Violence Is Not the Answer: The Case Against Rodrigo Duterte

The life of Rodrigo Duterte, mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippines, reads more like that of a mob boss than a mayor. The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has investigated Duterte for his alleged links to a vigilante group called the Davao Death Squad (ties he later admitted), as well as threats made to kill village chiefs who did not support his government programs. He has expressed his support for extrajudicial killings as a means to fight corruption and crime. And in case you don’t think he’s serious, suspects have turned up dead after Duterte issued an ultimatum to all drug dealers to either leave his city within 48 hours or be killed. The man is rumored to have pushed a drug dealer out of a moving helicopter, and has openly stated that he would like to kill all criminals himself and throw them into Manila Bay. The most terrifying thing about him? He’s running for President, and he’s winning.

Duterte’s success can be explained by a number of factors, but one of the most troubling reasons for his popularity is that Filipinos have become so disillusioned by corruption in politics that they’ve become attracted to dangerous, zero tolerance policies. Duterte has stated that he would like to bring back the death penalty for the crime of plunder, and while he back-pedaled on his support for extrajudicial killings in the last presidential debate, Duterte still admits to having killed in the past, with a new ominous and unclear caveat: “It’s always bloody, but I never said extrajudicial.”

The popularity of these extreme policies reflects how frustrated citizens are with corruption in the Philippines. Corruption is incredibly widespread, and plagues the country’s politics, courts, and police forces at the local and national levels. Many voters view Duterte’s approach as necessary to combat this immense problem, which persists despite years of promises from many so-called anticorruption candidates.

While I understand this frustration with Philippine corruption, Duterte’s zero-tolerance approach is short-sighted, misguided, and incredibly dangerous. As voters prepare for the election next month, they should consider the troubling implications of Duterte’s violent approach to the fight against corruption.

Duterte’s violent and extreme policy to fight corruption shows a complete lack of respect for due process and rule of law, for which he has been widely criticized by human rights groups. And perhaps surprisingly, many of his supporters do not reject this characterization of his approach, but actually seem to believe that human rights abuses are justified because violent discipline is now necessary to rein in corruption.

What these supporters fail to consider, however, is that there are troubling costs that come with such an approach—costs that are likely not worth whatever benefits violent discipline would confer on the country.

  • First, we should worry that throwing out the rule of law will result in wrongful convictions – or worse – not only of the politically powerful, but also of less influential local government officials. Corruption in the Philippines is not generally regarded as being contained to a particular political party or level of government. While disciplining national officials will attract widespread attention and scrutiny, a regime that disregards the rule of law could – intentionally or unintentionally – wrongfully punish officials at the local level, while suffering practically no political consequences. Given Duterte’s history of intimidating his dissenters with death threats, this is a very real concern.
  • Second, even if one trusts that this one leader might be different, the success of his regime would depend on numerous subordinates—cabinet members, governors, local officials, and enforcement officers—resisting the temptation to exploit the incredible power conferred on them. Authority is already exploited so frequently in local enforcement, even in the petty bribery context, and the idea that we’d entrust the executive and enforcement officials with sweeping powers to bring corruption in line seems misguided. Without legal procedures, oversight over each of these individuals and the thousands of islands they govern will be nearly impossible.
  • Third, maintaining the rule of law is an inherent value, one that is not separate from the anticorruption fight. A huge part of the frustration driving Duterte supporters is that politicians and other corrupt actors behave as though they are above the law, and not subject to consequences. While Duterte might argue that violence is the only means available to bring these actors to justice, it’s also important to recognize that his approach also advocates operating above the law. Duterte’s violent rhetoric minimizes the importance of rules when addressing one issue—but we should worry about it says about the importance of rules more generally.

In addition to these costs, whatever violence and discipline might accomplish in the short term, I do not believe that Duterte’s approach could deal with eradicating corruption in the long term. Philippine history has demonstrated that while violent approaches may be temporarily effective in upsetting the existing distribution of power, they eventually have the tendency to corrupt a new set of elites. During the reign of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and particularly during the martial law era, some of the President’s initiatives were effective in removing power from old wealthy families that monopolized the economy and politics. Soon, however, Marcos simply began to shift the power and wealth to enrich himself and his cronies, many of whom continue to prosper to this day.

Anyone who believes that Duterte is different – more disciplined, more humble, more nationalistic – must remember that no leader can function without some political allies willing to support him and do his bidding, particularly when purporting to fight against such a strong tradition of corruption. His ideals are unlikely to protect him from attacks from the existing elite, and eventually, he will need to find (or buy) cronies of his own.

The idea that doing away with due process is the only way to combat Philippine corruption is quite simply a myth; it is a rhetorical line that voters, despite their frustration with the current state of affairs, must scrutinize more carefully. Duterte’s message is not new. In fact, it was tried and tested barely two generations ago, and resulted in the suffering of countless individuals at the hands of a tyrant. Philippine voters cannot be so foolish to think that history will be different this time around.

