Opinion & Analysis

The state of the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte

Following Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's fourth State of the Nation Address, Andrea Chloe Wong shares her view of how his administration is doing as he enters the second half of his term.

OPINION: The president of the Philippines is mandated to deliver the State of the Nation Address (SONA) every year on the fourth Monday of July at the opening of the country’s two houses of Congress — the House of Representatives and the Senate. It is an hour-long speech that highlights the accomplishments of the president, plans on how to address problems in the country, and promises of a better future. For most Filipinos, President Rodrigo Duterte’s fourth SONA is regarded as a critical glimpse at the policies he will adopt for the remaining half of his six-year term.

Duterte’s accomplishments are worth noting. In the first three years under Duterte, the Philippines economy has continued to grow, with growth expected to settle at six per cent at the end of this year. It has consistently provided job opportunities for many Filipinos, particularly in the service sector. Duterte also signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law that gives Muslims in Mindanao, located at the southern part of the Philippines, the basic legal tools to expand their autonomy within the country’s constitutional framework. He also accelerated infrastructure spending through his flagship "Build, Build, Build" program. For the Duterte administration, these infrastructure projects are regarded as vital visual manifestations that it is doing "something" for the country.  

However, these feats are undermined by the many disappointments Duterte has brought upon the nation over the past few years. Despite boasting of low crime rates in the country because of his “war on drugs", Duterte is criticised for the human rights violations and the rising death toll of mostly poor Filipinos who are suspects (not formally convicted by courts) of drug use or drug dealing. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights adopted a resolution on July 4 to prepare a "comprehensive report on the human rights situation" in the Philippines by June 2020.

Duterte’s "pivot" to China has caused increasing anxiety among Filipinos who want stronger government action to protect the Philippines’ maritime territories. Setting aside the Philippines’ arbitration victory against China in 2013, the Duterte administration is perceived to have adopted "strategic" silence over Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea. Such growing domestic concern has become more evident after a Chinese vessel sank a Philippine fishing boat and left 22 Filipinos abandoned in the waters before a Vietnamese patrol vessel rescued all of them. The incident happened last June near Recto or Reed Bank which is well within the Philippines’ internationally-recognised exclusive economic zone. However, Duterte merely downplayed the incident and called the ramming of the fishing boat a “maritime accident". His policy of appeasement towards China is aimed at gaining more economic benefits to fund his administration’s multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects in the country.

These are the policy areas that raise alarm bells in the first half of the Duterte administration and are expected to continue at the end of his term. Though Duterte as president still remains popular among a large population (85 per cent) of Filipinos (based on "trust" ratings according to a nationwide survey taken last June), his policies are increasingly becoming unpopular — especially his drug war and diplomatic approach towards China. Unfortunately, it will take major efforts to undo these decisions after Duterte's term ends in 2022.

Despite the economic growth of the country that has provided benefits for the masses, Duterte’s accomplishments are undermined by poor governance, autocratic tendencies, and incessant political infighting among his allies. His administration is criticised for rampant corruption, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and political patronage. This weakens or emasculates his "strong man" persona — someone who wants to get things done for his people. Moreover, Duterte continues to oppress political opposition parties and the independent media critical of his administration. This reveals his penchant for dictatorial rule that diminishes and discredits the Philippines’ long-held democratic ideals. 

This is the current state of the Philippines under President Duterte. It is hoped that his administration will quickly learn from its shortcomings to better serve the Philippines’ interests and the welfare of its people.

Andrea Chloe Wong is a PhD candidate at the University of Canterbury, specialising in political and security issues in the Philippines and Asia. Views expressed in this article are personal to the author.

- Asia Media Centre