EXCERPT | Duterte’s Illiberal Coalition and the Dismantling of Liberal Institutions
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EXCERPT | Duterte’s Illiberal Coalition and the Dismantling of Liberal Institutions

By Mark R. Thompson

EXCERPT | Duterte’s Illiberal Coalition and the Dismantling of Liberal Institutions

Image Attribute: Prachatai / Source: Flickr, Creative Commons

Duterte came to power with what can fairly be termed a “micro-party” (Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan, Philippine Democratic Party-Power of the People) with only one senator and three seats in the House of Representatives, it soon become the ruling party through a familiar process of defections to the winning president’s side (known as “political butterflies” or balimbings in the Philippines after the multi-pronged star fruit). Surprisingly, Aquino himself was sanguine about the defections from his majority Liberal Party (which held the majority of seats in the Senate and House) that were led by former Senate President Frank Drillon and House Speaker Belmonte (Dizon 2016). This mass turncoatism occurred despite Liberal Party warnings during the campaign that Duterte planned to erect a dictatorship. It also indicated how hollow the Liberal Party’s promise to become a “programmatic” party with a clear political doctrine and membership loyalty had been. It proved to be as much a party of “trapos” (traditional politicians) as every other. It can be surmised that this sudden change of heart among Liberals, despite Duterte’s continued illiberal rhetoric, was due to the desire to protect key members of the party from prosecution, most prominently former Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad and perhaps even Aquino himself for the Aquino administration’s DAP Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) patronage distribution scheme that had been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

With the Catholic Church on the defensive and social democratic civil society activists discredited and demobilized, as discussed above, two new groups have moved to the forefront in support of Duterte’s administration: the police and the communist left. In addition, the courts have been reluctant to intervene against Duterte’s violent crackdown on drugs and constitutional change open a potential Pandora’s box of growing illiberalism being institutionalized.

The Philippine police have a long history of being subordinated to local politicians. Many Philippine warlords have their “own” police force. This gave the police the reputation of being little more than the coercive arms of powerful politicians. Duterte’s rule in Davao was also closely linked to the police, particularly his local (and now Philippine National) police chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa. However, in his few months in power Duterte has already moved to increase the status and national significance of the police who are pleased with their new role as the enforcers of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign (Tawatao 2016), with one police official calling it the “golden age” of the Philippine police (Almendral 2016). Significantly, Duterte has also moved to revive the Philippine Constabulary, a US colonial institution that became a bulwark of Marcos’ martial law regime and was subordinated to the military in the post-Marcos period in an effort to end some of its worst abuses during the authoritarian era. Duterte’s restoration of the Constabulary to independent status is seen as a setback to efforts to civilianize the police and a return to a more militarized form of policing (Ranada 2016b).

Duterte was known for relatively close ties to communist leaders during his time as mayor of Davao. One of his closest advisors, Leoncio Evasco, whom he appointed to the key position of secretary to the cabinet, is a former communist whom he sent to jail when a city prosecutor, but later befriended. Duterte appointed several key militant leaders linked to the communists to cabinet positions related to social issues (labor secretary, social welfare, and agrarian reform). Business leaders have already complained about efforts to raise the minimum wage as well as discussions about ending short-term contractualisation that deprives workers of benefits (known as endo, as in the end of contract) (McBeth 2016).[1]

However, the communist left’s support has proved useful for Duterte. By invoking anti-colonial nationalism against the left’s old nemesis, the United States, thereby gaining sympathy from lower-ranking officers in the military and the police, Duterte has been able to pre-empt the long-running violent conflict between the communist left and the military, building a kind of united front against the Americans from without and against drug dealers from within. The communist left had been at the forefront of previous human rights campaigns against government “salvaging” (an easily misunderstood Filipino-English expression that does not refer to saving someone but rather connotes their death through extra-judicial killing). This is not surprising as activists engaged in legal activities linked to the communist left were targeted in such campaigns, particularly during the Arroyo administrations, in which extra-judicial killings spiked (with estimates ranging from several hundred to over 1,000 leftists killed [2]. However, aside from issuing one condemnation of the drug killings in August, the far left has been largely silent or even supportive of Duterte despite his obvious violation of human rights, an issue that used to be at the top of their agenda.[3]

