cases the required transition has been absent or limited.

Executive-legislative Relations

The first is effectively managing executive-legislative relations to turn policy into law.

On the minus side for Mr Duterte, the legislative process in the Philippines is slow and cumbersome, with key reform Bills often languishing in legislative purgatory for decades.

And, Mr Duterte came to office with a very ambitious reform agenda.

On the plus side, executive-legislative cooperation under Mr Duterte should benefit from a loyal super-majority in the House of Representatives (out of the 291 sitting members, only seven are part of the official opposition minority) and a strong majority in the Senate (only six of 24 sitting senators are in the minority bloc).

House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, in his acceptance speech, said: “If this legislative agenda seems overly ambitious to some, it is only because of inertia … Let us be instruments of change and apply the other side of the law of inertia — a body on the move tends to move indefinitely … Our mission, in this 17th Congress, is clear: To enact laws that will deliver to our nation and our peoples a future better than yesterday’s and brighter than today’s.”

None of the first four legislative priorities listed by Mr Alvarez in this speech — reinstating the death penalty, lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility to nine years old, revising the General Procurement Act and passing a Freedom of Information Law — have been achieved. In the first 11 months of the Duterte administration, only four Bills were signed into law, including one postponing local elections.

Presidential Statements

The second learning curve component is the acceptance that presidential public statements are treated as official policy statements.

Mr Duterte’s colloquial, shoot-from-the-hip style of communication, which is central to his broad and deep popularity, poses a particular challenge here, and one that has not been overcome.

On Oct 5 last year, after a presidential declaration about cutting ties with the United States, presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella counselled journalists not to take President Duterte literally, but to use their “creative imagination” to interpret his statements and their emotional context. On Feb 8, Mr Duterte, during an address to the Bureau of Customs, said that only two of five things he says as president are true, with the other three being “foolishness”.

A day later, Mr Abella tried to clarify the implications of this presidential statement this way: “Well, technically, what we do emphasise in the press conferences are vetted and properly vetted … I’m not saying (the President’s statements are) not properly vetted. I’m simply saying that, at this stage, when we say it, it simply means to say we have gone through the process of discerning whether it was a joke or not. When there’s a particular statement that needs to be, for example, if it tends to be a policy … it would be underlined during the press conferences.”

A number of presidential statements, even when deemed unfoolish, have needed substantial clarification or rebuttal, showing that they are the opposite of the conclusion of a proper policy-making process.

On Sept 27 last year, Mr Duterte accused the US government of manipulating the value of the Philippine peso. The next day, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno claimed that there had been no US manipulation.

On April 6, the President stated that Filipinos should live on the vacant, unoccupied land features in the Spratly Islands.

The same day, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana clarified that Mr Duterte wanted to further develop land features already occupied by the Philippines.

The next day, the office of the president affirmed Mr Lorenzana’s clarification.

Limits of Power

The third component — the acceptance that the presidency is one of three co-equal branches of government — is the most important, both for the conduct of the Duterte administration and for its likely legacy.

Philippine mayors, particularly those who are the scions of a local political dynasty, have few local checks on their power.

The super-majority in the House of Representatives and the large majority in the Senate reduce the chances for potential executive-legislature clashes. Within the first year, there were no clashes between the Supreme Court and the executive either.

However, statements by Mr Duterte, particularly pertaining to martial law and to his crusade-like war on drugs and a number of other presidential decisions, have created doubts about his full embrace of the limits on presidential power. Rather, they suggest a tendency to centralise power in the office of the president.

On May 23 this year, President Duterte declared martial law and suspended the writ of habeas corpus for all of Mindanao (about 22 per cent of the national population) for 60 days after clashes commenced between terrorist groups and the armed forces and police in Marawi City.

On May 27, President Duterte, while addressing soldiers, said: “Until the police and the armed forces say the Philippines is safe, this martial law will continue. I will not listen to others. The Supreme Court, Congress, they are not here.”

The next day, presidential spokesperson Mr Abella clarified that the president would not defy a Supreme Court ruling against martial law, a position the president himself later affirmed.

Yet on Nov 11 last year, when discussing the possibility of suspending the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao due to the terrorist threat, Mr Duterte again said he may not stop the suspension, even if the Supreme Court ruled against it.


