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How Populist Rodrigo Duterte Keeps Shaking Up the Philippines

Philippine's President Rodrigo Duterte.

Philippine's President Rodrigo Duterte.

Photographer: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

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The Punisher. Dirty Harry. Donald Trump of the East. These are nicknames given to President Rodrigo Duterte, a fiery populist who has waged a deadly war on drugs in the Philippines. Since his election in 2016, he has scrambled the country’s international loyalties, shaken up big business and angered women’s groups and the Catholic Church. And that was before missteps in handling the Covid-19 pandemic led to one of the highest case rates in Southeast Asia and tens of thousands of deaths, tanking the economy as well. Yet Duterte remains popular with a wide base, meaning he still plays a role in the race to succeed him this year.

Duterte inherited a strong economy from his predecessor, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, and kept growth running above 6% in his first four years as president, with jobless and poverty rates staying low. The Philippines also got its highest credit rating as tax overhauls were implemented, following on Aquino’s efforts to pursue tax evaders. Spending on infrastructure also increased. The pandemic reversed those gains, however. Two major contributors -- remittances and domestic consumption -- were gutted as businesses shut and overseas workers returned home or were idled. Gross domestic product plunged 9.6% in 2020, the largest drop since 1946, and unemployment climbed, especially in the Manila metro area, home to a third of the country’s economic activity. Growth returned in 2021, with the full-year forecast at 5%-5.5% as virus restrictions were eased, but the emergence of the omicron variant is a wildcard for the economy in 2022.