The Philippines’ Duterte: In pursuit of an imperial presidency

The recent midterm election in the Philippines drastically enhanced the president’s power.

Rodrigo Duterte
Allies of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte secured a major victory in recent midterm elections [File: AP/Bullit Marquez]

Although President Rodrigo Duterte‘s name was not on the ballot in the May 13 midterm elections in the Philippines, the vote served as a referendum on his disruptive and unorthodox leadership.

Over the past three years, the controversial Filipino leader has defied practically every political convention and general public decorum. To the utter shock of even his closest aides, he has insulted the Catholic faith, cussed at American leaders, openly embraced China as a “friend”, and unleashed a scorched-earth drug war that has claimed the lives of thousands of people. 

The democratic opposition sought to leverage the elections to check Duterte’s worst instincts. Instead, they suffered their greatest electoral defeat in recent history, setting the stage for an imperial presidency with potentially dire consequences for Philippine democracy.

Duterte’s allies won a significant part of the 18,000 elected offices up for grabs in municipal, city, provincial and legislative races across the country. Most crucially, they secured a supermajority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Thus, the midterm elections have given the president a carte blanche to push his authoritarian populist agenda to its logical conclusion, including the introduction of a new constitution that serves his interests.

Follow the leader

To be fair, those who the presidential administration backs tend to perform well during midterm elections in the Philippines. The main reason for this is because parties aligned with the presidency tend to benefit from the vast resources of the state, including financing and security services.

As a result, the opposition is usually at a great disadvantage given limited resources available. This election season, Duterte’s opponents struggled with scarce funding, found few local government units willing to host their campaign events, and relied heavily on volunteers for their campaigns.

Having no strong, united and charismatic leadership, the opposition also failed to provide a counterweight to the president’s popularity and challenge his brand of authoritarian populism. 

In advance of the midterm elections, Duterte’s approval ratings skyrocketed to a historic-high of 81 percent, according to a local polling agency. The president did not hesitate to use his popularity as precious political capital to help get those who would support his agenda elected. Throughout the months-long campaign, he actively endorsed his allies, including his former consigliere Bong Go, former police chief Ronald dela Rosa, political adviser Francis Tolentino, and close associate Imee Marcos (the daughter of former Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos), all of whom won Senate seats.

Duterte’s persistently high popularity is very much a reflection of society-wide attitudes. Fed up with decades of gridlock in government and poor public services, a palpable “democracy fatigue” has taken hold of the majority of Filipinos. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, more than 80 percent of Filipinos prefer a decisive and strong-willed leader who does not bother with institutional checks and balances; only 15 percent of respondents in the survey were categorically committed to democracy.

Failing to recognise these realities, the opposition sought to mobilise voters through platforms based on democratic values and human rights. They hoped that the brutality of Duterte’s drug war would encourage more people to support liberal parties calling for the rule of law and respect for state institutions, but they were mistaken. The majority of Filipinos still support anti-drug operations, even if they have reservations on the violent methods being used.

The other strategies of the opposition to earn the sympathy of voters also failed. They questioned Duterte’s cosy relations with China, given the continuing dispute over islands in the South China Sea and concerns of growing Chinese influence over the Philippine economy. But in this election, foreign policy did not seem to be a major factor influencing voters’ decisions.

Opposition parties also heavily criticised Duterte’s ability to manage the economy, as growth stumbled over the past year amid lower domestic consumption and foreign direct investment. But before the elections, the government dropped import tariffs on foods and took a number of other stop-gap measures which brought down the high inflation rates from six percent in October 2018 to just three percent in April. 

Facing a widely popular president with a wealth of state resources to use in favour of his political allies, the opposition was ultimately outgunned, outspent and outsmarted. 

Dark clouds ahead

The opposition’s weak performance at the polls allowed Duterte to secure again a supermajority in the House of Representatives and increase his gains in the Senate, which in the past had struck down a number of his problematic legislative proposals. Duterte’s allies are expected to win almost all of the 12 Senate seats; the other 12 seats in the upper house which were not contested in this election, only four are held by opposition members.

This new set-up of the Congress will allow the president to pass through controversial legislation with little to no opposition. He has vowed, for example, to reinstate the death penalty and reduce the age for criminal liability from 15 to 12, to boost his bloody war on drugs.

Most crucially, if he receives the backing of enough members of Congress, Duterte can introduce amendments to the Constitution.

During his 2016 election campaign, he repeatedly spoke about the benefits of a federal system. Hailing from the impoverished and conflict-ridden southern island of Mindanao, Duterte has argued that granting greater autonomy to peripheral regions would help with the redistribution of resources in the country. After he was elected, he tasked the Congress with drafting the text of constitutional amendments to implement a new federal system.

There are fears, however, that Duterte’s constitutional change proposal is a Trojan horse that aims to eliminate institutional checks on presidential power, emaciate liberal values and human rights, or worse – remove restrictions on his term in office, which should end in 2022 per the current constitution.

The proposals for constitutional amendments that have been put forward so far contain worrying provisions that could see the office of the vice president, long a bastion of opposition, eliminated and the office of the ombudsman and the Commission on Human Rights downsized or abolished altogether. Although the current texts under consideration do not mention the lifting of presidential term limits, it could still be added by the new Congress. At the same time, the proposed introduction of a prime minister’s post without term limits and enhanced powers could serve as an alternative office Duterte could pursue. 

The president needs a two-thirds majority to get the new constitutional amendments through Congress and then a yes vote in a popular referendum. The midterm election made it extremely easy to secure the approval of the legislature and with his soaring ratings, he could easily convince the public to vote in favour of the constitutional changes. This would effectively lay the ground for a new authoritarian regime in the Philippines. 

Three years ago, a shocking electoral victory catapulted Duterte from a provincial mayorship to the presidency. The midterm elections, however, may have turned him into a king. Philippine democracy now faces its greatest challenge in a generation, as the country seems to follow in the footsteps of Hungary and Turkey. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.