The rise of strong men: the case of the Philippines

By Kyaw Kyaw Aung

“Nationalism is bred in conditions of insecurity and violence.” – Mary Kaldor


Leaders with autocratic tendencies are part of world politics today, from Putin, who assassinated an opposition politician, to Trump threatening a trade war against China. Meanwhile, in March 2018 the annual National People’s Congress (the meeting of China’s legislature) removed term limits on presidency. This effectively allows Xi Jingping to rule indefinitely, and makes the Chinese political system more autocratic.

In the Philippines, there is Rodrigo Duterte, the current populist and seemingly autocratic president of Philippines. How is Duterte different from other elected leaders of Philippines?

Duterte is known for his support for vigilante justice towards people who are suspected or alleged to be involved in the illicit drug trade. Since his presidency began in 2016, there have been many extrajudicial killings. Human rights-monitoring NGOs estimate suspected drug dealers/users killed since 2016 to 2018 range from 12,000 to 70,000.  The election of Duterte caused an ideological shift from the usual pro-Western position of the dynastic politicians of Philippines at least in the words of President Duterte, and on social media, if not actions. Duterte comes not from the usual centres of power to the north of the country, but from Mindanao island to the south, the people of which often feel neglected by northerners.

What do the Philippines have in common with other countries headed by strong men?

As a poor country, the Philippines lose at the societal level when enforcement of laws is weak. Separatist movements in the south of the country have plagued the Philippines for many years, and there is no swift end in sight. Mob violence (Rido) between people of different tribal affiliations is so common that the police have published a handbook on the topic.  There is a lack of gainful work and  incomes are low. (The Philippines’ Government estimates that the average income per person (the whole country) is 22,000 pesos or about 500 Australian dollars in 2016.) These factors, and the addictive nature of illicit drugs, all keep the productivity of the economy low. Remittances from emigrants remain a significant feature in the Filipino economy. These factors contribute to or are symptoms of other socioeconomic problems including the drug cartels, violence and weak law enforcement on the southern islands.  On top of these, in August 2017 the peso hit an eleven-year low in the currency markets.

In the interconnected world, the unlawful markets internationalize as easily as lawful businesses do. In the third world, the state is often fragile. The Philippines isn’t an exception. Unchecked by functioning and well-equipped law enforcement agencies, trade in illicit goods has grown alongside legal trade in the interconnected world markets. When it comes to illicit drugs, the societal costs are very noticeable in the form of addicts and are often accompanied by organized transnational criminal activities of people peddling illicit drugs. Addicts often turn to crimes to buy more and more drugs. Out of this chaos, people clamour for order. This is what the leaders like Duterte seem to provide, at least in the eyes of the voters who are not necessarily educated or when fueled by nationalism and economic uncertainties.

Here, there are echoes of rise of Vladimir Putin, who was  propelled to power by collapse of the rouble and his defeat of Chechnyan separatists in 1998. Similarly the American workers who feel threatened by job redundancies have turned to the populist Donald Trump. The workers in the Philippines have many reasons to feel economic insecurity, and in times of uncertainty voters often seek comfort by supporting “strong men” leaders.

Melbourne-based Filipino community leader Melba Marginson succinctly describes the ongoing exploitation of the non-West by the West since colonial days as the root cause of all, including reaction of the poor at the polling booth. She adds that, in the Philippines, marred by corruption and a weak education system, Duterte and other populists could politicize the visible menace of illicit drugs. Like scholars and policy professionals who are evidence-based, she favours effective healthcare solutions to users of illicit drugs and ridding the demand for such drugs.

Do strong men ever solve the problems?

The  Philippines is a state in transition, with many flaws in democratic governance. The repressive rule of General Marcos 20-odd years ago is still a living memory for many. There are unresolved ethnic tensions in the south of the country. Corruption is still widespread. As mentioned, the state is relatively weak. Extrajudicial reactions to the problem of illicit drugs could turn back the clock on democracy in Philippines. On the economic side, the Philippines has been lacklustre. The rising political risks could deter investors and hamper  the legal  economy as well – the think-tank Economic Intelligence Unit  country report in May 2017 said Duterte’s presidency is one factor impacting on political stability:

