Editor's Note

For the third publication of the ADRN special working paper series, Dr. Francisco A. Magno of the Jesse M. Robredo Institute of Governance explores the populist phenomenon in the Philippines. In his paper, Dr. Magno argues that weak democratic institutions and the “wide disparity between what is envisioned under the democratic Constitution and the actual exercise of democracy” have created an environment that allows populism to thrive. He states that because these institutions, including political parties, have transformed into tools for politicians to use, “personality-oriented elections are routinized and become the norm.” Thus, Dr. Magno argues that more needs to be done to provide mechanisms for citizens to participate in the governing process and concludes that “a rules-based system is nurtured through interdependent civic and knowledge practices and institutions.”



Quotes from the Paper


Populism is not a novel event but a periodic one. It is a type of direct democracy that emerges when people sense that they are pushed to the margins by mainstream politics. Riding on the back of political discontent, populism gains traction and thrives amid an atmosphere of divisiveness cultivated by identity-driven politics. It focuses blame on certain domestic groups, countries, and international organizations for the ills of the nation. Populism is defined as a thin-centered ideology that delineates society into two homogeneous and adversarial groups – the pure people versus the corrupt elite.  It insists that politics should express la volonté générale or the general will of the people.


Institutional Lens

An institutional theoretical lens is appropriate to assess the role of weak institutions in fostering the rise of a populist leadership that promised to make up for the ineffectual performance of previous regimes. In this regard, institutions are framed in terms of enduring rules and organized practices embedded in structures of meaning and resources. These constitutive rules and practices stipulate appropriate behavior for specific actors under given circumstances. In this regard, structures of meaning provide the explanation and justification of behavioral codes while structures of resources foster capabilities for action.


From Mayor to President

Unlike the other presidential candidates who made their marks on the national scene before seeking the highest office of the land, Duterte spent most of his political career as a local government official. As mayor, Duterte dramatically transformed Davao from being a cradle of insurgency during the martial law years into a progressive urban center in the post-EDSA period. He installed security outposts surrounding the city where militias had to surrender their weapons. He imposed a smoking ban in public places, ordained curfew hours, and enforced road speed limits. The Davao City Investment Code was passed and business processes and licensing systems were streamlined to ease the regulatory cost of doing business. The influx of investment was accompanied by the proliferation of high-rise condominiums and shopping malls in the city. In 2014, Davao’s economy grew by 9.4 percent, outpacing the growth rate of other urban hubs.


The Populist Appeal

A survey of thirty-eight nations conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2017 indicates that unrestricted executive power has a substantial number of adherents. In twenty countries, a quarter or more of those polled preferred an arrangement in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from the legislature and judiciary. This political trajectory is evident in countries where executives have extended or consolidated their power in recent years, such as the Philippines, Russia, and Turkey. The overpowering executive demonstrates a weakening of the system of checks and balance that is inherent in representative democracy. In the case of the Philippines, the survey finds that half of the population is favorably inclined towards strongman rule.


The Drug War

After being elected president of the Philippines in May 2016, Duterte delivered on his campaign promise to wage a drug war. He offered bounties for the bodies of drug dealers and guaranteed the police that they would be shielded from prosecution. From 2016 to 2018, around 4,500 people were killed either in police operations or suspected vigilantism. The killings sparked widespread condemnation from the United Nations and other international human rights organizations. Chris Beyrer, Professor of Public Health and Human Rights at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and an expert on the health implications of drug policy, registered his protest that “this is not the rule of law. People are being killed on the accusation or presumption that they are involved in the drug trade: that is a recipe for vigilante violence.” In 2003, a similar policy action was pursued in Thailand through Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s war on drugs where more than 2,400 extra-judicial deaths were registered.


Social Media as a Battlefield

Cyberspace has evolved into a battlefield for political engagement and contestation. Aside from official government sites, many cyber-troop teams manage fictitious accounts to cloak their identities and interests. This phenomenon is also depicted as a form of astroturfing where the identity of a sponsor or organization is depicted in terms of grassroots activism (Howard, 2003). In many cases, these fake accounts are bots that refer to bits of code that are programmed to connect with and imitate human users. Media reports indicate that bots have been widely utilized by state actors around the world. These include Argentina, Azerbaijan, Iran, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela, and the Philippines. These bots are usually deployed to inundate social media networks with spam and fake news. However, not all governments make use of this type of automation.


The Rising Tide of Populism

Globalization has had mixed effects, producing winners and losers. It has been pointed out that globalization benefited exporters, transnational corporations, international banks, and the professional sectors that thrive in bigger markets. In China, millions of farmers made the transition from farmers to workers in the export-led manufacturing industry. On the other hand, globalization also deepened the rifts that divide capital and labor, urban and rural areas, sunrise and sunset industries, mobile professionals and local producers, and elites and ordinary people (Rodrik 2018).


Erosion of Independent Institutions

Populism can use an electoral mandate to decimate independent institutions that are considered bedrocks of liberal democracies like the courts and the free media. Populism might lead to political tribalism, which derails civil discourse and prevents political consensus. The substitution of global democratic norms with authoritarian practices would mean more elections in which the incumbent’s success is a matter of course. It would lead to more media spaces that are flooded by propaganda mouthpieces that sideline the opposition while presenting the ruler as omnipotent, tough, and committed to the welfare of the nation. It would mean state control over the Internet and social media through both censorship and active manipulation that promotes pro-regime messages.


Silencing Critics

Critics of the Duterte presidency have been silenced either through detention, removal from office, or the use of public derision. In September 2018, President Duterte said in a speech before the Filipino community in Jordan that detained Senator Leila de Lima is not a prisoner of conscience. He maintained that De Lima is involved in the illegal drug trade and is not politically persecuted. The senator has been detained in the PNP Custodial Center since February 2017 on charges that she benefited from the drug trade in the New Bilibid Prison during her tenure as Justice Secretary under the Aquino administration. De Lima is a staunch critic of Duterte of the President's anti-drug war. She has petitioned a Muntinlupa City court to disqualify thirteen convicts as witnesses in the drug charges she is facing. The inmates do not qualify as witnesses since they have been convicted of drug trafficking, murder, homicide, kidnapping and robbery. De Lima argued that witnesses who are convicted of crimes with moral turpitude violate the law on state witnesses.


Marginalizing the Opposition

Using an institutional theoretical lens, this study considered how weak institutions aided the rise of contemporary populism. Institutions are conceived as enduring rules and organized practices located in structures of meaning and resources. Political parties play a crucial role in fostering democratic linkage. They are the agents of representation in contemporary democratic systems. Substantive representation requires consistency between the policy preferences of voters and the policy positions that political parties adopt. In addition, it is also important that political parties listen to their voters with regard to the policy issues they emphasize in democratic societies.



Populism has always been around in the Philippines. Its presence is heightened or muted based on the confluence of actors and events that affect the political system. The framers of the 1987 Philippine Constitution sought to establish the foundations of a representative democracy that would bar the return of authoritarianism. Hence, the fundamental law is replete with features to ensure a system of competitive elections; checks and balances among the executive, legislature, and judiciary; respect for civil and political rights; and independent oversight agencies that promote accountability. However, there is a wide disparity between what is envisioned under the democratic Constitution and the actual exercise of democracy. The democratic gap lies in the failure to set up strong institutions to make representation work for the people.



Author’s Biography

Francisco A. Magno teaches Political Science and Development Studies at De La Salle University (DLSU). He is the Founding Director of the DLSU Jesse M. Robredo Institute of Governance. He served as the President of the Philippine Political Science Association from 2015 to 2017. He finished his PhD in Political Science at the University of Hawaii.