It might be assumed the judiciary would be at the forefront of the efforts to curb extra-judicial killings under Duterte. However, having already been on the defensive since the removal of Chief Justice Renato Corona by the Aquino administration for quite transparently political motives, the Supreme Court has been wary of confronting a president head-on. A number of judges, including Supreme Court justices, have faced accusations of political influence pedaling and even plagiarism, which is another reason to avoid confrontation with a president known to be skillful at using his opponents’ weaknesses against them. When Supreme Court Chief Justice Sereno criticised Duterte for naming several judges on his “narcolist,” instead urging him to abide by the rule of law in his fight against drugs and raising concerns about extrajudicial killings he admitted the courts had been too slow to deal cases against hundreds of thousands of people suspected of involvement in drugs and threatened to declare martial law (Jerusalem and Ramos 2016). Appearing to back down, the Supreme Court then ordered a probe ordered a probe into four of the judges named who were still on the bench (although as usual, the Philippine president offered no evidence for the accusations, with one of the accused judges having already died eight years earlier). With few judicial constraints, Duterte’s killing spree has continued unabated.

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About the Author:

Mark R. Thompson is head, Department of Asian and International Studies (AIS), and director, Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC), City University of Hong Kong. He was Lee Kong Chian distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapore (2008) and Stanford University (2009). He wrote The Anti-Marcos Struggle (Yale 1995) and Democratic Revolutions (Routledge 2004) as well as co-editing Dynasties and Female Political Leaders in Asia (Lit 2013), and co-authoring, with Julio C. Teehankee, a forthcoming book about the Philippine presidency. Personal website: LINK / Email

Cite this Article:

Thompson, Mark R. (2016), Bloodied Democracy: Duterte and the Death of Liberal Reformism in the Philippines, in: Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 35, 3, 52–55.

Publication Details:

Published by GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Institute of Asian Studies and Hamburg University Press in The Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs which is an Open Access publication under the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


Tawatao, Dondi (2016), The Killing Time: Inside Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs, in: Time, 25 August, online:  (4 January 2017).

Almendral, Aurora (2016), On Patrol with Police as Philippines Battles Drugs, in: New York Times, 21 December, online: (4 January 2017).

Ranada, Pia (2016b), Duterte to Revive Philippine Constabulary, in: Rappler, 20 September, online: (4 January 2017).

McBeth, John (2016), Duterte Always Loved Communists – Except When He Was Killing Them, in: South China Morning Post, 19 October, online: (4 January 2017).

Jerusalem, Jigger, and Marlon Ramos (2016), Duterte Warns Sereno: Get Out of My Way or It’s Martial Law, in: Philippine Daily Inquirer, 9 August, online: (4 January 2017). 


[1] It is unclear how much business leaders really have to fear. While claiming he is the Philippines’ “first left-leaning president,” Duterte’s economic agenda has thus far not veered far from the neoliberal orthodoxy of his predecessors. He has even called for a loosening of limits on foreign investment. For more on Duterte’s economic policy see Eric Vincent C. Batalla’s contribution to this special issue (Batalla 2016).

[2] In his report Parreño (2011) counted 305 extra-judicial killings between 2001 and 2010 (Arroyo’s term in office), while Casiño (2016) quotes Karapatan, a human rights group, which estimates there were 1,206 extra-judicial killings during this period.

[3] Ramon Casiple (2016), executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, played down the thousands of extra-judicial killings, claiming that the anti-drug campaign had been a “success” in terms of reducing the drug trade (also see Valente 2016). By contrast, another leading left activist, former Bayan Muna member of the House of Representatives Teodoro (“Teddy”) Casiño warned that the “initial indifference when [communist left] activists started getting killed during the Arroyo regime is similar to today’s ambivalence in the face of the killings of suspected drug addicts and pushers […] Denouncing the killings should not mean condoning the alleged illegal activities of its victims. What it should translate to is a demand for the police and military to follow the law and respect due process and human rights […].”