Weighing Duterte’s legacy

Many reforms began during President Duterte's time but no narration of his legacy would be complete without a mention of his shortcomings.


June 29, 2022

MANILA – Taking stock of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency which ends on Thursday means acknowledging the good that he and his administration has done.

This includes implementing key economic and structural reform measures that have lingered as mere proposals for several decades, like the rice tariffication law, which helped bring down the prices of the most important staple food in the country (at great cost to local farmers, unfortunately), and a revamp of the tax code that cut corporate taxes to promote job creation while removing the tax exemptions of companies that no longer needed them.

The outgoing administration also passed a law that allowed foreigners to bring in much-needed capital to own up to 100 percent of firms reclassified as “public services” where foreign ownership was previously restricted to only 40 percent, without amending the Constitution as was previously thought necessary.

Retail trade and foreign investment regimes were liberalized—despite the objections of lobby groups—in the hopes of creating more employment for Filipinos and improving the local economy through greater competition.

Big-ticket infrastructure projects conceptualized as early as the 1970s, like the Metro Manila subway system, finally moved from the drawing board to the ground, while long gestation projects started under previous administrations were fast-tracked. As a result, more airports, piers, bridges, and roads are on their way to completion.

In terms of national defense, the administration continued its predecessors’ policy of devoting more resources to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and ramped it up further, pouring billions of pesos to acquire new aircraft, warship, and weapons for the army. The administration also enacted a law that imposes a fixed term of office on the military’s chief of staff in hopes of insulating it from politics and improving professionalism.

There are many more reforms than can be mentioned here and, by any measure, the list is impressive. And it leaves his predecessor with a strong base from which to continue building the country.

But no narration of President Duterte’s legacy would be complete without an accounting of his shortcomings. And they are significant.

For one, the Philippines over the last six years has seen a substantial shrinking of democratic space, with critics of Mr. Duterte’s human rights record like former senator Leila de Lima put behind bars (on charges that have seen a steady stream of witnesses recanting their testimonies against her in recent weeks).

Maria Lourdes Sereno, who was named Supreme Court Chief Justice by then President Benigno Aquino III in 2012 and seen as key threat to the Duterte administration, was removed and stripped of her title.

The President’s allies in Congress rejected the franchise renewal of the ABS-CBN media empire of the Lopez family (accused of being “oligarchs” and not paying taxes by Mr. Duterte). Other media organizations like the Inquirer and Rappler were subjected to a barrage of presidential insults and threats against their owners and attacked by the administration-aligned social media trolls.

As for the Left, many of their platforms were designated “terrorist organizations” while many local supporters were arrested, harassed, or Red-tagged by authorities.

The Philippines is still a democracy and a free country. But it is far less democratic and free today than it was when he assumed office in 2016.

Then, there is the lingering problem of government corruption that Mr. Duterte promised to end “in three to six months”—something he has since admitted was an exaggeration that was uttered in the heat of the presidential campaign. As the news headlines show, the problem persists to this day.

Finally—and most importantly—there is the issue of the thousands of deaths of Filipinos under Mr. Duterte’s brutal war on drugs. Government agencies pegged the body count at 6,248 as of two months ago, while human rights advocates say the total tally is closer to 30,000.

Whatever the true number is, Mr. Duterte will go down in history as the leader who presided over the unconscionable deaths of so many Filipinos, most of them poor, at the hands of law enforcers without due process. Mr. Duterte holds the record of being the first Philippine president to face the complaint of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the Netherlands. This case will hound him as Citizen Duterte after ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan on Friday requested the pretrial chamber to resume inquiry on the drug killings.

On the whole, how history will view Mr. Duterte’s presidency remains to be seen. But, unfortunately, with one day to go before he leaves Malacañang, we are still too close to the frame to see the entire picture and judge the Duterte legacy.

But one thing is clear: the progress touted by President Duterte comes at a very high price. Only time will tell if it was worth it.

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