Interview #21 – Rodrigo Duterte the “Trump of the East”

Nicole Curato

Nicole Curato

POP interviewed Nicole Curato. We discussed about Rodrigo Duterte, penal populism in the Philippines, the reasons behind the success of an extremely controversial politician and his use of a populist rhetoric, how he rose to power and how he is trying to maintain it despite the critiques from all over the world.

Nicole Curato (@NicoleCurato on Twitter) is an Australian Research Council Research Fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra. She is the editor of the book The Duterte Reader – the first book about the strongman’s rise to power.

Enjoy the read.

Duterte Reader Cover

POP: Rodrigo Duterte, the *Trump of the East*, is one of the most exceptional and atypical politicians of the last decades. He has been defined as a dictator, a madman, and a mass murderer. Just to explain how controversial he is, it is worth reminding that he even likened himself to Adolf HitlerDespite all of this, the Filipinos seem to like him. In any other country, just one of these allegations would have killed his political career. Why is it not the case for Duterte?

Nicole Curato: Because Duterte is more than these portrayals. From the perspective of some international observers, he looks like an exotic strongman who hit it off with Vladimir Putin. But from the perspective of his supporters, he is a leader who enlivens the self-esteem of people who have felt beaten down for decades.

For human rights groups, he is a demagogue who emboldened the police to go on a killing spree. For many, he is a man who has given voice to latent anxieties people have felt for years about the drug menace.

The tricky part about President Duterte is he cannot just be summarized based on his rhetoric. In my own research on Duterte’s rise to power, I realized that there is value in observing the firebrand with the mute button on. Then we can see what else he offers that critics do not necessarily get when we focus on what he says.

He, for example has been commended for his compassion to abused Filipina workers stranded in Saudi Arabia. The President was able to bring them home after his week-long trip to the Middle East. No other President showed as much respect for the sacrifices migrant workers make. There are many other examples of his authentic relationship with ordinary people, from wounded soldiers to the urban poor.

Does his compassionate and authentic political style absolve him of his divisive and troubling language? I do not think so. But that’s a different conversation.

POP: You claim that Duterte’s success hinges on “penal populism”. What are the characteristics of Duterte’s discourse?

NC: Penal populism is a political style that builds on collective sentiments of fear and demands for punitive politics (see Pratt 2007). This is held in contrast to “penal elitism”, which privileges the authority of experts and professionals in shaping the criminal justice system.

There’s a lot to say here. I’ll just point you to an article I wrote last year. In a nutshell, the argument is Duterte’s populist logic of “us vs. them” takes the form of virtuous people vs. dangerous other (drug addicts, criminals).

This becomes worrisome because the dangerous other is considered undeserving of human rights. This kind of discourse is prone to abuse, especially when the President and his allies de-legitimize the system of checks and balances, such as threatening to slash funding for the Commission on Human Rights, or saying that human rights activists must be shot when the ‘obstruct justice.’

POP: The style of Duterte’s discourse is incredibly flamboyant for European standards. Can you give some example of some of the most *hardcore* positions expressed by the president?

NC: ‘There are three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them,’ is one of many examples. Danilo Pilario, a priest/sociologist made an informal comparison between Duterte and Hitler (read here). It’s worth reading especially for those who believe in the power of language.

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POP: Senator Leila de Lima, a former human rights commissioner, and vocal opposition senator accused president Duterte of being a sociopathic serial killer and she got arrested for drug trafficking. The war on drugs in the Philippines is really about drugs or is it mainly a way to silence the opposition?

NC: It is part of a broader illiberal project that the President is putting in place, I think. There is a New York Times piece by sociologist Clinton Palanca who explained how the President is starting to exert pressure on media organizations he considers to be unfair towards his regime. Recently, there have been reports of plainclothes police officers intimidating students protesting extra-judicial killings.

These are overt examples of intimidation. But equally worrying are subtle forms of intimidation, such as trolling outspoken critics of the regime. Usually, these are students and private citizens who express critical views on social media yet become the subject harassment and intimidation from online trolls. Some people choose to go offline to ‘avoid trouble.’ This is precisely the danger of manufactured toxicity in social media – people are discouraged from speaking up.

POP: The supporters of the president are (pejoratively) labeled Dutertards. As we discussed above, you argue they are attracted by Duterte’s “penal populism”. But why do you think the people prefer to ignore other violent and almost criminal elements of the same discourse?

NC: There are two ways of looking at this. One is related to the concept of ‘hierarchies of misery’ that I put forward in a piece I wrote for the New York Times. Simply put, some vulnerable communities think they are more deserving of compassion than the ‘deplorables’ – criminals, drug pushers, and petty thieves who make everyday life unbearable for everyone.

Another way of looking at this is through the lens of denialism. All over the world, we see communities living double lives where cultures of denial provide the comfort required for daily survival. It is necessary for many to shelve troubling information, whether it is about melting polar ice caps, starving children, or refugees fleeing from war. To understand the seeming lack of outrage in the Philippines is to understand the very same conditions that normalize apathy and oppression elsewhere.

POP: Do you think in the Philippines the situation is closer to a populist democracy (characterized by the absence of minorities’ protection, media freedom, and checks and balances), or rather to a fully authoritarian regime?

NC: Neither. Where we see conditions of populism or authoritarianism, I still think that the Philippines continues to suffer from elite capture that thwarts possibilities for democratic deepening. Duterte’s rise to power simply exposed the fragilities of Philippine democracy – that at its core, elections are used for inter-elite competition. If we ask the question who benefits from Duterte’s populist style (or authoritarian tendencies), the obvious answer is local elites (and the rise of counter-elites). Kenneth Cardenas wrote an intriguing piece for the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism about the big-ticket deals under the Duterte regime, and asks about who stands to gain from these deals. My sense is while the President has done much to disrupt politics as usual, at its core, the exclusionary Philippine political economy remains intact.

POP: In an article for the NYT you wrote that Duterte “seems like a rare politician who doesn’t forget about the people”. But on the long term, which will be the effects of the “dutertization” of politics in the country?

NC: It’s too soon to tell.

POP: Is there any similarity between Duterte and the most famous Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose regime was “infamous for its corruption, extravagance, and brutality”?

NC: Duterte’s relationship to the dictator Ferdinand Marcos is an interesting one. Duterte fashions himself as a simple man who shuns extravagance and formalities. To that extent we cannot find similarities with the Marcoses’ ostentatious displays of wealth.

The death toll under Duterte’s regime is often compared to the desaparecidos and deaths during Marcos’s regime. The poor system of accountability for erring police officers is also a demonstration that the Philippines’ security sector is far from being reformed under a democratic framework.


More than these comparisons, however, it is also essential to recognize that Duterte has been instrumental in changing the narrative of the martial law regime. From declaring the dictator Marcos as one of the best Presidents in the country to allowing his burial to the Heroes’ Cemetery, it is very clear that the Marcoses’ political fortunes have improved under Duterte’s regime.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily. I think one of the best legacies of the People Power Revolution that ousted the Marcos dictatorship is the opening up of space for debate and contestation. Duterte can try to negotiate the legacies of the Marcoses in popular imagination, but we have also seen citizens fight back—from veterans of the ‘street parliament’ in the 1970s to millennials who are taking responsibility in speaking up.

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