RODRIGO DUTERTE rode a wave of resentment onto the national stage in the Philippines in 2016, promoting himself as a straight-talking outsider who could get things done, from bringing down oligarchs to winning the war on drugs. Once president, he did none of those things, but remained firmly in favor.
It took a pandemic to reveal the limits of a populist government unable to conceive of a public health emergency other than as an insurgency, to keep children in school and corruption out of medical supply contracts. The economic and human damage will outlast him.
With the 2022 presidential campaign beginning in earnest, that legacy looks like one of very few certainties when it comes to what lies ahead. Formal candidacies were due last week and some expected names stepped forward — opposition leader and Vice-President Leni Robredo, former boxer Manny Pacquiao, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno and former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., son of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Others have not, including Duterte’s daughter Sara, front-runner in public-opinion polls and currently mayor of the southern city of Davao, a position her father held until 2016. It’s a crowded field in a country where late-stage surprises are frequent.
Until a few months ago, Duterte himself seemed destined to linger. He was in an unprecedented position, with gravity-defying popularity of the sort that usually eludes presidents limited to a single six-year term. It suggested he would be able to stay on in the upper reaches of power, possibly as vice-president, and certainly heavily influence the election of the next occupant of the Malacañang — quite possibly his daughter. In the mid-term Senate elections in 2019, the opposition had not secured a single seat, and the pandemic did little to move the needle. One poll published last October put his approval rating at 91%.
That has changed. Missteps have multiplied. Polls suggest the maneuver into the directly elected vice-presidency, though technically permitted, was frowned upon by voters. Questions over contracts for pandemic medical supplies and persistent vaccination woes added to his grief, and Duterte has dropped in the rankings of potential vice-presidential candidates, coming behind his strongest opponent. He now says he will retire.
Nothing is over yet, of course. Substitutions are possible until the middle of next month, leaving scope for last-minute maneuvers like the entry of the current president to the 2016 race he stormed through. He could yet squeeze back into the vice-presidential competition, and pull his daughter into the fray too. But — even in an election where social media matters more than ever — the Duterte glow has faded. His troubled legacy will take longer to do the same.
In a way, the surprise is that it took so long for his popularity to wane. Never mind the attacks on the media or on opponents that eroded political institutions: Duterte failed on his own terms. The drug war that killed thousands and ran roughshod over human rights and police protocol was certainly as bloody as he warned, but it didn’t resolve a persistent, deep-rooted problem. A handful of families continue to grip the country’s political and economic resources just as they did before. Attacks, say on the family-owned ABS-CBN network, were more about personal wrongs than moves to curb excessive control.
The early years of the Duterte presidency rode on the boom from the Benigno Aquino years when a chronic economic underachiever in the region turned into a Southeast Asian bright spot. Duterte professed no interest in economics, but his government pressed ahead with much-needed tax reform, invested in infrastructure and sought to remove restrictions on foreign investment. Those remain incomplete.
The pivot to China — including the decision to soft-pedal an international arbitration ruling favoring the Philippines’ territorial claims in the South China Sea — was no more successful. Billions of dollars of promised investment have been slow to materialize, providing fodder for critics. Most big ticket projects have yet to break ground.
In the end, though, it was the pandemic that showed the limits of his leadership — as it did for populists elsewhere, from Donald Trump in the United States to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. These leaders, as political scientist Aries Arugay, visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, pointed out to me, are good at creating and magnifying crises, but less adept at solving them. And COVID-19 was always going to be a struggle in a country with poor public health infrastructure, a high level of informal labor and densely populated cities. It now sits at the very bottom of Bloomberg’s COVID-19 resiliency rankings.
Duterte dismissed the virus at first, then imposed a crippling lockdown, dealing with the health crisis in the same militarized way as the government had sought to deal with drugs — with the same propensity to excess. Those who broke curfews and quarantine orders were dealt with brutally, and the president threatened, in a national address, to shoot to kill anyone who disobeyed the curbs. This was matched with ineptitude elsewhere, as officials left medical professionals vulnerable and failed to secure adequate testing or contact tracing. A target of vaccinating 70% of the population has been pushed into next year. Doctors have protested against low pay and government neglect.
Findings in an annual Commission on Audit report that flagged irregularities in government purchases during the pandemic are even more damning. The watchdog raised questions regarding overpriced medical equipment and underutilized funds that it said hampered the country’s virus response. Duterte has resisted investigations into pandemic spending, telling officials not to attend a Senate inquiry, and berating critical senators. His health secretary has denied funds were mishandled.
Perhaps the error that will linger longest, though, is the most avoidable: Duterte’s decision to delay plans to return to face-to-face lessons, in a country where children have already been kept indoors for over a year, thanks to rules intended to protect multigenerational households. As of August, the Philippines was one of only five countries globally to keep schools closed since the pandemic began — a human capital cataclysm, in a country that can ill-afford it.
No one knows exactly what will remain of Duterte after Duterte. Nicole Curato at the University of Canberra points out that much will depend on his successor, and that government’s ability to raise difficult questions. What’s at stake, she explains, is accountability. “To what extent is the next administration willing to hold the Duterte regime accountable for extra-judicial killings, corruption scandals, and pandemic mismanagement?”
It’s not clear that any of the candidates, with the exception of Robredo, who is a long-standing critic of the president, could or would do that. Without accountability, though, it’s possible everything will change come May 2022 — only to remain exactly the same.