Richard Heydarian: Duterte’s Rise in Perspective

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Richard Heydarian: Duterte’s Rise in Perspective

Richard Heydarian discusses Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s rise to power and the implications.

Richard Heydarian: Duterte’s Rise in Perspective
Credit: ASEAN Secretariat

Richard Heydarian is an academic and author based in the Philippines. His recent book, The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy, analyzes the path to power of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and its implications not just for the country, but the broader region and the world.

He recently spoke with The Diplomat’s associate editor Prashanth Parameswaran about Duterte’s personality, his policies, and the broader trend of populism that has gripped several areas of the world.

Though the book itself focuses on the rise of Duterte in the Philippines, one of the valuable contributions you try to make is to get beyond the personality and this one case and situate that within the broader perspective of the rise of populism in emerging market democracies. What does that bigger picture look like from your perspective?

Commentaries on Duterte often focused on his psychology, unorthodox behavior, and outrageous statements. That is all fine and dandy, except I think it misses the bigger point.

In my book, I took a different approach. I placed his rise to power within the broader context of democracy fatigue across what emerging market democracies, tracing an arc of populism stretching across Turkey and India to Indonesia to the Philippines.

If you look at all these four countries, they have scored impressive growth rates in the past decade; in many ways, they have never had it this good. And yet, we also see a growing public penchant for so-called “authentic,” single-minded populists and proto-strongmen, who have offered overnight solutions to complex 21st century challenges that beset rapidly developing nations.

What is at the heart of this trend is the search for certainty amid the age of disruptive modernization and, most importantly, political degeneration: the inability of glacially-developing state institutions to cope with an exponential increase in societal demand for improved public goods and services.

You’re also pretty clear in the book about the role of agency in Duterte’s rise in the Philippines, including what he did well to finally register an election win last year that few had expected earlier on. But how much of the credit goes to those agential factors, and what portion of that to Duterte as opposed to his rivals and other unique features of that election?

Without a question, some element of contingency contributed to Duterte’s ascent to presidency, especially the failure of his opponents to cover their own vulnerability as well as their refusal to take him seriously until it was too late.

To be fair, Duterte also proved himself adept in shaping the news agenda with an aggressive social media campaign, quotable quotes and cusses, and an uncanny ability to capture the hearts and minds of millions of devoted voters. That last point is especially important. These are people who formerly shunned politics as a cynical arena of inter-elite competition, but now saw a path to paradise.

Duterte also managed to appeal across the socioeconomic divide. He offered safety to the more prosperous Filipinos via an aggressive anti-crime campaign. He offered humor and entertainment to the masses who saw him as a protest vote against the uncaring liberal elite, and you cannot underestimate this in Philippine politics. He also offered greater political autonomy and also attention to peripheral regions of Mindanao and Visayas via federalism.

In short, he skillfully offered something precious to every relevant section of the society. It proved a winning formula, especially in the context of a divided, five-man race for presidency.

The book also gets into a lot of detail about Duterte the man. Not just in terms of the personality, which is no doubt colorful, but how to understand more contested issues, such as how significant and in some ways unprecedented he really is from the perspective of Philippine politics, and how much of a populist he really is. These are still hotly debated issues, but what’s your verdict here?

His authenticity as the “man of the masses” is real, and I think that’s been pretty clear. As for uniqueness, sure, he does come from the powerful Duterte clan, and his late father was in fact the former governor of Davao. His children have been the mayor and vice mayor of the southern city. So this does make him less of an outsider than perhaps he might be seen as portraying.

Yet, on several counts, Duterte is indeed unique in Philippine history. He is the first president from the southern island of Mindanao. He is the first Filipino politician who leapfrogged from local politics to the presidency. He is first self-described socialist Philippine leader. He is the first president to openly question the U.S.-Philippine alliance. And of course, he is the first mainstream Philippine politician who has cursed or questioned nearly every sacred national figure and institution, including the Catholic Church. If you add all of that up, it is a long list.

Duterte came into office with a fairly ambitious domestic agenda, with not just the so-called war on drugs, but also big projects like federalism. We’re still just over a year into his single, six-year term, but the agenda has predictably progressed much slower than he had advertised. How would you assess his record on this thus far?

It’s a mixed bag so far to be sure. The drug war has drawn heavy criticism from across the world. Surveys also show that the public supports his anti-crime agenda in principle, but majority are fearful of and disagree with extrajudicial killings. After a series of mishaps, Duterte has, for the meantime, suspended the so-called “Tokhang” operations. Earlier plans for charter change is well behind schedule. Peace talks with communist rebels have effectively collapsed.

Abroad, we’ve heard a lot about Duterte’s idea of an “independent foreign policy,” with the premise being maintaining ties with old partners like the United States but also diversifying ties more with countries like China and Russia. But implementation-wise, there are still lingering doubts about what this actually means, and change actually looks far less dramatic than often portrayed in media accounts. What’s your assessment of how that’s played out so far?

Beyond the rhetoric, the reality is that Duterte’s pursuit of an “independent” track has, so far, largely placed the country in what I call a “strategic sweet spot.” He has managed to solicit assistance from many major powers, including the United States as well as China. This was most evident in the case of Marawi operations, where all external powers offered assistance.

The problem is Duterte’s China overtures have emboldened Beijing to expand its footprint in the South China Sea with strategic impunity. So he may have bought temporary peace at the cost of conflict down the road.

It is important to keep in mind though that Duterte’s biggest challenge, however, is reconstruction of Marawi city and, of course, addressing the top three priorities of voters: wages, employment, and inflation. It is here that he will have to step up the game or risk further slide in his approval ratings, which are far from extraordinary by Philippine standards.