Does Duterte fulfill the dictator criteria? This book can help us find out

Pia Ranada

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Does Duterte fulfill the dictator criteria? This book can help us find out
'How Democracies Die' by Levitsky and Ziblatt identifies signs of a budding authoritarian and steps they take to subvert democracies. How does Rodrigo Duterte measure up to their criteria?

It’s been said many times that President Rodrigo Duterte has dictator-like tendencies. He’s been called a populist, a demagogue, an authoritarian.  

But what do these words mean? And is Duterte really all these things?

In my quest for answers to these questions, I came upon a book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt called How Democracies Die. 

With Duterte now at the midway mark of his presidency, there could be enough presidential actions to compare against what the book describes. 

The authors identified 4 key indicators, or warning signs, of a budding authoritarian. They also crafted a sort of “dictator’s playbook,” or steps such leaders take to subvert democracies they were elected to lead into repressive societies. 

The dictators described in their book did not rise in autocratic governments. They were democratically-elected by their people. And many did not destroy their country’s democracies by anything as overt as killing off their critics.  

Here’s a particularly striking passage from the book:

The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps. Each individual step seems minor – none appears to truly threaten democracy. Indeed, government moves to subvert democracy frequently enjoy a veneer of legality: They are approved by parliament or ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court. Many of them are adopted under the guise of pursuing some legitimate – even laudable – public objective, such as combating corruption, “cleaning up” elections, improving the quality of democracy, or enhancing national security.

So if authoritarians can thrive in democracies, how do we tell them apart from other types of leaders? Does Duterte fit the bill of an authoritarian?

Using the book as a guide, let’s go through the 4 behaviorial signs of an authoritarian and the 3 steps in their playbook.


Sign 1: Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game

One red flag for leaders is when they “reject the Constitution or express a willingness to violate it,” write Levitsky and Ziblatt.

Duterte has belittled the 1987 Constitution and threatened to declare a revolutionary government, which law experts say is a repudiation of the Constitution.

Another warning sign is if the leader “suggests a need for antidemocratic measures,” including “suspending the Constitution…or restricting basic civil or political rights.”

Duterte threatened to arrest anyone who tries to impeach him, even if filing an impeachment petition is part of the democratic process.

Duterte backed the ouster of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno via quo warranto petition when critics said it was unconstitutional. Supreme Court justices can only be removed via impeachment. 

Duterte threatened two constitutional bodies designed to serve as check and balance to his power: the Commission on Audit  and the Commission on Human Rights.  

Duterte released diagrams and lists where he accused politicians, cops, critics, and journalists of crimes – including involvement in illegal drugs or “destabilization” efforts. Critics said Duterte robbed them of their democratic rights to due process.

Sign 2: Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents

Demagogues are likely to portray their rivals as “subversive” or an existential threat to national security or public order. They accuse their opponents of being criminals or of being foreign agents.  

What has Duterte done two his two fiercest critics in the Senate? Senator Leila de Lima has been detained for more than two years, over drug charges after Duterte initially accused her of “immorality.” He tried to send former senator Antonio Trillanes IV to jail by making an issue out of his amnesty records. 

Opposition parties like the Liberal Party and Magdalo Party ended up in so-called “ouster” diagrams, where Duterte portrayed them as trying to bring down his government. 

In short, Duterte has tried to convince Filipinos that his political rivals are existential threats to national security who are therefore disqualifed from full participation in the political arena.

Sign 3: Toleration or encouragement of violence

Connections to “organizations that engage in illicit violence” is one worrisome indicator. So is tacit endorsement of violence or the refusal to categorically condemn and punish it.

Duterte has been linked to the so-called Davao Death Squad, a vigilante group that he reportedly used to execute criminals and his personal enemies  when he was Davao City mayor. He sometimes denied this connection, while other times he embraced it.

Duterte and his supporters encouraged violence against opponents, whether it’s slapping United Nation rapporteurs, assassinating “corrupt” journalists, or shooting human rights activists. Duterte praised and gave medals to cops behind the deadliest drug raids. He promised promotions to cops who “massacre” drug suspects and said he would pardon them should they be accused of committing abuses. 

Sign 4: Willingness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media

The book says would-be authoritarians threaten legal or punitive action against critics, civil society, and the media. They also tend to express admiration for other leaders who have similarly targeted their critics.

Duterte accused what he called “legal fronts” of the Communist Party of the Philippines as “terrorists” who should be arrested, though the groups denied links to the CPP. Some of these groups are human rights and religious groups who have been critical of Duterte’s policies.

Duterte banned an entire news organization, Rappler, from covering his official activities. Its CEO, Maria Ressa, was arrested twice and made to pay bail 8 times. She faces 11 active legal cases.

As for Duterte’s “idol” world leaders? They are Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and US President Donald Trump – all known for their intolerance for dissent.


Levitsky and Ziblatt write that there are steps would-be authoritarians take to subvert democracy. 

Step 1: Capture the referees by packing and ‘weaponizing’ the courts and law enforcement authorities

“With the courts packed and law enforcement authorities brought to heel, governments can act with impunity,” write the authors.

With the ouster of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Duterte was able to appoint more justices into the Supreme Court than he otherwise would not have powers to do. By 2022, 13 of the 15 justices  would be his appointees. All police, military, and security agency chiefs are presidential appointees. If they are not beholden to Duterte already, he made sure to dangle top civilian government posts as a prize for loyalty when they retire. He rewarded the rank-and-file military and police too, by doubling their take-home pay and pouring resources into their health care and housing.

Step 2: Bullying into silence or buying off media and the private sector

“Tax authorities may be used to target rival politicians, businesses, and media outlets…. Intelligence agencies can be used to spy on critics and dig up material for blackmail.”

Duterte threatened powerful businessmen – from Lucio Tan, to the Lopez  family, to the Prietos. His accusations always had legal ring to them, blaming them for tax evasion or multiple estafa. With his power to order regulatory agencies, any businessman who wants to keep their corporations intact would want to play by Duterte’s rules.  

The ouster diagrams against critical journalists and lawyers and the diagram alleging De Lima’s drug links are yet other possible examples of using “intelligence” to discredit critics and bring them to heel.

Step 3: Rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents

“To entrench themselves in power, however, governments must do more – they must also change the rules of the game. Authoritarians seeking to consolidate their power often reform the constitution, the electoral system, and other institutions in ways that disadvantage or weaken the opposition.”

Duterte recently revived his call  to amend the Constitution, supposedly to address rampant government corruption. Then there were actions of his administration intended to protect him or bring down his critics which some viewed as a stretch of his executive power. 

Take for instance his unilateral withdrawal  of the Philippines from the International Criminal Court after it said it was conducting a preliminary examination into his drug war. Opposition lawmakers challenged this withdrawal, saying such an action required Senate approval.

Other things to note about authoritarians thriving in democracies. They can be popular. In fact, the authors write that the more popular this type of leader, the more dangerous they are. A month ago, in June, Duterte scored his highest net satisfaction rating ever.

Demagogues are also often “anti-establishment politicians” who claim to “represent the voice of ‘the people'” and vow to take down a “corrupt and conspirational elite.”

Duterte is a Mindanaoan politician who, in his 2016 presidential campaign, railed against the political elites from “imperial Manila.” He also recently claimed changing the constitution is necessary to prevent corruption perpetuated by the “stupid filthy rich.”

Does Duterte tick the dictator boxes?  I’ll let you decide. –

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.