Rodrigo Duterte, Southeast Asia's Illiberal Pied Piper

Rodrigo Duterte, Southeast Asia's Illiberal Pied Piper

By Justin Higginbottom



Because Southeast Asia is undergoing a historic and deadly shift.

By Justin Higginbottom

It’s become common to compare Rodrigo Duterte, the bellicose septuagenarian running the Philippines, to America’s Donald Trump. And there are some parallels in their populist styles, inflammatory rhetoric and broadsides against the press. But this is no strongman buddy comedy. “Trump is a bigot and I am not,” Duterte once clarified. Duterte has proven far more popular than Trump at home, as he leads the Philippines away from a cozy relationship with the United States — and takes the rest of the region with him.

Neighbors are watching — and imitating — Duterte’s brutal drug war and disrespect for democracy and liberal traditions like a free press and his tilt toward China. Richard Javad Heydarian, author of The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy, imagines that if he were a historian 50 years from now, writing about a Southeast Asia much less influenced by the U.S., he would start with Duterte. He sees him as the “harbinger of a post-American-influenced area.” And the OK for illiberal democracy.

“Duterte Harry” — nicknamed for a Clint Eastwood character known for being ruthless and having no regard for the rules — cultivates a hard reputation going back to his childhood. “At the age of 16, I already killed someone. A real person, a rumble, a stabbing. … It was just over a look. How much more now that I am president?” Duterte said in November. But he didn’t come from the mean streets: Duterte’s father, like son, was a lawyer and politician, serving as governor of Davao. Young Rody had a rebellious streak, but after graduating law school he became a prosecutor and then the mayor of Davao City — never losing an election — for more than two decades.

Is there anything that can stop the popular populist? Probably not until a viable opposition comes along. 

Since his tough-guy campaign to seize the Philippines’ presidency in 2016, Duterte has been embroiled in two domestic wars. The first is his drug war — a national bloodletting for those tired of a seemingly incurable disease. In August, police combed the city of Caloocan for drug suspects. Kian Lloyd delos Santos, a 17-year-old student accused at the time of being a drug runner and shooting at police, was gunned down. Later, surveillance footage showed the teenager being dragged by police into an alley, where he would die.

Santos is among thousands killed by officers and vigilantes since Duterte granted permission to shoot drug suspects on sight, prompting international outrage but domestic applause. Some 78 percent of Filipinos approve of Duterte’s handling of the issue, according to the Pew Research Center. “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there are three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them,” Duterte has said.


The other war, with Islamist and independence insurgencies in southern islands, has been rumbling for more than 40 years, but it took an unexpected turn this year. The Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups declared allegiance to the Islamic State, leading to a fierce five-month battle with the Philippines’ military that left the regional capital of Marawi in ruins. “The Duterte government was so focused on the war on drugs it … forgot an equally critical issue like the looming radicalism that had been felt this past several months,” says Julkipli Wadi, former dean of the Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines.

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President Rodrigo Duterte giving the middle finger during an address to military personnel in which he urged them not to give up their weapons so easily while facing the enemy.

Source TED ALJIBE/Getty

Meanwhile, Duterte’s defiance in the face of international backlash on the drug war and other fronts showed what little there was to lose. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has followed suit, ordering police to gun down drug dealers. “No mercy for them,” he said in July, and since then police have killed nearly 100 suspects. “It may be that Jokowi has seen that Duterte’s drug war has been relatively popular,” says Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Still, it might not be so simple as to follow Duterte’s lead, as Prashanth Parameswaran points out in The Diplomat. The region is “a diverse, capable set of nations used to dealing with shifting geopolitical alignments far more dramatic than this nascent one,” he writes. The Philippines’ influence likely reached a high-water mark this year as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — and it could decline. “There is the overall potential impact of showing that illiberal democracy can work,” Kurlantzick says, “but most of the other ASEAN nations aren’t democracies anyway.” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, for example, was an autocrat long before Duterte took to the global stage.

Duterte’s pivot away from the West and toward closer relations with China has also attracted imitators. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak — himself a strongman accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from a state development fund — paid a state visit to China this fall. The move was seen by many as taking a page from Duterte’s playbook and putting aside territorial squabbles over the South China Sea to pursue an economic advantage with Asia’s dominant player. “I think Duterte is the most outspoken critic for an ASEAN for Asians,” says Heydarian. 

Domestically, is there anything that can stop the popular populist? Probably not until a viable opposition comes along. The president’s poll numbers recently took a hit, primarily in poorer regions impatient for economic reform but perhaps also signaling a limit to how much citizens can stomach in the bloody drug war. All the same, Filipinos who have expressed their distaste for liberal oligarchs of old and the new Duterte authoritarianism haven’t been shown door number three. “A third way doesn’t yet exist,” Heydarian says. So Duterte will continue to push the limits — especially with the media and military — to see how much he can get away with. “You’ve got to ask yourself one question,” Eastwood’s merciless Dirty Harry famously said. “Do I feel lucky?” From his critics to his opportunistic imitators, the world will be watching Duterte’s next move.