“Duterte-ism” or “Dutertismo” has long been the face of populism in the Philippines. Bouncing on a fresh wave of populism, however, the 2022 presidential election ended in a stunning victory for another populist: Bongbong Marcos, the son of the disgraced late Philippines dictator, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and former first lady and convicted criminal, Imelda Romualdez Marcos.

The Republic of the Philippines is an archipelago with a diverse ethnic, lingual, and religious population. The region has been inhabited for thousands of years, with a series of local dynasties and leaderships ruling over the territory. The Portuguese colonised the Philippines in the middle of the 16th century. Their rule lasted for more than 300 years, until the 1896 Philippine Revolution. Along with the Spanish-American war, this resulted in the US assuming control over the archipelago. Aspiring to self-rule, Filipino rebels declared freedom. By entering into the Philippine-American War and killing scores of freedom-fighters, the US asserted control in 1902.

The Second World War (WWII) played a significant role in the country’s creation. As part of Japan’s imperialist agenda, the Philippines were captured, and it took Americans until the end of the war to “liberate” the country. Undeterred by the traumatic experience of Japan’s occupation, Filipinos continued fighting for freedom, leading to their independence in 1946.

Over the years the country has seen dictatorships under the guise of democracy and a populist revolt under the People Power Revolution (PPR). In the midst of political chaos, the country has been unable to improve its human development index with a mixed performance on macroeconomic indicators. Basic freedoms have also seen a ‘V’ shaped rise and fall with changing regimes. All of this has left the poor poorer and liberal opposition forces silenced. Urban poverty, rural isolation from major policies, Marxist-separatist groups, Islamist groups, a raging drug epidemic, and poor governance further add to the socio-economic problems facing the Filipino people. It retains the status of a developing country with a deep reliance on agriculture and the services sector with limited growth in manufacturing capacities.

Between independence and the “Fourth Republic,” the Philippines saw its leaders elected from a group of westernized oligarchs with politics that favoured the rich. Ferdinand Marcos was able to secure the populist vote in 1965 by promising to improve education, lower the crime rate, improve infrastructure, and spark economic growth. Marcos tried living up to his promises using a hybrid governance style of employing technocrats and intellectuals while also involving the Air Force (Overholt, 1986).

During an increasingly oppressive second term, Marcos imposed martial law in 1971, a state that lasted nine years. Marcos’s dictatorship offered “larger than life figures who would offer a quick-fix solution.” Yet the plundering of public funds, a debt-driven economic policy, and gross abuses of human rights against opposition and anti-regime voices led to growing unrest through a series of PPR protests. Maria Corazon Cojuangco (Cory) Aquino was able to gather support under the promise of democratic empowerment, the dignity of human life, and better wealth management and economic policy. This anti-establishment stance brought Partido Demokratiko Pilipino–Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) into power (Pernia, 2019).

The most recent surge of populism, “Duterte-ism,” surfaced over the last five years. In 2010, Noynoy Aquino was elected on the populist promises of “I will not steal from you” and “I will help you” (Thompson, 2010). His failure to deliver and upholding of the status quo led to democratic fatigue, as Filipinos grew tired of neoliberal democracy, making the populace more susceptible to military rule or autocratic democracy. This was in part due to the failed promises of the neoliberal order (Heydarian, 2018).

As a consequence of the 2016 elections, the country has witnessed a mass movement curtailing democratic freedoms due to the consolidation of power under Rodrigo Roa Duterte. Interestingly, Duterte is not a political “outsider,” as he hails from a political family and has been active in politics since the 1980s. He ran and won elections under the previous ruling party, the PDP-Laban. Nevertheless, Duterte has promised the middle-class and affluent urban populations hope for a “new politics,” while also giving hope to the urban and rural poor for a “politics of dignity.” His supporters believe he is “genuinely concerned for the poor.” In addition, he added credibility to his persona by establishing himself as “a man of his word” as a “real man” who gets the job done (Arguelles, 2019; Curato, 2017).

