Two years into his elected six-year term, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is firmly in a position of power despite widespread criticism of his controversial rule.
The tough-talking leader enjoys historic-high approval (80%) and satisfaction (69%) ratings, outshining all of his predecessors at this stage in their presidencies.
Whether he leverages that strong popularity to consolidate a full-blown dictatorship – or what some here are referring to as a possible “imperial” presidency – or instead to combat the country’s many endemic problems will define his legacy as an elected leader. Signs to date point more clearly to the former.
During his second year in office, Duterte welcomed world leaders for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in November, providing him a global stage to portray as a statesman after several acerbic and undiplomatic clashes with global leaders, including then US president Barack Obama and more recently the Pope.
Months later, however, Duterte announced he would withdraw his country from the International Criminal Court (ICC) over its investigations into allegations of crimes against humanity in his lethal drug war. He has since threatened to arrest ICC investigators if they travel to the Philippines.
Duterte’s abrupt and often impulsive moves, including his sudden shutdown in April of tourist haven of Boracay, as well as deteriorating law and order conditions across the country, have repelled many foreign investors who see rising risks in his erratic decision-making.
The Philippines’ economy is now faced with rising inflation, a weakening currency and widening current account deficit, while new foreign investment pledges dropped by close to 40% in early 2018. Some fear the economy could crash without better near-term economic management.
But so far Duterte’s focus has been more political than economic. His congressional allies head into next year’s crucial mid-term elections with the confidence that his endorsement will ensure their re-election. If so, an electoral sweep could for the first time in recent memory turn the country into a virtual one-party state.
Dynastic politics are also in play. Davao City mayor and presidential daughter Sara Duterte is expected to run for the Senate as a potential prelude for a presidential run after her father’s legally mandated six-year term ends in 2022.
Latest pre-election surveys show that Sara Duterte is in a strong position to feature among top-elected senators in 2019.
Sensing the president’s virtual monopoly on state resources and the public’s imagination, even relatively obscure figures such as Duterte’s long-term personal assistant Bong Go is now flirting with a Senate run.
Duterte’s vocal supporters, including controversial broadcaster Erwin Tulfo and entertainer-turned-propagandist Mocha Uson, currently a senior official at the government’s communications agency, are also expected to join the race.
So, too, is former Philippine National Police chief Bato Dela Rosa, who has performed well in certain pre-election surveys despite his earlier role in the lethal drug war.
As the last bastion of resistance to the president’s moves towards authoritarianism, the Senate race is especially crucial. Independent opposition figures who currently have a strong minority in the upper-chamber have been purged from other branches of government.
That includes Senator Leila de Lima, a former Justice Secretary who is currently behind bars on what are widely seen as trumped up drug charges.
If his allies manage to dominate the upcoming elections, as polls indicate as likely, Duterte will have the leverage and votes to establish what critics see as a possible “imperial” presidency through constitutional changes that limit checks and balances on his rule.
Most crucially, his second year in office saw the controversial and swift ouster of Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who had been among the most vocal critics of Duterte’s drug war that has claimed the lives of thousands of drug suspects.
Duterte’s allies in Congress prepared separate impeachment complaints, which many observers saw as highly dubious and politically charged.
Expecting resistance in the Senate, which has the constitutional duty of trying wayward magistrates, Duterte instructed the solicitor general to prepare an unprecedented quo warranto case (questioning the legitimacy of her taking office) to oust Sereno.
Leading lawyers and legal professional organizations dismissed the move as unconstitutional, yet a largely compliant Supreme Court filled with Duterte supporters forged ahead with the proceedings. Duterte facilitated the move with his by now usual provocative language.
Not long before her ouster from office, Duterte warned the country’s top magistrate, “I will punch you. I will help any investigator. I will really punch you. So I’m putting you on notice that I am now your enemy and you have to be out of the Supreme Court.”
With Sereno out of the picture and other independent-minded justices such as interim Chief Justice Antonio Carpio set to retire next year, Duterte is in a strong position to pack the court with his allies.
Meanwhile, his key political ally, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, is seeking to replace Vice President Leni Robredo, one of the few remaining vocal critics of the president, through a controversial vote recount which is being overseen by the Duterte-leaning Supreme Court.
Marcos, the sole son and namesake of former Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos, narrowly lost the race to Robredo, but is confident that he can reverse the outcome in the current pro-Duterte political climate.
After only two years in office, Duterte is upending Philippine democracy like no other leader in recent memory.