During the presidential election campaign in 2015-2016, candidate Duterte repeatedly said that if he were to win, he would be the mayor of the Philippines, and asked people to continue to call him mayor and not president. This strongly suggested that he saw few decisive differences between the roles of mayor and president.

There are good reasons for Mr Duterte to ignore the purported learning curve from mayor and local political boss to president. He was a successful and very popular mayor and vice-mayor of Davao City for most of the past three decades, and the first presidential candidate to win coming directly from a local political position.

He made his mayoral achievements a major part of his campaign platform. Last year’s election results show that Mr Duterte overperformed in urban areas, including winning 15 of 16 voting districts in Metro Manila, indicating that many urban voters hope he will do for their cities what he claims to have done for Davao City.

Mr Duterte, despite or because he has ignored the learning curve, has remained very popular. According to the quarterly Social Weather Stations’ polls on satisfaction with the performance of the president, there has been no statistically significant decline during the first nine months of President Duterte’s term. Last September, the president had a net satisfaction rating (percentage satisfied minus percentage dissatisfied) of +64 per cent, followed by +63 per cent in December last year and +63 per cent in March this year. In the survey in March, 75 per cent expressed satisfaction with the president, including 76 per cent in Metro Manila, 85 per cent of college graduates, and 89 per cent in Mindanao.

Mr Duterte’s large majorities in Congress and the splintering of the Liberal Party mean that he faces no credible political opposition. He has faced no large-scale demonstrations despite favouring the burial of former president Ferdinand Marcos in the Cemetery of Heroes, conducting a war on drugs with a death toll in the thousands, and repeatedly criticising the Catholic Church.

Mr Duterte as “Mayor of the Philippines” appears to be politically bullet-proof. Expectations that the office of the president would change President Duterte more than he would change the conduct of that office have not been realised. There are no signs that things will be different any time soon.


Mr Duterte’s surprise election victory as the “outsider” candidate, and his continued political popularity has certainly opened up the Philippine political system by undercutting conventional wisdom about who can become president in the Philippines. This is clearly a good thing.

However, if this highly personalised mayoral approach to the presidency persists for the remainder of Mr Duterte’s term, as appears very likely, three problems with longer-term effects on the Philippine political system are likely to grow:

• If the legislative process continues to pass so few laws, Mr Duterte’s ambitious multi-front reform agenda will be undermined. Comprehensive reform to broaden the tax base and simplify the tax code is needed and is the centrepiece of the Duterte administration’s economic agenda. The decision to break this reform into five separate and sequenced Bills would test even a fast-moving and unencumbered Congress. So far, only one of the 20 legislative stages involved in this approach to tax reform — the House of Representatives’ version of the first Bill — has been passed, and on the last day of their sitting in the first year of the Duterte administration.

• If presidential statements continue to require rebuttal or creative imagination to interpret, policy signals will remain unclear and open to very different understandings. It could lead to a situation where two parallel and inconsistent policy processes occur simultaneously: The regular execution of understood policy at the departmental level, and presidential policy statements that have not been the result of any ascertainable policy-making process.

One sign of this dissonance is US counter-terrorism support in Mindanao. In September last year, Mr Duterte announced that US troops in Mindanao should leave. This was never followed up with any written order and the troops stayed. In October last year, in China, Mr Duterte went further and announced his personal separation from the US militarily and economically. However, in June this year, the Armed Forces of the Philippines requested additional US counter-terrorism support to help address the Marawi City siege, which the US followed through on. Mr Duterte claimed that he was not aware of this request for the enhancement of US military support in Mindanao, or the US’ positive response.

• Continued presidential statements questioning the legal limits on presidential powers undermine the normative basis for the division of powers, which is the core of the Philippine presidential system, as set out in the 1987 Constitution. Mr Duterte plans to revise the 1987 Constitution written in the immediate aftermath of the Marcos dictatorship and the imposition of martial law, and aims to stop this history being repeated. He has criticised the constitutional requirements for the imposition of martial law as a hindrance to presidential powers.

Recent strong criticisms of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals by Mr Alvarez are a worrying sign of a broadening of this challenge within the Duterte administration to the existing system of government and law in the Philippines.


Malcolm Cook is a Senior Fellow at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute. This is adapted from a longer piece in Iseas Perspective.

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