Return of the Strongmen

The rise of leaders like Rodrigo Duterte reveals that autocratic populism can thrive in a wide range of environments, posing a global threat to democratic government.

In the months before Brazil’s elections in October, many experts both within and outside the country dismissed the possibility that Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain and previously obscure far-right congressman, could win the presidency. Bolsonaro did not belong to one of the major political parties, and had a history of pro-dictatorship, racist, and misogynist rhetoric that seemed beyond the pale for the fourth-largest democracy in the world. 

Rodrigo Duterte: Fire and Fury in the Philippines
by Jonathan Miller
Scribe, 352 pp.

Yet in late October, Bolsonaro notched a resounding victory, winning the Brazilian presidency with 55 percent of the vote. In some ways, the result echoed the failure of American elites to accept the possibility that Donald Trump could win the presidency. But Bolsonaro’s rise more closely parallels that of another autocratic populist, one who operates in a system with weak democratic guardrails and who has, in office, carried out abuses far outstripping any of Trump’s efforts: Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines. 

The rise of extreme, antiestablishment heads of state is not confined to places where immigration or opposition to free trade are driving populists’ rise. In fact, as I have written for the Council on Foreign Relations, the ascension of leaders like Duterte and Bolsonaro reveals that autocratic populism is highly flexible, thriving in many different scenarios and driven by different core grievances. It is thus even more dangerous to international stability than it would be if it only could grow in the soil of Europe and North America. Duterte’s brand of brutal leadership can thrive in a wide range of environments, posing a global threat to democratic government.

In two and a half years as president of the Philippines—less than half of his allotted six-year term—Duterte has already wreaked havoc on the country, according to the first major biography of the Philippine leader, Rodrigo Duterte, by Jonathan Miller. Duterte has destroyed the independence of the top court, jailed senators, tried to rehabilitate the memory of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and, most notoriously, overseen a “war” on drugs that has claimed some 12,000 lives, according to an analysis by Human Rights Watch. The bloody drug war has destroyed families, given the police and vigilante groups enormous power, and traumatized much of the population. 

Miller, a correspondent for Britain’s Channel 4 news, bases his account on extensive reporting, placing the reader up close as Duterte’s manic and macho personality plunges the Philippines into perpetual civil conflict and creates chaos in Malacañang Palace, the Philippine White House. Miller’s indictment of Duterte, told through interviews with Duterte’s family, friends, allies, opponents (including a former hit man who allegedly committed extrajudicial killings), and victims, cuts deeply. Duterte spews hatred at all manner of perceived enemies, Miller notes, essentially giving license to vigilantes to attack anyone the president criticizes. Duterte’s wild rhetorical style, and his tendency to fill his press appearances with falsehoods (sound familiar?) have created an environment in which it’s hard for media outlets to establish the truth and in which the public increasingly has come to believe whatever Duterte says. Although it still seems unlikely, Duterte has suggested that he wants to change the country’s constitution, which limits presidents to one term—a favorite move of autocrats seeking to extend their power.

Although aspects of his presidency might resemble the rule of right-wing populists in Europe and North America—chaotic leadership, dominance of political parties, the contamination of public discourse with relentless falsehoods—Duterte, whose background is in left-leaning politics, came to power by channeling resentment around issues that are mostly different from those driving populism in the West.

Most notably, the Philippines does not have a perceived problem with immigration; in fact, the country is a source of significant out-migration. And while there are serious Muslim-Christian tensions in the Philippines, Duterte has generally not attempted to stoke Islamophobia. He has had relatively warm relations with Philippine Muslim leaders, and has overseen a peace deal in the Muslim-majority south. (On the other hand, he did unleash the Philippine armed forces in 2017 in a battle against Muslim insurgents in the southern city of Marawi, leveling parts of the town with seemingly indiscriminate bombing.)

Meanwhile, the Philippine economy, as in much of Southeast Asia, is heavily dependent on trade, and there is little discussion in Philippine policy circles of closing off the country’s economy through tariffs or other measures. The country also has posted strong economic growth for nearly a decade. And although there are certainly significant racial divides in the Philippines, Duterte did not run as protector of the interests of one historically powerful racial group. 

To be sure, Southeast Asian strongmen like Duterte and former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who ruled Thailand from 2001 to 2006, have hit some themes common to populists in the West, blaming (some) corrupt and disinterested elites for ignoring national problems like inequality and, in Thaksin’s case, the aftermath of Thailand’s late 1990s financial crisis. And, as in the West, Southeast Asia’s populist autocrats portray themselves as outsiders—although, as Miller shows, Duterte was never a real political outsider. He grew up as the protected, spoiled son of a powerful governor in the Philippine south, before becoming mayor of the city of Davao for decades prior to winning the presidency. 

But in the main, rulers like Duterte have convinced their people to embrace a strongman by focusing on how, despite economic growth, their nations’ governments were not providing effective services for working- and lower-middle-class people. They argued that, once in power, they would vastly improve services for the working class—and, unlike Trump, they have sometimes followed through, from Thaksin’s implementation of national health insurance to Duterte’s similar efforts to push through a major Philippine health care program. 

Meanwhile, in the place of immigrants or terrorists, these populists have tended to focus on criminals, including drug criminals, as their preferred bogeymen. Thaksin’s own bloody drug war in the early 2000s, which claimed the lives of some 2,500 people—many of whom reportedly had no ties to the drug trade—may have been a model for Duterte’s efforts. In Brazil, which now has one of the highest murder rates in the world, Bolsonaro, too, has promised to inflict serious bloodshed in a militarized fight against crime. In doing this, he is directly echoing Duterte and Thaksin. 

Miller offers insights into how Duterte has used the tactics of machismo and anti-elite grievance to win the presidency and dominate Philippine politics, and reveals how other autocratic-leaning populists have won and could win in a very broad range of countries beyond those that get the most attention in the Western press, like the United States, Hungary, Italy, and Poland.

In fact, having conquered places like the Philippines and Brazil, autocratic populism is poised to make gains in many other nations where local divisive issues are different from those animating politics in the West. In Indonesia, for example, an autocratic-leaning populist, former Lieutenant General Prabowo Subianto, could win the presidential election in April, taking control over the biggest democracy in Southeast Asia. 

Meanwhile, populists could make new gains in Africa and Latin America in the coming years. South Africa could be a viable target, given its deep unemployment, serious crime problems, and public perceptions that elites are vastly corrupt. Meanwhile, a populist and pro-Thaksin party could return to power in Thailand, which is currently ruled by a military regime, if the junta allows a free and fair vote in upcoming national elections.

And as Duterte and his peers show, once those autocratic populists win power, it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, for democracy to recover. This is especially true in developing nations that lack the stronger institutions and norms found in European and North American democracies. Certainly, if the second half of Duterte’s presidential term is as murderous and chaotic as the first, it is hard to imagine how Philippine democracy can bounce back.  

Joshua Kurlantzick

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.