Before his first overseas trip as president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte answered a media question about his first planned meeting with President Obama, leader of the Philippines’ most important economic and security partner. It did not go well. 

His (un)presidential comments led the US to postpone this meeting indefinitely, and followed an earlier incident where he used a homophobic slur in reference to US ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg.

This unprecedented diplomatic faux pas is symptomatic of a serious problem with the 70-day-old Duterte administration; a problem that is more prevalent and troubling on the domestic front. During the presidential campaign, Duterte (who has been mayor or vice-mayor of Davao City in southern Mindanao for 27 of the last 30 years) said that should he win, he wanted people to refer to him as mayor of the Philippines, not president.

True to his word, since his inauguration as president on 30 June, Duterte has conducted himself in the same way he did as the long-standing mayor and dominant political figure of a peripheral city far from the gaze of the national and international media. This lack of political transition is most noticeable in three ways:

  • His primary focus on the war on drugs, a law and order issue. The extreme measures taken and body count amassing from this war is reflective of an approach frequently used by many mayors imposed at the national level.
  • His virulent reaction to any criticism of the means adopted in this war (and their deadly consequences), and his attacks on critics (even when they represent co-equal branches of government with responsibility to ensure that government actions are in accordance with the law). At the local level, there are no co-equal branches of government to the mayor’s office, and local media outlets are usually much more amenable than their national and international peers.
  • His seemingly indiscriminate use of colourful and frequently derogatory colloquial language. Mayors, particularly of peripheral cities, do not represent their country on the international stage and thus do not need to follow particularly strict protocol. Duterte’s maverick persona is central to his political success so far.

Duterte’s undoubted success as mayor, broad public support, lack of an effective legislative opposition and fierce pride all push against a change of approach. Criticism of his conduct as president, especially from outside his circle of trusted kumpares, will carry little weight (and may even be counterproductive). 

There is a steep learning curve from being mayor of less than two million to president for more than 100 million. Duterte is the only one who can mount it. His behaviour over his first 70 days as president (culminating in his comments on the tarmac at Davao International Airport earlier this week) reveals just how big a challenge this is. 

Photo: Getty Images/Dondi Tawatao