FOCUS: Duterte and Penal Populism – The Hypermasculinity of Crime Control in the Philippines

FOCUS: Duterte and Penal Populism – The Hypermasculinity of Crime Control in the Philippines

Filomin Gutierrez

The first anniversary of Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippine Presidency was on the 30th of June, as his controversial war on drugs, which became the banner for his administration, was taken over by a real war now still raging in Marawi, a city in Southern Philippines. But before the ISIS-inspired Maute Group and the Abu Sayyaf seized the city late in May, the administration’s campaign against drugs and a stricter criminal justice regime captured the headlines. In record time after Duterte took office, the Philippine Congress passed a bill restoring the death penalty, and serious attempts to lower the age of criminal responsibility to nine years old were made.

Known for his hypermasculine tough-guy stance—the readiness to engage criminals in a fight to the death—the former city mayor’s ascent to the national political arena was pushed by a crisp and focused campaign narrative: he will end crime in three to six months. Following Duterte’s landslide victory in the May 2016 presidential polls, the Philippine police apparatus marched to carry out an extensive and aggressive drug campaign Oplan Tokhang. Tokhang is a portmanteau term that combined the words katok (Tagalog for ‘to knock’), and hangyo (Visayan for ‘to request’), a clever name for the program that authorized the police to visit neighborhoods, check on households and enjoin residents to support the President’s campaign against drugs. In no time, tokhang has gained notoriety as a word to mean police raid, then to indicate drug fatality, and finally suggest extrajudicial killing.

Two months into Duterte’s presidency, some 1,011 drug suspects have been killed in police operations while 1,805 deaths were declared ‘under investigation’. The latter category lumps together deaths of suspected drug dealers who were executed vigilante-style by unidentified assailants and those whose bodies were dumped – typically accompanied by a cardboard sign that says, Drug pusher, ‘wag tularan (do not follow) – by the roadsides. The fields of bloodshed and killing, until the Marawi crisis occupied the national spotlight, were in the Philippine streets and homes, a majority of which are located in slums and lower-class urban communities where shabu (metamphetamine) use is said to proliferate. The toll on communities dealing with the situation of widows and orphans of those killed in the drug war have yet to be fully assessed.

By April 2017 the drug war has resulted in 7,080 deaths, 3,603 of which were classified as “deaths under investigation.” The high death toll over such a short period prompted not only the local Philippine Commission on Human Rights to raise serious questions about extra-judicial killings, it caught the attention of international human rights groups. Human Rights Watch, for example, claimed that the Philippine police have falsified evidence to justify the killings and protested that Duterte should be held accountable for crimes against humanity. In his signature bravado at a press conference Duterte told off the human rights advocates, “Why are you meddling with our affairs? … You look at the sin of other nations first…These crazies think I am killing the innocents!”

Duterte’s posturing is packed with hypermasculinity. He stands as the toughie ready to fight, kill or die. He is a confessed womanizer and proud of it. He disdains formalities, is irreverent, speaks with a thick regional accent, and is palamura (given to profanity). His entrance into the national political stage had a refreshing impact on the electorate. The persona appealed to the public and, in fact, his support cuts across classes. His populist appeal hinged on his “flaws”. They rendered a total picture of Duterte as authentic to the public (McCargo 2016) as opposed to the hypocrisy of the “refined” and “decent” traditional politicians in the Philippines.

Duterte’s charismatic persona matched the penal populism that foregrounded his presidency. Penal populism is an approach that, over empirical evidence and the opinions of criminological experts, values public sentiments against crime and criminal offenders, their frustrations with the criminal justice system, and call for punitive crime control measures (see Pratt 2007). Duterte’s rise to power utilized penal populism by presenting a clear narrative built on the anxieties felt by the public. His aggressive rhetoric translated to a promise of justice and sense of control via a strong leader to a public who find their everyday lives plagued by the threat of drug addiction and drug addicts (Curato 2017:101). Well into the presidential race, Duterte tapped into the direct personal concerns of Filipinos. Public opinion survey around the time of the 2016 presidential elections showed fear over the increasing number of drug addicts (62 percent), burglary (64 percent) and unsafe streets (53 percent) according to the Social Weather Stations June 2016 national survey.