To understand Duterte’s populist persona it is important to look at his governance of Davao, his hometown. He assumed power when it was eclipsed by gang violence, a drug epidemic, and decades-long strife between the Republic and armed community factions as well as Muslim separatists and criminal gangs; this earned the city its nickname as the country’s “murder city” (Norris & Inglehart, 2019; Heydarian, 2018; Peel, 2017). Duterte gained the mayorship by promising to “restore law and order. ”After his election, he established Davao Death Squads (DDS) that killed the “enemy” – i.e., rebel factions, criminals, and drug mafias. It is estimated that roughly 1,000 people were subject to extrajudicial killings. These were primarily petty criminals, drug pushers and users, and street children (Pernia, 2019; Peel, 2017).

In Duterte’s narrative he was the man “who got things done,” and over the next decade Davao’s “cleansing” was applauded across the nation. Additionally, his open-door policy to residents made him the “go-to man” in the city where previously no one cared for the populace. He bolstered his credibility through his machismo: he kept a gold-plated revolver on the desk, to show the citizens he was “powerful” and “ready to take action” (Peel, 2017). His actions against “deviants and criminals” earned him the title “the Punisher” who rid his hometown of “evil” (Marshall & Chalmers, 2016).

His presidential campaign also focused on similar key issues, including illegal drug usage, rising costs of living, and economic volatility. He pledged to solve these through strong policies and empowering security forces. These were genuine concerns, and Duterte capitalized on them by positing himself as the anti-oligarchic, anti-elite, and anti-establishment candidate. He promised “a caring, humble, and accessible form of governance” – a message which resonated with numerous socioeconomic classes, groups, and regions (Pernia, 2019; Curato, 2017). Thompson (2016, 59) sums it up: “Duterte not only won the election but also quickly established a new political order” by “sticking to his guns” and with hopes of a “national political salvation by claiming that, given weak institutions, only violent strongman rule can bring political order to the country.”

Buoyed by this populist campaign, Duterte secured 36 percent of the vote, becoming the county’s president. Duterte’s charismatic, strong-man persona appealed to a multi-class base and continues to bolster his neo-authoritarianism and justify “systematic and massive violation” of basic human, civil, and political rights in his effort to cure society. As an exemplary penal populist, Duterte has targeted “liberal democracy, the dominant ideology and political system of our time” (Bello, 2019).

Through the use of social media, Duterte’s public image has earned him a cult-like following. Supporters have waived placards saying, “Those who will not vote for Duterte will get killed!” (Heydarian, 2018). Rivals of Duterte have labeled his supporters as “Dutertards,” a contraction of “Duterte” and “retard” (Arguelles, 2019). However, his supporters see him as a “spectacle of a strong leader” who will rid the Philippines of evil and the scourge of elite politics. Duterte used his blunt and crude language to keep populism alive while also promising to “expose the hypocrisies of the powerful institutions and give voice to citizen’s deep-seated injuries” (Curato, 2017).

As a “Filipino strongman,” Duterte’s violent tendencies posed a threat to the country’s fragile democracy. Throughout Duterte’s time in office, the Philippines had seen a marked decline in political freedoms, human rights, and freedom of expression. He had constantly abused all forms of opposition. He attacked female senator Leila de Lima, an outspoken critic when she demanded an investigation into the “drug war.” He promised to “destroy her, make her cry, and let her rot in jail.”  He also went after Lourdes Sereno, the Philippines’ first female chief justice, impeaching her after she publicly opposed Duterte’s drug war and the declaration of martial law in the southern province (Santos, 2018).