4 thoughts on “Violence Is Not the Answer: The Case Against Rodrigo Duterte

  1. In addition to your great normative arguments, the sheer practicality of your second point (and your reference to history) is particularly important. I suppose one doesn’t necessarily need to believe Duterte’s followers are passionate true believers or more disciplined or less corrupt to think that his approach could lead to decreased corruption–it’s the idea that his willingness to flaunt harsh extrajudicial punishments will scare everyone, including his own subordinates, into behaving themselves that gives his campaign (based on your description) its argument for efficacy. Truly maintaining that kind of fear in a sustained, systematic way–so systematic that even high-ranking subordinates still feel its effects, and so all-seeing that everyone feels at risk–seems not just awful for all sorts of moral reasons, but also very difficult to do over the long term.

    Then again, maybe I’m being too optimistic. Rwanda has managed to brand itself as strong on anticorruption, and achieve those results through troubling anti-democratic/human rights tendencies that many people have been willing to accept for economic trade-offs (and perhaps more stability?), with those political restraints making resisting the restraints themselves difficult. I guess that brings us back to your third point: effectively decreasing corruption seems likely to require rule of law (in which cases of corruption can be detected and are punished). Is Duterte guessing that he can implement rule of law for one area (corruption) but not for others? I suppose that could be possible–though it once again gets back to the idea of behaving out of fear, not because you’re inculcating some inherent value to following rules, and how long the fear-based system can win out. The optimistic part of me hopes that it can’t win out for long (leading to successful pressure for change)…but there have also been enough dictatorships to make me wonder how true that is. That hint of doubt has me hoping all the more (for what the opinion of one complete outsider is worth) that arguments like yours have a persuasive effect during the campaign.

    • Your make a point that has lately appeared in other contexts on this blog: a strong backlash against corruption does not necessarily signal long-term, institutional improvement. Katie points to a really interesting aspect of your argument, which is that people may not care. Taking your first two bullet points together, the electorate may say “most public officials are corrupt, so who cares if we catch a few innocent people in the dragnet? It’s better than the other way around.” I agree with Katie that Rwanda is a good example of a society that has weighed due process/individual liberties against anticorruption/law enforcement and has chosen the latter (I realize I’m overgeneralizing, I’m sure there are a lot of Rwandans who disagree with Kagame’s decisions, whether they voice opposition or not!). Even if, as Kagame says, Rwandans have freely chosen this arrangement, I wonder how robust the country’s institutions will prove to be after Kagame leaves office. Anyway, my larger point is that this pendulum swing seems extremely difficult to combat. How might you go about communicating to justifiably incensed voters that prudence is best, that incremental change is better than a scorched earth/zero tolerance approach? (As an aside, this collective anger at ill-functioning institutions and desire for a complete system overhaul clearly isn’t a developing/less developed country phenomenon – see, e.g., the American primaries…).

      A second question about voters and the election in the Philippines, though: is Duterte really a change candidate? You’re extremely well-versed in the country’s politics. My amateur’s (very!) cursory look seems to show that, while he isn’t a member of any of the bigger dynasties, he is closely connected to a couple of the ruling families and his own family has deep roots in public office in Davao. If the public is so fed up with the status quo and corruption, why do voters keep turning to the same pool of candidates?

  2. I could not help but think of Donald Trump as I read this article. Both individuals do their best to shock the headlines, recklessly campaign, are ahead in their campaigns, and many people fear the future of society if they were elected. It’s an interesting thought in and of itself, and one could probably rant on this topic alone. However, it leads me to wonder if this is the era where we move passed due process because it does not yield the swiftest resolution? It appears that the individuals supporting Duterte are captivated by this Dirty Harry personality, and encourage swift and harsh punishment. However, isn’t that what due process was made to protect against? I am curious as to what many Duterte supporters think about due process and undiscriminating rules of law because if Duterte is elected, drug dealers may perish at even faster rates but corruption in other forms may easily flourish. For starters, the unequal administration of the laws of the Philippines. If the citizens of the Philippines look away from Duterte’s blatant statements of murdering drug dealers, what becomes of other murders? Can any citizen kill a drug dealer and avoid prosecution? Would they be considered a local or national hero as well? This sort of thinking sends me down a slippery slop towards an even more corrupt future for the Philippines.

    Moving onto my second point, the support for Duterte’s ‘Dirty Harry’ identity seems rather fragile. Many supporters of Duterte are captivated by Duterte’s apparently gritty tactics, womanizing behavior, and vigilante behavior. However, as many sensationalized stories in the media, this captivation is likely to get old quick and die down. If Duterte is elected and his supporters get tired of his antics, it is possible that he will be seen as a tyrant for his gross negligent of human life.

  3. Fantastic (but scary!) post. Without opening a definitional can of worms, a government actor’s extrajudicial use of violence or sanction of violence seems to actually be corruption itself. If Duterte were not already mayor while advocating (and potentially perpetrating) these deeds, maybe that would be different story. Yet as a government actor, doesn’t he have some obligation to uphold the rule of law? And isn’t ignoring that obligation and/or taking the law into his own hands some sort corruption of the power of his role?

    Your third point, about the fight for rule of law as not separate from the fight against corruption, could be understood in a much more expansive sense–that the fight for rule of law is deeply intertwined with or one and the same with the fight against corruption. There is plenty of commentary on the relationship between the two; I am certainly not an expert on that. For at least one thing, one of the ABA Rule of Law Initiative’s areas of action ( is “Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity.” To me, perhaps the most frustrating thing is that it seems inherently contradictory to be an anticorruption advocate while engaging in it.

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