Purple Romero is a Filipina multimedia journalist. She has written about politics, gender issues, the environment and international relations for The Guardian, Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, the Spanish publication El Mundo and others. She is also a freelance producer for Al Jazeera and Channel News Asia. She provides analyses and updates on Philippine politics to Deutsche Welle. Her 2009 reporting fellowship under Internationales Institut für Journalismus (IIJ) focuses on ASEAN relations and the maritime conflict over South China Sea. She has since written about it and is now a researcher for two books that will tackle the issue.

FPI: How has Duterte employed populism to gain support? 

Purple Romero: When you talk about Duterte and populism, the narrative of the People Power revolution and its failure to bring institutional reforms comes to light. Political scientist Cleve Arguelles has extensively written about this and it has also been discussed and debated upon tremendously  within academic and political circles.

In 1986, the Filipinos, through a bloodless coup, were able to topple dictator Ferdinand Marco – igniting fervent hope that social, economic and political changes would transpire with the restoration of democracy. However, after 30 years or so, there’s still deep schisms between the elite and poor, a divide made more evident by the fact that basic services remain inaccessible to the majority.

The disillusionment and frustration of the hoi polloi over the lack of significant reforms in the country amidst the existence of a democratic government set the stage for the rise of Rodrigo Roa Duterte, a man who nixed political correctness and made no apologies for introducing radical measures to ostensibly establish order and make the country better.

He blasted oligarchs and threatened to spare no one – not the wealthy or the powerful – in his campaign against drugs. That’s Duterte going full throttle with his bluster, showcasing bravado and promising blood.

On one hand, there’s also the Duterte who will show no apprehension in apologizing for the consequences of his actions, particularly his declaration of martial law in Marawi, a city besieged with acts of terrorism by the ISIS-inspired Maute group and the deaths of innocent children in his war on drugs.

One thing to note though is that he apologized not because he thought he was wrong, but to justify why he did what he did.

This mélange of accessibility and toughness won the hearts and minds of 16 million Filipinos across all socioeconomic sectors. When they voted for Duterte, they did not see him as a threat to democracy, but as a leader who would finally get things done, regardless of what he would do with democracy.

FPI: Do you expect public opinion of Duterte to shift in the near future? 

PR: The killing of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos in police operations against suspected drug users and pushers triggered massive public outcry, with some of those who even voted for Duterte saying his war on drugs has gone too far.

Duterte has survived major divisive controversies caused by his policies and actions – his order to have the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos buried in the national shrine for heroes, his pivot to China and his campaign against drugs, his declaration of martial law in Mindanao, even his lapses in handling the problem of terrorism in Marawi.

The difference now is that some of Duterte’s allies in the Senate have started to speak out against his brutal war on drugs. While there may be no significant shift in the public opinion toward Duterte, there may be some minor ramblings from his allies that could alert the president, but still not enough to sway the political status quo. This is because the House of Representatives has remained silent about what’s been happening and the Supreme Court has ruled consistently in favor of Duterte.

These institutions continue to toe the line and as long as they defend the president’s policies, it will be easy to frame the opposition as coming from but an outraged few, an us-vs-them scenario.

FPI: How has the country’s policies/foreign policy relationships changed under Duterte, if at all? 

PR: Foreign policy under Duterte is driven by a defeatist attitude, one that extinguishes and ignores the dynamism of legal and diplomatic arenas – for him, the options are either you go to war or not. This line of thinking has shaped the way he dealt with China, which has a longstanding maritime row with the Philippines over South China Sea.

Duterte’s belief is that since we cannot win against Beijing in a war, we will just follow their lead – this, despite the fact that the Philippines has already shown and proven that it can fight for its claim over the resource-rich trade route – and even emerge victorious – without having to go to war. The Philippines achieved a landmark triumph in 2016 when an international tribunal nullified China’s nine-dash line claim over South China Sea.

Duterte has not maximized this victory, whose fruits can only be felt with a consistent and rigorous defense of our territory and sovereign rights through the years – years, because the benefits of this legal victory will not be felt instantly.  In US v. Nicaragua, the US, like China, also did not recognize the ruling of an international tribunal; it did, however, bow to pressure from the global community. While the US did not pay the $370 million awarded by the court to Nicaragua, it extended aid in half a billion dollars to the smaller country.

Duterte doesn’t look like he considers or plans for the long term in terms of foreign policy, even if his allies assert that extending friendship to China is in fact a testament to his goal to develop better relations with the superpower. Granted, he can try a less aggressive tack than his predecessor and even develop warmer ties with China, but he should know when to draw the line.

Case in point: if Chinese vessels have already been spotted staying in another Philippine territory (Pag-asa or Thitu island) in South China Sea, it will not be wise to disregard diplomatic mechanisms. At the very least, issue a note verbale, file a diplomatic protest.

The president’s foreign policy is also shoehorned in his war on drugs – he threatened to scuttle the Philippine-US military agreement because then US ambassador Philip Goldberg criticized his war on drugs; he refused to accept grants from EU, because it was also critical of the same campaign. Because of this, there is a threat of Duterte failing to see the big picture in his appreciation of international ties and foreign relations.

FPI: What has it been like reporting in a climate that is hostile toward journalists? 

PR: I see the hostility right now towards the media as an opportunity to educate news and information consumers about our role. We do not report critically about Duterte and his government because we’re “destabilizers” – it’s something that we have done before under other administrations and something we’re still going to do under a new president.

It’s important not to easily fall into the trap though of labeling those who support Duterte as “trolls” or “Dutertards.” The media will further alienate itself from his supporters if it does. Even – and especially – when the climate is hostile against the fourth estate, it is important that journalists should do what they’re supposed to do – be accurate, fair and vigilant.

What do you think the future holds for the populist movement in the Philippines?

The litmus test for the continued power of the populist movement will be the elections in 2022 – if the Filipinos install another Marcos (the son of the late dictator, Ferdinand “Bongbong”) in the highest seat in the land or a Duterte-anointed successor (this could be one and the same) then that means the spirit of populism will stay alive. The Filipinos continue to look back at the so-called glory of the past so much now, that they’re willing to overlook its mistakes.

FPI: Do you have any recommended books or articles for someone looking to better understand the situation in the Philippines? 

PR: Go read the article “Politics of Anxiety, Politics of Hope: Penal Populism and Duterte’s Rise to Power” by sociologist Nicole Curato, which was published in the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs last year. The article provides an excellent explanation on the nuances of populism in the Philippines and does not simply dichotomize the voting public.

FPI: Do you have any advice for fellow interrupters? 

PR: To better understand why the world works the way it does now, marry wit with empathy.