Duterte repeatedly used sexist comments – for instance, using homophobic statements and the rape of local women by ISIS to deter opposition to the Catholic Church. He once said, “Only I can say bishops are sons of bitches, damn you … Most of them are gay. They should come out in the open, cancel celibacy and allow them to have boyfriends” (Rahim, 2019; Santos, 2018).  He used his machismo to establish a “combination of a tough father who would fight until the end for his family and a drunk uncle who is usually charming but will make people uncomfortable at family reunions with his inane comments,” (Santos, 2018).

He used nationalism as part of his populist appeal, too. He repeatedly called out international organizations, calling them “sons of bitches” and “fools,” who challenge his good efforts to cure the country. He labeled Barack Obama as the “son of a whore” for criticizing his policies and has repeatedly distanced the country from the US to “get rid of their influence” over the Philippines (Placido, 2016; ABC News, 2016). His war on drugs has become a textbook case of genocide, as Duterte prides himself as being the “Hitler” of the Philippines against the drug culture (Peel, 2017).

President Duterte was ineligible to re-run in the 2022 presidential election due to a single-term limit under the 1987 Philippine Constitution. Bouncing on a fresh wave of populism, the election therefore ended in a stunning victory for Bongbong Marcos, the son of late Philippines dictator, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and former first lady and convicted criminal, Imelda Romualdez Marcos. Despite the bitter feelings about his family’s decades-long cruel political domination and excessive wealth amass, Bongbong received over 58 percent of total vote, becoming the first candidate to win an outright majority in a presidential election in Philippines. His victory reared up even more as his running mate, Sara Duterte, President Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter, won the election as vice president with a record of some 32 million votes. Akin to his predecessor, Bongbong is considered by many a classic populist, majority of whose supporters are composed of those under 30 – in other words, those who were not born during his father’s cruel rein (Guzman, 2022).

Using social media as direct linkage to the young disadvantaged masses, Bongbong has already managed to construct a popular public image that has earned him a cult-like following. At time of writing, he has 7.4 million followers on Facebook alone. Despite strong criticisms over the human rights violations that occurred during his father’s dictatorship, Bongbong asks his supporters to judge him not by his ancestors, but by his actions (Karen, 2022).

As of today, the extend of Bongbong‘s populism is not clear and may change as his position evolves in time. If he elects to operate on a full-fledged populist grounds, the country is likely to witness a deterioration of democratic norms and principles and worsening human rights conditions. There is also the risk of anti-populist movements creating further instability in an already fragile socio-economic-political landscape.

December 16, 2020.
Updated June 13, 2022.


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Geographic Location: East Asia

Area: 300,000 sq. km.

Regime: Unitary Presidential Republic

Population: 109,581,078 (2020 September est.)

Ethnic Groups (2010 est.): Tagalog 24.4%, Bisaya 11.4%, Cebuano 9.9%, Ilocano 8.8%, Hiligaynon 8.5%, Bicol 6.8%, Waray-Waray 4%, Others 26.2%

Languages: A total of 182 native languages are spoken in addition to English, Spanish, Chavacano, and varieties of Chinese. The four main native languages are Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano, and Hiligaynon

Religions (2015 est.): Roman Catholic 79.5%, Muslim 6%, Iglesia ni Cristo 2.6%, Evangelical 2.4%, Others 9.5%

GDP (PPP):  $330.9 billion (2018)

GDP Per Capita (PPP): $9,277.4 (2019)

Socio-Political Situation: Fragile

Main Populism Factors:

  • Penal Populism
  • Neo-authoritarianism
  • Machismo
  • Anti-oligarchic
  • Anti-elite
  • Anti-establishment
  • Nationalism
  • Anti-Corruption

Regime’s Character: Flawed Democracy

Score: 66/100


Partido Demokratiko Pilipino–Lakas ng Bayan, PDP–Laban (Philippine Democratic Party–People’s Power)


Leaders: Rodrigo Duterte

Ideology: Nationalism, left-wing populism, democratic-socialism, anti-establishment

Populism: Left-wing authoritarian

Position: 5/24 seats in the Senate and 65/304 seats in the House of Representatives.