Unpacking Dutertism

The ‘best’ way to assess President Rodrigo Duterte’s year in office is to look at him and his presidency on his own terms—to understand and unpack Dutertism itself. Is this a homegrown ‘ideology’ shaped by the experience in governance of a local leader-turned-national? What are the contradictions in his government, between policy and action? If we try and look closely, where can we find coherence in or between Duterte and his own government?


The president inherited an economy that was growing at an average rate of 6.2 percent, driven by strong investor confidence. Contrary to what many people think today, there was also significant public approval of Aquino’s Daang Matuwid (Straight Path) program. A Social Weather Stations pre-election survey conducted in February 2016 found that around 60 percent of Filipinos would support a candidate that will continue the development vision of the Aquino administration.

That isn’t to say that Aquino’s economic policies didn’t have weaknesses. Economists have pointed out more “pervasive and structural problems facing the Philippine economy- unemployment and income inequality, and concerns about sustaining “confidence-led growth” due to weak government standards, poor and inadequate infrastructure, political instability, and the increasing public perception that the growth has not been inclusive.”

The Duterte administration’s major challenge was to balance competing interests and issues – continuing towards the path to high growth, sustaining investor confidence in the economy, addressing constraints such as inadequate infrastructure and high energy costs on the one hand, and on the other, public demands for more secure and better paying jobs, agrarian reform implementation, better public services in health and transportation, and more transformative social protection.

Disappointment at the outset

There was expectation that Duterte’s strongman style of governance would be translated to strong government intervention in the economy for more inclusive development. But at the outset, he disappointed with his pronouncement that he would take a “hands-off” approach to economic policies. This government sees its primary role in the economy in the preservation of law and order, enforcement of contracts, and fostering competitive markets. These are functions straight out of the neoliberal rulebook.

For one of the core economic development programs of the current government, Build, Build, Build, the Department of Transportation is targeting to implement 57 percent of the total infrastructure projects worth PHP1.17 billion. The remaining projects are expected to be handled by the Department of Public Works Highway and Bases Conversion Development Agency. At face value, it appears that there is a shift in policy as more than half of the projects will be sourced from the General Appropriations Act and official development assistance, including Chinese ODA.

Duterte’s infrastructure projects will still focus on the National Capital Region, Central Luzon and the Southern Tagalog region, comprising more than 80 percent of all infrastructure projects’ costs, similar to Aquino’s. Projects for the Visayas and Mindanao account for only 12.5 percent of total costs even under Duterte; four out of 10 projects are carry-over form the Arroyo and Aquino administrations.

Aid for middle class, not poor

These projects will basically facilitate the activities of the middle class, more than uplift the poor’s access to public services, as they involve right-of-way, possible displacement of urban poor communities (e.g. LRT line 7, Metro Manila subway), and clearing of lands and cutting of trees. These socio-environmental impacts, costs and risks are unfortunately not included in the project design and estimation.

In another key economic sector, agriculture, Candidate Duterte promised to prioritize smallholder agriculture by addressing long-standing issues of agrarian and land reform and food security in his first 100 days in office, as well as provide support services. He pledged to focus on Mindanao’s great potential as the country’s food basket and to spread the wealth to regions that have lagged. His appointments of farmer leaders Rafael Mariano and Emmanuel Pinol, to the Department of Agrarian Reform and Department of Agriculture respectively, signaled a re-prioritization of the agrarian and agriculture sectors, which were welcomed by many.

But a year hence, Duterte’s agriculture-agrarian reform agenda can be best described as lacking in coherence. There is strong populist rhetoric for the marginalized and poor in the countryside, but Duterte’s policy still favors agribusiness and big players as movers of the sector. The 2017-2022 Philippine Development Plan prioritizes the lifting of qualitative restrictions on rice importation, a mechanism to limit the country’s rice importation, as a commitment to the World Trade Organization. The National Economic and Development Authority is supportive of this, signaling to the DA to shift its focus on providing rice farmers with diversified livelihood and income opportunities. The DA, however, has endorsed the extension of EO 190, which imposes tariff rates for imported agricultural products including rice.

The DA budget also decreased from PHP54 billion in 2016 to PHP50.6 billion in 2017, a cut of PHP3.4 million. This is on top of the PHP7-billion budget cut for the department’s “Philippine rural development project” in 2017. Funding for farm-to-market roads was also slashed, from PHP 7.4 billion to PHP 5.4 billion this year. The budget cuts can address alleged fund irregularities during the time of former Secretary Alcala, but on one hand, this also signals de-prioritization of agricultural development despite Duterte’s pro-farmer campaign promise.

