Antiestablishment approach has made him wildly popular at home, despite questions over drug war policies
By JAMES HOOKWAY
From President-elect Donald Trump to Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, a wave of outsiders has radically altered their countries’ courses in recent months. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte might be the most extreme example.
He shuns the trappings of state, often wearing simple shirts with the sleeves rolled up. Instead of living in the capital, Manila, he spends much of his time in Davao, the southern city he ran for years before being elected president in May.
One of the most telling moments came during a meet-and-greet with Filipino expatriates in Singapore recently. He told them not to bother calling him “Mr. President.” “Mayor,” he said, would do just fine.
Mr. Duterte’s entire presidency is built on the idea that he is an outsider restoring order to the corrupted corridors of power in the Philippines. He says his best-known policy, a war on drugs that so far has claimed the lives of more than 6,000 people, is necessary because the state has failed to tackle the problem.
Instead of cozying up to the U.S., the Philippines’ old colonial ruler, he has cut a more nationalist path, building up stronger ties with China instead and sending out feelers to Russia. If anyone gets in his way or criticizes him, Mr. Duterte is likely to call them a “son of a whore,” or worse.
This antiestablishment approach has made Mr. Duterte wildly popular at home. His approval ratings are over 80%, among the highest recorded for a Philippine leader. The country’s health secretary, Paulyn Ubial, credited a sharp reduction in firecracker injuries at New Year to the widespread fear that Mr. Duterte would deal harshly with anyone misusing fireworks.
Abroad, Mr. Duterte’s influence has rippled around the region. With America’s direction under Mr. Trump uncertain, other countries are now working to improve their own relationships with China, notably Malaysia and Vietnam. Mr. Duterte’s drug war has also coincided with Indonesian leader President Joko Widodo’s campaign to execute drugs offenders, albeit after they are tried and convicted.
Longer term, the question is whether the kind of policies that might serve a city such as Mr. Duterte’s are sufficient to guide a nation of over 100 million people.
Besides the rising numbers of dead from his drug war and a better relationship with China, Mr. Duterte has achieved little else since becoming president in June.
His other big policy idea—creating a federal style of government that devolves power away from Manila—requires changing the country’s constitution. Political analysts say it will be a lengthy and contentious process that requires difficult compromises with Congress.
Nor have promised pay rises for soldiers, police officers and teachers materialized. At times, Mr. Duterte talks openly of stepping down before his single six-year term expires.
Some of Mr. Duterte’s sympathizers say he needs to develop a more rounded approach if he is to make his presidency a success. Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former national police chief who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2004, said Mr. Duterte “could very well be the best president we’ve ever had if he learns to discard some old habits of a mayor and develop some good traits of a national leader.”
Mr. Lacson suggested Mr. Duterte could do more to crack down on corruption in government and the country’s bureaucracy. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already attempted to do so by demonetizing high-value bank notes, while Chinese President Xi Jinping enhanced his own budding personality cult by going hard against graft.
But to start with, Mr. Lacson said, Mr. Duterte “can google ‘how to become a real statesman.’ ”
Write to James Hookway at email@example.com