Philippine’s Rodrigo Duterte: An effective leader or a despotic one?

Published: September 17, 2016

Duterte Orders AFP to Arrest ISIS Educators in Southern Philippines. PHOTO: AP

Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte has been in the news for all the wrong reasons.  First, he has been accused of large scale human rights violation, where tens and thousands of people have lost their lives due to extra judicial killings, drug trafficking, rape, murder, arson and other related criminal activities.

The second incident relates to an interview he had given, where, when asked how he would react if Barack Obama were to criticise him for extra judicial killings of over 1,000 persons involved in drug trafficking and other acts of crime, he responded with cuss words against the president.

Although Duterte realised his faux pas and expressed regret over his intemperate remarks, and blamed the media for misquoting him – the damage was already done. As expected, Obama cancelled an important meeting planned with him, where, amongst other things, the growing tension in the South China Sea was part of the agenda.

Duterte probably did not realise the effect of his intemperate language for the world’s most powerful man. Moreover, it came at an inopportune time – when East Asia is grappling with the growing Chinese threat in the South and East China Sea. China has undertaken several reclamation projects in the reefs in the disputed Spartly Islands, with the intention of building military outposts there. In fact, China had also physically prevented the Filipino fishermen from fishing around the disputed island.

These aggressive designs come at a time when the International Arbitration Board had adjudicated the matter in favour of the Philippines, rejecting China’s claim of sovereignty over the island.

As both, Vietnam and Philippines, do not have the power to take on the might of China, they looked towards the United States for help. The US sent its naval destroyer to show a defiant China that it would not bow down to its aggressive posture in the region and warned China that its efforts to illegally develop in the disputed island would be met with a fitting response.

Furthermore, in the recently held ASEAN summit held in Laos, Cambodia, the US government tried to bring all ASEAN countries together under a common platform to respond to the Chinese threat. The meeting was of great significance, as this was the first meeting after the Hague tribunal’s award – where the tension in the region was being discussed.

Unfortunately, Duterte muddied the waters with his off the cuff remarks that ended up only helping China’s cause. He did not realise that in the event of the US refusing to come to his aid, he would not be in a position to take on the might of China.

It must be said to Duterte’s credit that his aggressive steps to reduce crime and taking on powerful drug lords has made him extremely popular amongst the people. In spite of criticisms of his critics, his approval rating has touched a historic 91%, and is seen as a decisive and effective leader able to take on various powerful criminal lobbies.

In the presidential elections held this year, he promised voters that he would come down heavily on drug traffickers, criminals and corrupt government officials. In his five months of presidency, he has managed to drastically bring down the crime rate, though his methods have been severely criticised, especially by the United Nations (UN) and NGOs like Amnesty International.

Recently, he issued a carte blanche to the police and military personnel to go after all the criminals and any individuals involved in extra judicial killings. Those indulging in criminal activities would receive the presidential pardon. The courts and media also have been silenced, and there is not a single institution in the Philippines that has the courage to take him on. He has also warned the Supreme Court that if they persist in being critical of his actions, he will invoke the martial law in Philippines.

He has also threatened all journalists not to report extra judicial killings and to refrain from personally attacking him in the press. There is a sense of fear and foreboding in the country, and people are afraid to report various human rights violations. Not surprisingly, he considers the former President Ferdinand Marcos, a despotic and corrupt leader, as his hero.

It should be mentioned that Duterte’s use of cuss word against the US president is not the first of its kind.

Duterte is known to suffer from verbal diarrhoea. When stuck in a traffic jam during the Pope’s visit to Manila, he used foul language against the Pope. Similarly, when the UN accused him for various human rights violations, he said,

“F*** you, UN; you can’t even solve the Middle East carnage.”

There are several such instances where he had used colourful words unbecoming of the office he holds. Recently, he called Ban ki-Moon a fool for bringing up the issue of human rights violations weeks before the summit in Laos. His scant respect for criticism of his functioning style came to the fore when Amnesty International wanted him to be investigated for at least 700 suspicious deaths. Undeterred, Duterte, in an interview with a TV Channel, said,

“Seven hundred? They miscalculated. It is around 1,700!”

His attitude is emblematic of a culture of dictatorship, corruption and violence that has prevailed in the Philippine society ever since its independence in 1946. Successive presidents, barring two presidents, Ramos Magsaysay and Corazon Aquino, were involved in large scale corruption and nepotism.

But, in all fairness, credit must be given to Duterte for his relentless fight against drug trafficking and other criminal activities in the country. However, his method of tackling the growing crimes is questionable. Arbitrary and extra judicial killings are infringements on the fundamental rights of individuals. It is true that there is a strong presence of mafias in the Philippines, with many known criminals holding important positions of office (some have even been elected to the Philippine Congress), who continue their illegal activities by misusing their positions.