Meanwhile, despite policy pronouncements on ensuring ‘ecological integrity’ and a clean and healthy environment, the country’s ecological resources and the welfare and rights of communities who rely on them are the biggest collateral damage in the ensuing political contest over how the environment will be governed and whose interests will prevail. The Duterte administration has shifted from an anti-mining stance to ‘responsible mining’, which has been the policy of past administrations.

While the 2017-2022 development plan maintains that renewable industry will be the focus of its energy policy (adopting Arroyo/Aquino’s plan), Duterte has committed to a dirty energy policy. Renewable energy, which started in 2009, accounted for 39 percent of the country’s energy share but in 2016, its share has decreased to 29 percent and may continue to decline in the next five years.

Another disconcerting development is the revival of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. The president has earmarked US$1 billion for its rehabilitation, to be undertaken through “government-to-government” partnership. Nuclear energy is widely acknowledged to be detrimental to a country’s development path, environment, and people’s survival.

Dutertism is not Socialism

Where lies the coherence between pronouncement, policy, and execution is in the war on drugs, via project “double barrel” or tokhang. President Duterte won on a campaign platform that has for its central program war on drugs, with drugs seen as the existential threat to the nation, and to address criminality with iron hand. This promise hit the ground running immediately after he was sworn into office, and this violent, uncompromising approach has already resulted in the deaths of more than 10,000 people on the first year of its execution.

But the war on drugs is not just about peace and order and security (maybe for select members of the population). It fits well in a social-economic agenda that has no place for the poor—our own “wretched of the earth”—and underpinned by an economic system that kills off (literally and figuratively) those who could not survive the free market jungle.

From news reports, the victims’ profile would tell us that they belonged mostly to the urban underclass, the slum dwellers, even if the data would vary even from official government sources.

Duterte was not joking when he said that the war on drugs would be his anti-poverty program. Despite the rhetoric, the government does not prioritize social safety nets to catch the poor. The Philippine budget for 2017, called the People’s Budget, mentions as one of four pillars social order and equitable progress: “To foster peace and progress, especially in conflict-affected areas, the 2017 Budget will fund programs and projects designed to fight crimes and instill order in society. It also reinforces infrastructure investments and expands employment opportunities to ensure that growth is felt in the lagging regions.”

Therefore, social order is no longer based on addressing the deeper causes of disorder, which is poverty, lack of education, lack of livelihood and resources for the poor to survive, to re-enter mainstream society as productive citizens and not as dregs of society.

At the beginning of his term, Duterte ordered the adoption of a “Cuban-style” socialized healthcare system, free education and other such programs which aims to ultimately solve the public’s woes when it comes to social security. The 2017-2022 development plan itself states that the government recognizes human development not just as a means to an end (i.e., human capital as a factor of production) but also an end in itself. Both the PDP and the Ambisyon 2040 put human development under the capitalist lens where addressing issues such as inequality remains largely dependent on market competitiveness and access.

The World According to Duterte

Duterte’s presidential foreign trips in his first year tally at 21, costing almost PHP400 million (US$7.87 million) and covering Southeast Asia, East Asia, West Asia, and Russia. His pivot to China bagged him U$24 billion worth of business and financial deals and developmental assistance from his state visit in Beijing, though the majority are concessional – either tied to loans or grants that had been “pledged.”

The president also secured these deals by not invoking the arbitral tribunal landmark ruling that invalidated China’s so-called nine-dash line, downplaying the territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea, and issuing a watered-down ASEAN Chair Statement that was silent on China’s aggressive reclamation and militarization.

The Philippines’ overall foreign policy should be anchored on Article II of the 1987 Constitution which defines independent foreign policy as that “adhering to policy of peace, equality, justice, freedom, cooperation, and amity,” and “developing a self-reliant and independent national economy effectively controlled by Filipinos in the pursuit of an independent foreign policy.”

Duterte’s announcement of separation from the US both in military and economic, signified a fundamental change, a rethinking of Manila’s decades-long alliance with the US and realigning with other countries he deemed more as allies, namely China and Russia. He presented a purely dualistic worldview of “us against the world” when he summarized the “long and short” of his in(depend)ent foreign policy by realigning the Philippines with China’s “ideological flow” and going to Russia to tell his “idol” Putin that “the only way” would be through China-Philippines-Russia alliance vs the world.

But this is belied by his flip-flopping stance on critical issues like the Mutual Defense Treaty, Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, Visiting Forces Agreement, Balikatan exercises, and military alliance with the US.

Dutertism as it has unfolded in the first year has been marked by inconsistencies at best and violence at worst; where some semblance of coherence between policies, pronouncements, action have been centered on Duterte—the leader/strongman/Davao mayor/Tatay Digong.

Joseph Purugganan, Mary Ann Manahan, Clarissa V. Militante, Galileo de Guzman Castillo, and Raphael Baladad are members of Focus on the Global South. This is a condensed version of seven articles/research-based papers that will come out in Focus Policy Review in August.