What Does Rodrigo Duterte’s Victory Say About the Philippines’ Experience with Corruption?

Last week, the Philippines elected the highly controversial Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines. Duterte, who has built up a reputation as a political outsider who will challenge the traditional elite, had been the front-runner for several months, and on May 9th swept his competition with nearly twice as many votes as his closest competitors. In a previous post, I described Duterte’s zero-tolerance approach toward fighting corruption. Unlike his predecessor, President Noynoy Aquino, who himself ran on an anticorruption platform, Duterte has advocated for policies based in discipline and violence. He has threatened to bring back the death penalty for the crime of plunder or even to kill violators himself. (Indeed, Duterte has already admitted to killing criminals in the past). Duterte and his supporters acknowledge that his approach disregards due process and rule of law, which they argue is necessary because of how widespread corruption has become in Philippine government.

Since my last post, Duterte’s notoriety has only grown. In mid-April, Duterte became the subject of international scrutiny when footage from a campaign rally was released that showed him joking about the gang rape of Australian missionary. The real tragedy, Duterte said, was that he had not gotten to the beautiful woman first. His remarks drew criticism from his opponents and the Australian ambassador, and some expressed concern that Duterte’s brazen attitude would threaten relationships with foreign nations. A recent sketch by John Oliver detailed these horrifying remarks, as well as Duterte’s homophobic and bizarre comments while officiating at a mass wedding, when he publicly offered himself as a gift to all of the brides present.

Remarkably, and to the shock of most other countries, Duterte succeeded despite scandal and protest, and in a couple months he will assume office as the next President of the Philippines. What does his victory reveal about the Philippines’ experience with corruption? In the wake of what I view as an extremely troubling electoral result, here are some initial thoughts:


There is extreme frustration with corruption in the current system. As I argued in my previous post, one of the reasons Duterte was so successful as a candidate was because his zero-tolerance approach resonated with the immense frustration many Filipinos feel over the widespread corruption that has plagued the country for decades. In recent years, a series of high-profile scandals have heightened voters’ sense of disillusionment with the current system. In 2013, numerous senators, congressmen, and even judges were implicated in a multi-million pork barrel scheme—one of the largest in Philippine history. In addition, investigations into allegedly corrupt acts committed by Vice President Jejomar Binay and his son, Junjun Binay, have received a great deal of attention, particularly during the presidential campaign in which the older Binay was a candidate. Scandals of this sort have contributed to widespread discontent among the electorate.

This frustration has had some positive effects. For example, there has been more public pressure for anticorruption agencies to do something about these allegations, and so far, three senators and twelve congressmen have been charged for actions related to the pork barrel scandal. Corruption issues have also featured prominently in presidential debates and other national conversations, and last year, Congress came closer than it ever has to passing an anti-political dynasty bill that would curb the oligarchic-like control of elite political families.

But frustration has also had negative effects. It fueled support for radical candidates like Duterte, who has garnered an immense following of citizens who now actually believe that he is justified in sacrificing human rights in order to bring corruption under control. Millions of Filipinos are placing their trust in a man who has openly admitted to killing while serving as mayor, allowing him a great deal of discretion in how to enforce the law. Duterte’s approach is extremely problematic, however, as it simultaneously demands that corrupt actors be made accountable to the law while undermining respect for the law. Under such a system, it’s difficult to say what Duterte’s supporters believe will stop him from abusing such power.

Voters are so tired of corruption, they don’t care what else he does as long as he vows to fix it. If the last month has demonstrated anything, it’s that Duterte’s reputation as a rough-and-tough fighter of crime and corruption is valued above all else, and will withstand just about any hit. In the final stretch of the campaign, his lead in the polls survived the horrifying comments about gang rape and his controversial statements on the Philippines’ dispute over islands in the South China Sea, which together earned him numerous comparisons to Donald Trump. He even survived his own corruption scandal. While this point is not hugely distinct from my first one, it demonstrates the dangers posed by such widespread discontent over a systemic failure to address corruption. Duterte’s victory, in other words, demonstrates how anger over one issue can bring about a fanaticism with a much more dangerous side—one which overlooks disrespect for women, foreign policy inexperience, and even personal culpability as a corrupt actor.

People are failing to learn about and consider the true causes of corruption. Just days before Election Day, a video of young voters meeting torture victims from the Marcos era went viral on social media. The video interviewed first-time voters aged 19-22, who at the beginning of the video all said that they believed the martial law era under Marcos was a time when “the law was followed and people were disciplined,” which they said was “good for the country.” They were then introduced to several victims who detailed their own personal experiences of being electrocuted or raped when they were mistaken for criminals. The young voters, shocked and crying, said that they had no idea.

Some older voters and politicians liken Duterte’s call for discipline to the Marcos era—in fact, many expressed concern that Duterte will in fact declare martial law once in office. Indeed, Duterte’s approach does not really seem new. Marcos justified taking power because the country was in need of order and discipline, and later abused that power to amass billions of dollars in ill-gotten wealth while committing numerous human rights abuses to maintain his hold over the country. Duterte may not be Marcos, but shouldn’t the electorate be more concerned about the similarities between the two?

History seems to be repeating itself, likely because people are not thinking critically enough about the causes of corruption. Disrespect for the rule of law, and the violent brand of discipline that Duterte’s advocates would grant him and his administration, entail significant risks of abuse. This obsession with punishment and discipline assumes that this man is innately good and will stamp out all propensities for corruption by coming down hard on all those who are innately bad. But it ignores that power also inspires corrupt acts, and demagoguery allows corruption to flourish at an even higher rate.

Rodrigo Duterte’s rise to power demonstrates the alarming state of frustration in the Philippines. Although I worry that his victory will be more destructive than his supporters believe, I can only hope that the Philippines’ President-elect can harness this immense discontent to mobilize support for lasting, positive change in the country’s fight against corruption.

2 thoughts on “What Does Rodrigo Duterte’s Victory Say About the Philippines’ Experience with Corruption?

  1. In the fight against corruption people often confuse between fighting corrupt people (sick people) and fighting corruption (sickness). A medical doctor does not get mad with the sick people, s/he should get mad with the sickness. You cannot kill sickness by killing sick people.

  2. This is a really interesting post! It makes me wonder about the popular viability of going directly from a Wild-West corruption free-for-all immediately to a rule of law based system. While there is no question in my mind that rule of law and respecting the rights of the accused is far, far, far in a way the better and more sustainable long term route, I wonder if there is a point where public frustration is so incredibly high with corruption that it is very difficult to get a system respecting rule of law as opposed to a “tough guy crackdown at all costs” approach. I will have to browse the anti corruption bibliography to see if there has been much written about how to get people to support reigning in rampant corruption without the intermediate bloodletting revolutionary/rights-trampling stage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.