Duterte brought his excellent track record as a mayor of Davos city for over 22 years to the presidency. He had single-handedly brought down crime rates in the city and was instrumental in transforming the city as the safest city in the country. Duterte had also managed to bring Muslim insurgents, barring few fringe elements, to the mainstream. For those Islamist groups, which were responsible for killing over 100,000 people since 1970 – he has promised to eliminate them.

If Duterte wants to go down in Philippine history as an able and effective leader, he should immediately change his leadership style. He needs to show more maturity, be suave in dealing with the opposition, needs to stop all human rights violations in the country, restore freedom to the journalists, make courts independent of government interference, and above all – introduce economic reforms for millions of impoverished individuals.

As a leading Indian newspaper aptly summed up,

“These challenges and weaknesses don’t guarantee his failure as president. But he would do better if he toned down the rhetoric, adopted a more conciliatory approach in order to buy peace with political rivals, and pursued an inclusive, growth-centric approach.”

If, however, he refuses to change his style, he may not be able to continue in his position for long.

K S Venkatachalam

K S Venkatachalam

The author is an independent journalist and political commentator. He tweets as @Venkat48 (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Parvez

    In short what you say is that he is popular at home but not abroad ( read USA ) and you end by suggesting that if he does not change, he would be changed, but how ? regime change from afar ? ….let me remind you that you say he’s popular at home. Recommend

  • malcolmkyle

    The Rome Statute defines murder or persecution that is knowingly “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against any civilian population” as a crime against humanity. The wide-scale extrajudicial killings carried out under Duterte’s orders meet that definition. Duterte will soon stand trial in the International Court of The Hague for the unlawful murder of many thousands of civilians.

    Dear people of the Philippines:

    An elected government should not declare war and militarize against its own people. Historically, the use of force to address/prohibit non-violent, victimless activities has only ever produced negative results. Such a violent crusade against civilians invariably evolves into a full-blown civil war.

    It is now obvious (at least to the rest of humanity) that you have foolishly elected a psychotic despot for president. This means that you no longer have due process, constitutionally protected rights or fair trials in a public forum. Suspicion or rumor is now all that’s required to terminate the life of any citizen.

    Nowhere on this planet has any nation ever had success with the policy of drug prohibition. Many of your villages, towns and cities will be turned into killing fields. Hundreds of thousands of you may now die. Your most precious institutions and possessions will be destroyed—but the drugs, the corruption and the violence will still be there and the world will finally realize how dangerous and utterly destructive prohibition really is.

    You are actually in the process of destroying your own society and nothing can change your fate. Every one of you is now vulnerable to deadly attack; world-wide drug prohibition has finally reached its inevitable conclusion.

    Thank you for helping to teach the world this powerful lesson with the blood of your own families!Recommend

  • malcolmkyle

    The Rome Statute defines murder or persecution that is knowingly “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against any civilian population” as a crime against humanity. The wide-scale extrajudicial killings carried out under Duterte’s orders meet that definition. Duterte will soon stand trial in the International Court of The Hague for the unlawful murder of many thousands of civilians.Recommend

  • Msia Cheng

    The news is mostly depend who are you writing for in my opinion.Philippine is not India or the USA.The current Philippine is work for all level of Philippino not like the previous President only served the rich.If you said he rude I have no word to say.I will think this is his character when someone is not happy.Until now there is no one is better than Duterte to deal with the problem of Southern of Philippine the anyone else.History had proved the US and The UN is the biggest failure for World Peace.We in S.E.A don’t want another “Middle East” made by the US in our front door or our neighbor’s life will be miserable.The issue faced by this country is only able to solved by the “local method of way” outsider only come is only for profiteering or specific interest they want? If not mistaken the president term maximum is just for 5 years ,do you think anyone can fix all these problem within 5 years or you hope there will be a clone “Rodrigo Duterte ” on the way which will match the “same quality”.Difference countries have it own rules & regulation and don’t forget the rules is manmade it can be change for example you cannot ask they to play the “American or the Indian Game of Rules” they cannot pay you if lost.All side in the Philippine from The Muslim,The Communist and The Government if one day can achieve a deal for peace and creating jobs opportunity then who want to play with the gun and the bullet.It is true still some countries who provide you gun & weaponry to asked you to fight,to war.Recommend

  • Milind A

    As much as the Philippines needs the US, the US to needs it, to counter the Chinese threat. So actually the US is at fault here, trying to meddle in the affairs of other countries and antagonizing its allies for trivial reasons.. This dictator is doing a good job in cleaning up his society and his tactics may not appeal to others, but its their prerogative.. As it is the US has already bent backwards to accomodate regressive Middle East countries like KSA…Recommend

  • yea right

    i believe that was not successful though. besides, if you’re not from the Philippines as i am, then you might want to think before you speak.The ones who died during police operations are hardly innocent. and as of the moment, all these cases his political enemies are cooking will not work out.Recommend

  • yea right

    and you are from?Recommend

  • Manish Rai

    Thanks for sharing the post. Very informative post,it clears all my confusions.