Profile: “The Punisher” Rodrigo Duterte Personifies the Dangers of Populism

We seem to have become desensitised by the one-man spectacle of Donald Trump, who provides endless fodder for the mass media with his outrageously offensive comments and policy ideas. But the behaviour and agenda of Rodrigo Duterte, the recently-elected President of the Philippines, makes Trump almost look tame in comparison.

In hardly the best example of diplomacy, Duterte recently made headlines by referring to Barack Obama as a “son of a whore” for expressing concerns about ongoing events in the Philippines, a longstanding ally of the United States.

There is more to Duterte than his bluster, however: his political career has been defined by a cold-blooded ruthlessness which more than justifies his nickname of “The Punisher”.

Before assuming the presidency on 30 June, Duterte served as the mayor of Davao City, the third-largest in the Philippines. First elected in 1988, he won four non-successive terms totalling 22 years by promising a hard-line “law and order” campaign against criminals, especially drug dealers.

Duterte’s brand of “law and order” is not just the typical conservative rhetoric, but is gravely disturbing and staggering in its brutality. He has been accused by a former gangster of orchestrating assassinations as part of the “Davao City Death Squad”, a vigilante group which has been linked to hundreds of extrajudicial killings and disappearances - with many of the victims being vagrant drug addicts and street children.

Duterte denies any direct involvement in the Death Squad, but regardless he enthusiastically presided over its activities, and as president he now cheerleads for the nationwide application of vigilantism with an avid bloodlust.

There have been three thousand extrajudicial killings across the Philippines since Duterte assumed office, with some also being committed by police and security services, who Duterte promises to protect from prosecution even if the slayed are unarmed.

more of a tyrant in the mould of socialist strongmen like Thomas Sankara or Hugo Chavez

As the bodies pile up, the United Nations has intervened with warnings that Duterte’s civilian-led war on drugs violates international law, with the possibility of Duterte of being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court for inciting the killings.

Duterte’s response has been to threaten to withdraw the Philippines from the UN to form a new bloc with nations who share his attitude towards human rights, such as China and Zimbabwe. Seemingly provoked into greater frenzy, he drew inspiration from Adolf Hitler by suggesting he would orchestrate a Holocaust of 3 million drug addicts.

Based on Duterte’s blood-soaked track record and genocidal rhetoric, outside observers might assume that he is politically positioned on the far-right. But Duterte is actually the chairman of PDP-Laban, the left-wing ruling party of the Philippines that stands on a platform of democratic socialism.

Furthermore, in a country culturally dominated by Roman Catholicism, Duterte stridently resists the church’s social conservatism. Despite employing homophobic and misogynistic slurs against his critics, Duterte’s advocates for LGBT rights and the reproductive rights of women, lambasting traditional Catholic opposition to contraception.

Rather than being a straightforward fascist or despot, Duterte is more of a tyrant in the mould of socialist strongmen like Thomas Sankara or Hugo Chavez, who were also authoritarian but popular leaders in countries of endemic poverty and inequality.

The figure who parallels the most obviously with Duterte is, of course, Trump

While cracking down on the scapegoats of drug users and alleged drug pushers, and threatening journalists with the same violence, Duterte also champions a leftist compassion for the poor and promises to root out the corruption of economic elites from the Philippines.

On foreign policy, Duterte has adopted a similar attitude to Vladimir Putin’s by asserting cultural and diplomatic sovereignty against outside influence - especially that of the US, which historically colonised and occupied the country.

Duterte’s blend of principles may seem bizarre, but it is defined by the persona of a “man of the people” maverick, whose belligerence towards worldwide condemnation only reinforces his brand of extreme populism. It is an approach which has gained him a “trust rating” of 91 percent among Filipinos.

The figure who parallels the most obviously with Duterte is, of course, Trump. Despite being bellicose bullies with remarkably shady and sleazy personalities, both men won presidential nominations by promising strong leadership to relieve economic decline, and restore national security and the prestige their countries on the global stage - the limitations posed by human rights and “politically correct” outrage be damned.

And consider that Duterte won a national election in the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic liberal democracy of the Philippines, despite being even more disreputable than Trump.

We may find the bombast of demagogues farcical, but as Duterte proves, there is nothing amusing about those with single-minded strategy for gaining power that turns out successful. We are learning this the hard way in a Europe with a resurgence of chauvinistic nationalism. And if we fail to take the threat seriously, in November we could end up with a soulmate of Duterte’s in the White House.

More about the author

About the author

Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.

Follow Jacob on Twitter.

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