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How Duterte’s Time in Power Shook Up the Philippines

The Punisher. Dirty Harry. Donald Trump of the East. These were nicknames given to President Rodrigo Duterte, a fiery populist who waged a deadly war on drugs in the Philippines. Elected in 2016, he scrambled the country’s international loyalties, shook up big business and angered women’s groups and the Catholic Church. And that was before missteps in handling the Covid-19 pandemic led to one of the highest case rates in Southeast Asia and tens of thousands of deaths, tanking the economy as well. Yet Duterte remains popular with a wide base -- which helped the alliance that included his daughter pull off the biggest win in four decades in the race to succeed him.

1. Why is Duterte leaving?

Duterte, who is 77, was limited by the constitution to one term, which ended on June 30, 2022. After considering various scenarios, he eventually decided to retire from politics. He backed his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, who ran for the vice presidency (which is elected separately) allied with former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the late dictator’s son. Election data show that Marcos owes the Dutertes for the large margin of victory. Though Marcos beat runner-up Leni Robredo for the presidency by almost 31 percentage points in the May 9 election, Sara Duterte won her race by an even bigger amount. 

2. What’s his economic record?

Rodrigo Duterte inherited a strong economy from his predecessor, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, and kept growth running above 6% in his first four years as president, with jobless and poverty rates staying low. The Philippines also got its highest credit rating as tax overhauls were implemented, following on Aquino’s efforts to pursue tax evaders. Spending on infrastructure also increased. The pandemic reversed those gains, however. Two major contributors -- remittances and domestic consumption -- were gutted as businesses shut and overseas workers returned home or were idled. Gross domestic product plunged 9.6% in 2020, the largest drop since 1946, and unemployment climbed, especially in the Manila metro area, home to a third of the country’s economic activity. GDP growth returned in 2021 as virus restrictions eased, with a forecast for 2022 of 7% to 8% -- among the fastest in Asia. But the new officials face a mountain of challenges, including surging inflation and government debt that ballooned due to the pandemic.

3. How did Duterte handle the pandemic? 

Duterte used wide-scale lockdowns to stem the outbreak, tapping the police and military to enforce curbs on movement. Infections dropped early in 2021 but soared again with the spread of the more infectious delta variant, filling hospitals amid struggles with testing and tracing in a fragmented health system. The Philippines, which relied mostly on Chinese shots to start its vaccine drive, has lagged well behind most of its Southeast Asian neighbors in the percentage of the population inoculated. Case numbers were relatively low by mid-2022, after an omicron-driven wave early in the year. 

4. Why Chinese vaccines?

It reflected the pivot to China -- and away from the US -- that Duterte began soon after taking office. Chinese loans and grants to the Philippines were at $621 million in 2020, up from $1.6 million in 2016, as investments poured into telecommunications and other areas. Trading ties were also strengthened, and Chinese visitors boosted Philippine tourism pre-pandemic. Online casinos employing and targeting mostly mainland Chinese boomed then too. In 2018, Xi Jinping became the first Chinese president to visit in over a decade. The following year, Duterte said he’d ignore an international court ruling affirming his country’s territorial claims in the South China Sea to advance a joint oil exploration deal with China. As his term wound down, however, promises of big-ticket projects and billions of dollars in investments from China were largely unfulfilled. Tensions over the South China Sea have flared again and oil exploration plans have stalled.

5. How are things with the US?

Getting better after a rough patch. The two countries have been treaty allies since 1951, five years after the US granted the Philippines independence. Duterte, however, chafed at the relationship, questioning the US commitment and lashing out at what he perceived as US hypocrisy and meddling, often over his drug war. Early on he ended joint sea patrols and threatened to expel American soldiers. He even cursed then-President Barack Obama. Duterte dialed down his verbal attacks after President Donald Trump took office in 2017, and as naval tensions with China escalated. In July Duterte retracted his termination of a Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, allowing the two countries to continue military exercises -- a major victory for Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden. (Duterte said later it was “just give and take” in exchange for donated US coronavirus vaccines.) The US will also resume projects in Philippine military bases as part of another defense pact.

6. Is there still a war on drugs?

Duterte’s drug fight, which he had promised to complete in six months, went on despite the pandemic. It escalated “dramatically” during the lockdown in 2020, according to a Human Rights Watch report. The campaign targeted impoverished Filipinos mostly in urban areas, with the police and unidentified gunmen associated with the force committing thousands of extra-judicial killings, according to the report. The drug war killed more than 6,000, according to government data, but human rights groups estimate the death toll is much higher. Judges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague in September 2021 authorized an investigation into possible crimes against humanity committed during the war on drugs, despite Duterte’s earlier withdrawal from the tribunal in protest. Duterte, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, criticized outside interference and said anyone who “acted beyond bounds” during the war on drugs would be held “accountable” by the Philippine justice system. The ICC suspended its investigation to assess the Philippines’ request to defer to its own probe. In June the ICC prosecutor asked for permission to resume his investigation, calling the deferral unwarranted. 

7. How will he be remembered? 

His approval rating reached a record-high in 2020, and his government’s response to the health crisis was also received positively. But his popularity began to wane in 2021 as the pandemic dragged on. His harshest critic, Senator Leila de Lima, has been jailed since 2017 on drug charges that she calls politically motivated. He has also attacked the media, including prominent journalist Maria Ressa, who’s facing several court cases and was a co-winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for her “courageous fight for freedom of expression.” Her news website Rappler Inc. was facing the possibility of a shutdown in the waning days of Duterte’s administration, after the Securities and Exchange Commission stood by its decision to revoke the site’s license to operate.

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