In Depth

Is Rodrigo Duterte the ‘Trump of the East’?

Filipino president is also known for his ‘tough talking’, but human rights abuses separate him from US counterpart

As US President Donald Trump nears the end of his tour of East Asia, Sunday night saw him cosying up to Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, one of the world’s most controversial political leaders.

Trump spoke of his country’s “great relationship” with the Philippines, before, bizarrely, being serenaded by Duterte at a dinner in Manila for leaders from across Asia. But much has been made of Trump’s refusal to address the human rights abuses that have plagued the Philippines since Duterte took power in June last year.

Duterte swept to victory on a platform of hard-line authoritarianism, spearheaded by a policy encouraging the extrajudicial killing of people thought to be involved in the drug trade. Human rights groups say as many as 14,000 people may have died as a result.

Last night’s love-in between Trump and Duterte further plays into the hands of those who like to compare the two - with his strongman persona, public eccentricity and hard-line policies, Duterte has been nicknamed the “Trump of the East”.

But with thousands dying under Duterte’s watch, is this moniker fair on Trump? And how did the controversial Duterte come to lead his country?

Mayor of Davao City

Duterte was born in 1945, in Maasin, a small town on Leyte island, in the central Philippines. He studied political science and law at universities in the Philippines, and went on to became chief prosecutor and, subsequently, mayor of Davao, one of the country’s largest cities.

Duterte’s time as mayor, from 1988, was littered with controversy, but also cemented his reputation as a hands-on authoritarian who gets results.

Under his leadership, Davao City felt the tightening grip of increased police presence and harsher punishments for criminals, a legacy that continues today.

“A curfew keeps unaccompanied minors off the streets after 10pm, the sale of liquor after 2am is prohibited and you can only smoke in designated places,” said The Independent last year, adding that “by the standard of Philippine metropolises, Davao is an orderly place”.

However, Duterte was put under investigation by the Human Rights Commission in 2005 over his connection to the Davao Death Squad, a supposedly citizen-run vigilante group responsible for killing suspected drug dealers and petty criminals.

He has always denied involvement with the group, but in April this year a former Davao Death Squad leader claimed Duterte ordered mosque bombings and the murder of a journalist during his time as mayor, backing up earlier claims by another former member, reports CNN.

Presidential campaign

In November 2015, to the joy of his supporters, Duterte formally announced that he would be running for president in the following year’s elections. 

During this time, his rhetoric became increasingly caustic, in what The Guardian called his “foul-mouthed campaign”.

He pledged to kill 100,000 criminals during the first six months of his reign, claimed that he had personally killed suspected criminals while mayor of Davao City, and made a controversial joke about the rape and murder of a woman there in 1989.

Australian Jacqueline Hamill was working in a prison in Davao when she was raped and killed during a riot by inmates. At a press conference just one month before last year’s election, Duterte said of Hamill: “I saw her face and I thought: ‘Son of a bitch. What a pity...’  I was mad she was raped but she was so beautiful. I thought, the mayor should have been first.”

The comments sparked a fierce backlash, with rival presidential candidate Jejomar Binay tweeting that Duterte was a “crazy maniac”.

Duterte later distanced himself from an apology statement issued on his behalf by his party, telling reporters he would “never really apologise” for the remark, reports CNN.

Nevertheless, The Guardian reports, Duterte’s supporters continued to back him, lauding his “principled lifestyle, his modest house and support of LGBT groups, a risky political move in a mainly Catholic country”. Investment and tourism have both risen considerably in Davao since he became mayor, transforming the town from a “haven for criminals to one of the country’s safest cities”, adds the newspaper.

It was at around this time that news agencies began to brand Duterte the “Trump of the East”, pointing to similarities between the two - both being “self-professed political outsiders with a penchant for tough talk and shocking turns of phrase”, and for making “misogynistic comments”, and both being “somewhat unexpectedly popular”, says The Washington Post.

Presidency and human rights abuses

On 9 May 2016, the Philippines presidential election saw Duterte claim the country’s top job in a landslide victory, taking almost double the vote percentage of second-placed Leni Robredo.

After assuming the post officially that June, Duterte swiftly imposed his promised policy reform on the country, and by August, the head of the Philippines police told a senate hearing that around 1,900 people had been killed in the anti-drugs crackdown. He also revealed that only 750 of the killings had been verified as committed by police forces, with the remaining cases unclear, the BBC reports.

Days earlier experts at the United Nations had declared that Duterte’s war on drugs amounted to “incitement to violence and killing, a crime under international law”. That prompted Duterte to threaten to “separate” from the UN and form a separate international body with China and a number of African nations.

In September, as concern grew over the mounting death toll, Duterte doubled down on his stance, favourably comparing his killing of criminals to Hitler’s murder of six million Jews, says Reuters, before calling then-US president Barack Obama a “son of a whore” for criticising his stance on drugs.

The Guardian claimed in January that in the first seven months of Duterte’s drug war, as many as 7,000 people had been killed, of whom only around 2,250 were confirmed to have been killed by police. However, after the police killing of a South Korean businessman erroneously connected to drug smuggling that same month, Duterte expressed his “embarrassment” and disbanded all anti-drug units within the police - which has made calculating the number of dead much more difficult.

He refused to back down from his pro-vigilante stance, however, offering a five million pesos (£745,000) dead-or-alive bounty on drug lords, says Reuters.

So is Duterte the Trump of the East?

While Trump’s method of rule and level of authoritarianism over his country is clearly less extreme than Duterte’s, the US president’s opinion of his Filipino counterpart remains high. In May this year, Trump came under heavy criticism for reportedly telling Duterte that he was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem”, Reuters reports, despite being aware of the brutality of the crackdown.

With yesterday’s meeting came another moment of uneasy levity when Trump appeared to approve of Duterte calling his country’s media “spies” during a press conference, a term that echoes Trump’s oft-repeated claim that numerous mainstream media outlets in the US pedal so-called “fake news”.

Yet the brutal nature of Duterte’s iron-fisted reign casts the Filipino president in a much darker light, says Tom Smith in The Guardian.

“This unpredictable new leader, and the timing of his rise, should worry the world much more than Trump ever could,” Smith says. “Comparing Duterte to Trump is tempting as a source of clickbait headlines, but it is inaccurate.”


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