“…..With various changes in the president’s cabinet, we will adjust our political stability forecast to reflect heightened policy uncertainty in many areas. This will negatively affect the business environment. … The approval rating of the president, Rodrigo Duterte, has remained high nearly a year into his term. It was only in April when his ratings fell from an average of above 80%—and now stand at 76%. This is not much of a reduction for a president who has not only threatened to install martial law in various instances but is also pushing to reinstate the death penalty. Much of his popularity is attributable to populist fiscal measures. However, his administration’s lack of focus on solving various structural economic issues will eventually make him vulnerable. …” (Economist Intelligence Unit, p. 23)

Extrajudicial actions and violence do not address the issues of poverty, corruption, and weak infrastructure. Rather, these issues cause the trend of people clamoring for strong men like President Duterte – but he and extrajudicial killings will not be able to solve these problems.

KyawKyaw Aung describes himself as a “Burmese Kiwi”. He holds a Master of Management degree from Massey University in New Zealand, and is currently studying a Master of International Relations at La Trobe University in Australia.

Further reading/References

Dimond, P. (2006). The Philippines: Fragile democracy or strong republic? Asian Affairs, 37(2), 210–219.

Go, J. R. R. (2017). Of choices, changes, and challenges: the Philippines in 2016. Philippine Political Science Journal, 38(1), 48–73.

Gunaratna, R., & Taufiqurrohman, M. (2014). Insurgency and Terrorism in East Asia: Threat and Response. In Non-Traditional Security in East Asia (Vols 1–0, pp. 23–48). IMPERIAL COLLEGE PRESS.

Hall, H., & Hall, T. (2013). Geographies of the illicit. Progress in Human Geography, 37(3), 366–385.

Kaldor, Mary : Nationalism & Globalisation, in Nations and Nationalism, 2004 vol 10, p168)



Kaya, Z. N., & Whiting, M. (2014). Ethno-National Separatism in East Asia: The International Dimension. In Non-Traditional Security in East Asia (Vols 1–0, pp. 93–118). IMPERIAL COLLEGE PRESS.

Manila’s war on drugs is helping Philippines-China relations. (2017, October 1). South China Morning Post. Retrieved from

MacDonald, Z. (2004). What Price Drug Use? The Contribution of Economics to an Evidence-Based Drugs Policy. Journal of Economic Surveys, 18(2), 113–152.

Miller, T. R., Levy, D. T., Cohen, M. A., & Cox, K. L. C. (2006). Costs of Alcohol and Drug-Involved Crime. Prevention Science, 7(4), 333–342.

Philippines/United States: Duterte sees better ties with US under Trump Presidency. (2016a, December 6). Asia News Monitor; Bangkok. Retrieved from

Philippines/United States: Philippines Duterte Says ‘Bye, Bye’ to US, Its Aid. (2016b, December 20). Asia News Monitor; Bangkok. Retrieved from

Pringle, D. G. (1998). Globalisation, reterritorialisation and national identity. Geopolitics, 3(3), 1–13.

Survey shows Filipinos more satisfied with Duterte government than any. (2018, January 18). Reuters. Retrieved from

The Economist Intelligence Unit N.A., Incorporated. (2017). Country Report Philippines May 2017. London, United States, London. Retrieved from

United States/Philippines: Duterte has no plans to visit US – Palace. (2017, July 24). Asia News Monitor; Bangkok. Retrieved from

Average Family Income in 2015 is Estimated at 22 Thousand Pesos Monthly (Results from the 2015 Family Income and Expenditure Survey) | Philippine Statistics Authority. (n.d.). Retrieved 20 March 2018, from

Canuday, J. J. (2014). Big War, Small Wars, The Interplay of Large-scale and Community Armed Conflicts in Five Central Mindanao Communities. In W. M. Torres III (Ed.), Rido: Clan Feuding and Conflict Management in Mindanao (Expanded, pp. 220–253). Quezon City, Philippines: Ateneo De Manila University Press.

Donors. (n.d.). Retrieved 15 February 2018, from

Drug war in 2017: The year of deaths and denials. (n.d.). Retrieved 20 March 2018, from

IN NUMBERS: The Philippines’ ‘war on drugs’. (n.d.). Retrieved 20 March 2018, from

Led by China, Mekong nations take on Golden Triangle narco-empire. (2016, March 17). Reuters. Retrieved from


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