Rodrigo Duterte risks losing support if he gets too close to Donald Trump

Popular populist. EPA/CRISTINO

The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has become one of the world’s most notorious politicians. He revels in being referred to by nicknames such as “Duterte Harry”, “The Punisher”, and “The Trump of the East”. Outspoken and populist, he is best known for his unrelenting and violent war on drugs. But outsiders are confounded by his election and continuing popularity.

As an anti-establishment figure and political outsider, he is frequently compared to Donald Trump. But Duterte has not sparked the division associated with his American counterpart. Despite an undoubtedly abrasive character, his popularity stretches far and wide. Some of his most fervent supporters are middle-class, highly educated, urban Filipinos. He does not represent the views of the most dispossessed, nor the most marginalised.

Instead, Duterte represents an ever-present brand of Philippine anti-colonialism. In the years immediately preceding Duterte’s election, I identified a huge growth in anti-colonial and anti-American sentiments expressed in the mainstream media.

These contemporary anti-colonial sentiments have a long and powerful history. The Spanish colonised the Philippines from 1521, and during the mid-18th century, resistance spread, leading to the first claim of independence in 1898. In the same year however, the US purchased the Philippines from the Spanish.

The US was invested in “developing” the Philippines and creating an alliance, due to its geographical position as a stepping stone to China. (Indeed, the Philippines’ strategic position is the primary reason the US continues to take an interest in the country.) American forms of political, legal, and educational institutions were implemented, and English was taught.

Emil Flohri (1869-1938) Wikimedia

Subsequent improvements in health care and education were evident, particularly for the middle classes – which led many to accept American control. Protection offered during the World War II occupation of Manila by the Japanese, further cemented the US’s position as saviour and ally.

The Philippines was formally granted independence in 1946, yet remained closely tied to the US, which maintained a large military base there. The US is also one of the major aid donors to the Philippines and has been a primary destination for permanent Filipino migrants.

G.I.s in the Philippines during WWII. The U.S. Army/Flickr, CC BY

But after the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, dissent towards the Americans – which had sponsored the dictator’s regime and ultimately gave him protection – grew. This led to the closure of the military base in 1991. While ruling administrations of the late 1990s supported US influence due to perceived economic and political benefits, anti-American and anti-colonial sentiment did not wane among the educated middle classes – those most negatively affected by Marcos and his martial law, corruption and imprisonment of detractors.

Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, took significant steps to rebuild the US-Philippine alliance. The Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement, signed in 2014, grants the US military an extended stay in the Philippines. The following year, an agreement was made allowing the US to revive a deep-water naval base in Subic Bay, in the face of increasing hostility from China.

The Aquino administration attempted to justify the move by highlighting the significance of the US’s market size and the strategic threat of China. But anti-colonialists were against a renewed US military presence, believing it threatened the independence of the Philippines.

For it was actually the Aquino administration and the political elite who were perceived as more of a threat than China. Anti-colonial voices were concerned about corruption plaguing all levels of administration following revelations in late 2013 of a scam which implicated more than 100 members of the Philippine government (across party lines) over the alleged misuse of £140m of public funds.

The Philippine political elite was perceived as behaving just like the American colonisers – exploiting the populace for personal gain.

Voicing support. Mark R. Cristino/EPA

Duterte, on the other hand, despite his long career, was considered to be outside this traditional political elite. Not only was he free from accusations of corruption, he decided to make naming and shaming corrupt politicians one of his keystone policies. On top of this, he long espoused anti-colonial and anti-American ideals. His campaign promised to build a more cooperative relationship with China and neighbouring countries. He is thought by many to place the Philippines before his personal interests.

Politics is a Duterte business

Considered against the backdrop of deep anti-American and anti-colonial sentiment in the Philippines under Aquino’s administration, Duterte’s election was almost inevitable. His success is different to that of other populist movements and – aside from the language and machismo – comparisons with Trump do not stand. The political experience of the Philippines is not that of the West.

Despite countless human rights abuses, Duterte retains high levels of support. He remains committed to naming and shaming politicians involved in the drugs trade. But if he does not stick to his anti-colonial promises and end the American military presence, he will risk alienating a significant proportion of his support.

Since Trump entered the White House, Duterte’s anti-American stance has waned significantly. He has reneged on certain promises and has openly praised Trump. For his part, Trump is one of the only Western leaders to support Duterte’s war on drugs. It could be the beginning of an unexpectedly close relationship. But it would be one that risks losing the popular support that put Duterte in power in the first place.