Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial President of the Philippines, stirred global uproar with his comparison with Hitler and the violent war on drugs he condoned but how much of a threat is he really to democracy?

Controversial President Duterte in office.
Controversial President Duterte in office.
Despite being often depicted as an authoritarian and dangerous populist, Duterte largely won the presidential election over his competitor Benigno Aquino and still benefits from widespread support.

“Duterte’s popularity mostly relies on his populist speech targeting the outcasts and all the Filipinos that the corrupt system has sacrificed”, says François Couvray, editor of the French-language newspaper Le Petit Journal in Manila.

“He knew how to talk to the masses”, adds Raissa Robles, a Filipino investigative journalist.”Duterte tapped into the popular fear of crime that Aquino had not addressed in the same laser-way”.

A poll published by the Filipino Institute Social Weather Survey in October (find the poll here) indeed showed that 84% of the population was satisfied of Duterte’s so-called “war on drugs”, although 71% insisted on fair trials for the criminals, who happen to be shot on sight according to various Human Rights’ charities.

However, the precedent set by Ferdinand Marcos, a democratically elected despot, serves as a reminder that popular approval can be misleading, with Duterte incidentally praising the former dictator and pushing for his burial in the “Cemetery of Heroes”.

The president also mentioned contemplating martial law, a cause to worry for Mrs Robbles, author of Martial Law Never Again: “Marcos’Martial Law clearly showed that a one-man rule will be prone to gross abuse and massive human rights’ violations”.

“I believe Duterte’s so-called anti-drugs campaign is part of a bigger plan to justify more draconian measures and ask the people to give him wider powers”, she adds.

For Duncan McCargo, professor of political sciences at the University of Leeds, the comparison between Duterte and Marcos is not completely relevant though, despite what he says is a growing nostalgia for the former dictator in the Philippines.

“Duterte is in many ways different from Marcos, who was an intellectual and much more a sophisticated -though deeply flawed- political operator. Marcos did not crudely advocate the use of violence, although of course he did not hesitate to use against his opponents”, Professor McCargo says.

He adds: “I still think that Duterte will continue selectively to deploy a romanticised rhetoric concerning Marcos for his own political purposes”.

It is perhaps the extreme positions undertaken by the president that are the most divisive, says Mr Couvray. “Abuses to human rights are not a new phenomenon in the Philippines but what makes a difference is the way it is publicly acknowledged”.

He yet refuses to believe in a dictatorial shift: “It is hard to make assumptions but there is still a gap between the presidential outbursts and the legal procedure his government initiates. Besides, opposition does not seem muzzled and the press still freely reports it”.

Duterte indeed seems to have shown signs of good will in signing the Freedom of Information Act in past July.

But some observe that this might only be an act on part of the president, as head of the Southeast Asia Research Center (SEARC) at CityU in Hong Kong Mark Thompson indicates: “It doesn’t matter much because nobody is daring to investigate Duterte and the last person who did, Senator Leila de Lima, was removed from the Senate investigative committee she headed and is now facing drug charges herself”.

Professor Thompson adds he believes Duterte’s war on drugs and the extrajudicial killings that ensued have already had a disastrous effect on democracy. “It has already destroyed liberal democracy, even if the trappings of formal democracy remain”.

The campaign also put Duterte under even more international scrutiny with Fatou Bensouda of the International Criminal Court threatening him with prosecution earlier this month.

Future prospects for democracy in the Philippines therefore remain obscure but diverging voices from charities within the country and the powerful Catholic Church prove that watchdogs will continue safeguarding it. “The situation is uncertain but political and associative sectors remain mobilized”, says Mr Couvray.

“Various international entities can roar all they want but it’s up to the Filipinos to decide what to do”, concludes Raissa Robles.