A New Penal Populism? Rodrigo Duterte, Public Opinion, and the War on Drugs in the Philippines

  • VOL. 20 NO. 2
  • pp. 187-205

Paul D. Kenny and Ronald Holmes

  • Keywords

    populism, criminal justice, war on drugs, penal policy, charisma

  • Abstract

    Drawing on evidence from the Philippines, this paper investigates the so-called penal populism thesis. Penal populism refers to an understanding of justice in which criminal and anti-social activity should be harshly punished. The paper tests whether support for harsh penal policies, including the use of extrajudicial killings, is associated with underlying populist attitudes and preferences for charismatic leadership. Since coming to power in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has waged a violent and highly popular campaign against drug-related criminality. Based on survey modules fielded in 2016 and 2017, the paper demonstrates a positive relationship between populist attitudes and support for the campaign against illegal drugs in general and the extra-judicial killing of suspected drug users and dealers in particular. It also demonstrates a relationship between belief in the charisma of Duterte and support for the campaign against illegal drugs. The implications of the theory and results for the fields of populism and penal populism research are discussed.

  • Author(s) Bio

    Paul D. Kenny (paul.kenny@anu.edu.au) is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University. He is the author of two books, Populism and Patronage: Why Populists Win Elections in India, Asia, and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2017), which won the American Political Science Association’s 2018 Robert A. Dahl Award, and Populism in Southeast Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2019).


    Ronald D. Holmes is Assistant Professor in the faculty of Political Science at De La Salle University-Manila. His research has been published in the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, Southeast Asian Affairs, and numerous edited volumes on Philippines and Southeast Asian politics. Holmes is also President of the polling and social research organization, Pulse Asia Research Inc. and is a regular commentator in the Philippines media.