Bloodied Democracy: Duterte and the Death of Liberal Reformism in the Philippines

Mark R. Thompson


Since assuming the presidency, Rodrigo R. Duterte has “stuck to his guns” in carrying out his campaign pledge to launch a violent anti-drug campaign. Duterte’s presidency was preceded by six years of political stability and high growth under the relatively liberal and supposedly reformist administration of President Benigno “Noynoy” S. Aquino, III. What did voters find so appealing about Duterte given that drugs and criminality were not a major national concern until he launched his candidacy? Unlike previous populist politicians in the post-Marcos Philippines, Duterte’s strongest support did not come from the poorest voters but rather from the elite and the middle class who most feared for their personal security. Although Aquino was widely perceived to be personally honest, his administration had become “systemically disjunctive” and vulnerable to replacement by violent illiberalism because its narrative of “good governance” had been undermined, its strategic allies were weakened, and liberal institutions discredited. Duterte is an illiberal populist who changed the prevailing political order into an illiberal one through a new law-and-order governing script, new key strategic groups (the communist left and the police), and the quick removal of remaining liberal constraints (particularly in Congress and the Supreme Court). Duterte constructed a strongman political model at the local level before “nationalising” it after his election as president.

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