While the bloody campaign against drugs visibly demonstrated Duterte’s political will, the new administration was also quick to initiate what would be a significant shift in the direction of penal policy in the Philippines. The restoration of the Death Penalty was among the first legislative items to be pursued by Duterte’s allies in Congress, because the “criminal justice system has been emasculated,” according to is proponents. When Duterte entered office public opinion supporting the death penalty for heinous crimes was at an all time high: 81 percent of Filipinos supporting its imposition in July 2016, compared to 55 percent in 2012 and 49 percent in 2006 based on national surveys conducted by Pulse Asia Research. By March 2017 congress has approved the third and final reading the law restoring the death penalty specifically for drug offenses. Critics viewed this development as a setback for the achievements towards human rights gains when in 2006 the Philippines joined the increasing number of countries that abolished the death penalty (see Johnson and Zimring 2009). It is in the Philippine Senate at present that the death penalty has met impediments, with majority of the senators standing against its passage.

Another item of legislation deemed to demonstrate the state’s stringent approach is the lowering of the minimum age of criminal liability from 15 years old to 9 years old. In 2006, the Philippines adopted the Juvenile Justice Act in 2006 that protected children fifteen years old and below from criminal liability and incarceration by diverting them to intervention programs. Proponents of its revision pointed out the use of children by drug traffickers as couriers because they could be not be jailed when caught. The lack of resources for diversion programs indeed contributed to this problem. The bill was voted down by a majority of the members of congress to the relief of human rights groups, the Philippine Catholic Church, and child rights advocates who opposed the bill. A compromise to peg the age at 12 still did not cut the deal either. Finally the Congress Subcommittee on Correctional Reforms maintained the age at 15 while penalizing parents and adults who use children in crime.

Duterte did not sugarcoat harsh anti-crime measures with claims that the death penalty will deter crime, a point usually belabored in penal elitism’s appeals to rationality. With audacity, Duterte articulated its true purpose: retribution. Risking the tag of regressing to barbarism, here is an elected politician unflinchingly pointing out retribution as a just consequence for crime. This articulates what is often avoided: an admission that criminal punishment is not an instrument to deter crime nor to achieve rehabilitative ideals. This scenario finally recognizes criminal punishment as an expressive institution, and its rituals as directed less at the offenders and more at the “audience of impassioned onlookers whose cherished values and security had been undermined” (Garland 1991: 123).

Duterte’s hypermasculine self-presentation seems to be working. As of April 2017 his trust ratings remain high at 80 percent according to surveys of the Social Weather Stations. But how would this brand of hypermasculinity plays out in the more complex terrain of violent conflicts in Muslim Mindanao? His threat to carpet bomb Marawi City to decimate violent extremism looms not only as serious threat to civilian safety. It also risks alienating and intensifying the felt exclusion by Muslims in Mindanao, especially by its young men, and drive them farther away to pursue alternative masculine status positions offered by violent extremism.

As for penal populism, it is not new. It has been deployed to consolidate political regimes in historically turbulent times in the Philippines and elsewhere. But it would be interesting to see how penal populism figures in the varieties of populism that are rising on a global scale today.

Curato, Nicole. 2017. “Politics of anxiety, politics of hope: penal populism and Duterte’s rise to power.” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 35(3): 91-109.
Garland, David. 1991. “Sociological perspectives on punishment.” Crime and Justice 14: 115-165.
Johnson, David T., and Franklin E. Zimring. 2009. The next frontier: national development, political change, and the death penalty in Asia. Oxford University Press.
McCargo, Duncan. 2016. “Duterte’s mediated populism.” Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 38(2): 185-190.
Pratt, John. 2007. Penal populism. Routledge.


Filomin Gutierrez is a professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines Diliman teaching sociology of deviance and research methods. Her studies include prison gangs, fraternity violence and masculine organizations.

Image: by permission of Basilio H. Sepe