Defining the State: Despite Imperfections, Duterte’s Philippines is Still a Democracy

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Since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in the Philippines in 2016, many have criticized his administration as undemocratic and even ruthless. Questions were raised about the extrajudicial killings supporting his ‘War on Drugs’, his iron grip over the press, and him fielding his daughter as the Presidential candidate for 2022, which in effect continues his influence and control of the administration despite a term limit. While this evidence seems to suggest that Philippine democracy is weakening, this paper argues that the Philippines, under Duterte, can still be termed a democracy. The Philippines still meets the definition of a democracy under a variety of measures, including the historical conception dating to ancient Greece, Robert Dahl’s contestation-inclusion measure, the dictatorship-democracy measure, and analyses from Freedom House and Polity IV.

Defining Democracy

Understanding the meaning of ‘state’ (in the Weberian sense[1]) and ‘regime’ is essentially a first step in conceptualising democracy. A regime is a set of rules, norms, or institutions that determine how the people acting on behalf of the state are constituted, organised, and make major decisions.[2] As Abraham Lincoln once said, democracy (originating from the Greek word demokratia – rule by the people) as a regime type can be defined as the set of runs, norms or institutions which are made “of, by and for the people”. While we might view the rule of the people as good and desirable, the Greeks (especially Aristotle and Plato) weren’t very fond of it. This is because Plato construed demokratia as the rule of the poor, uneducated people against the rich, educated elite. It was also seen as mob rule, combined with demagogue – leading to an undesirable mix.[3] For a long time, history seemed to support this view. Democracies were less in number than other regime types and were primarily construed as inefficient. 

Nevertheless, the negative view of democracy developed over time into a positive one, especially with the end of the Cold War. With it came newer ways in which scholars conceptualised democracy. In his 1971 work, Robert Dahl proposed a set of two dimensions – contestation and inclusion. Contestation describes how free the people are to compete as opposing blocs and push for policy outcomes of their liking. Inclusion explains who gets to participate in the democratic process, which is not just limited to voting.[4] According to this, regimes can be classified as more or less democratic, depending on where they fall on the two-dimensional area defined by the above two variables (contestation and inclusion being on the  and the -axis respectively). Hence, countries lying in the first quadrant of the graph can be termed truly democratic. In the case of the Philippines, the degree of contestation is sufficiently high. People can (in theory) and have (in practice) organised in opposing blocs and competed to win elections. In fact, the emergence of a united opposition, known as 1Sambayan – meaning One Nation/One People (with its own separate challenges), to Duterte for the upcoming 2022 general elections in the Philippines is proof of the existence of proper contestation.[5] Additionally, at the macro level, no particular section/group/identity (racial, ethnic, gendered, class, etc.) is deprived of democratic participation – thus indicating a high level of inclusion as well. Based on this, it is safe to say that the Philippines meets  Dahl’s requirements of a democracy.

An alternative and more advanced definition of democracy was put forward by Cheibub, Gandhi and Vreeland in 2010 known as the Democracy-Dictatorship (DD) measure. It measures whether a regime is democratic or not (in a binary) by evaluating four things – whether the chief executive (1) and the legislature (2) is elected, whether there are multiparty elections (3), and whether there is an actual power transfer (4).[6] In the case of the Philippines, the chief executive – President Duterte – and the legislature – Filipino Congress – were both elected through elections conducted by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC). The third and the fourth criteria of the DD measure are rather interesting. The third condition requires there to be ex ante uncertainty with respect to the election results (the opposition must have a real chance of winning) and ex post irreversibility (the elections cannot be reversed/disregarded). Constitutionally, both of these exist in the Philippines. In 2016, Duterte came to power by winning the general elections despite his incendiary campaign.[7] It shows that even though he ran amidst controversy, it wasn’t clear who would win the elections beforehand; and when he actually won, the decision couldn’t be reversed, thus fulfilling the above requirements. However, one can argue that this was in the past. In today’s scenario, there is a high chance that Duterte’s party – Philippine Democratic Party (PDP-Laban) wins again in the upcoming 2022 general elections, thus determining the results ex-ante and compromising the democratic election process. However, if that happens, it will be due to the popularity and the populistic appeal[8] of President Duterte. This appeal is largely owing to his harsh ‘War on Drugs’ policy[9] and not a fault in the system. Finally, the fourth criterion of the DD measure requires an actual power transfer, on losing the mandate, to prove a commitment to democracy. The Philippines passes this criterion as well, since after the 2016 elections, there was an actual transfer of power that took place from Benigno Aquino III of the Liberal Party to Duterte of the PDP. Moreover, in 2022, Duterte cannot continue as the president even if he wanted to, since the current constitution prohibits him from running for office again. Owing to a sound election commission and the existence of public checks and balances through (real) opposition parties, as explained above, Duterte will have to abide by the law and cannot hold office beyond his tenure. In light of this, he has even announced his unwillingness to contest the upcoming elections. It is expected that his daughter Sara Duterte will run for office in her father’s place.[10] Here, although the transfer of power would be to the next-of-kin (if Sara wins), it can be viewed as some kind of a power transfer since the DD measure makes binary observations. When viewed in a spectrum, the degree to which power is actually transferred would be low, nevertheless positive (validating some of the concerns over Philippine democracy). This is because technically, the power would be given to the next elected president and not retained by the incumbent forcibly. Since, all the four criteria are positively checked, the Philippines can be termed as a democracy as per the DD measure too. While some might view the binarity of the measure as its limitation, it helps the analyst qualify democracy from a very objective (read: technical) and procedural lens without getting entangled in the domestic narratives, which might be subject to heavy political biases/propaganda. 

Substantive vs. Procedural Definitions

Before moving onto the operationalisation of the concept of democracy, it is important to mark a key difference between the various definitions of democracy discussed above. The Greek view of democracy worked on a substantive definition of democracy. It defined democracy based on the desired outcome democracies are expected to achieve – increased public goods. This makes the analysis a tautology/trivial, meaning coming to deduce democracy from the results of democracy itself. Dahl, on the other hand, encourages analysts to use a procedural definition of democracy instead of a substantive one. According to procedural definitions, democracy is defined based on the institutions and constraints on the leader associated with the regime. This definition is much more useful while analysing regimes as it does not define democracy through its desired outcome and instead focuses on what it runs on.[11] This distinction is particularly important because the results of democracy can also (sporadically) exist in non-democratic countries. Nevertheless, the mere existence of these does not guarantee their continuance, whilst a democracy, which arises from particular institutions (as described by the procedural definition) will tend to preserve its results over a longer time. This also alleviates the risk of misidentifying non-democratic countries as democratic by chance and makes it easier to locate the real drivers (root) of democracy instead of adjudicating on a country’s democracy simply by looking at the presence (or absence) of characteristics caused by democracy.


In order to further analyse the Philippine regime, it is important to operationalise the concept of democracy. Operationalisation entails observing the abstract conceptualisations (thought/idea) of democracy through various quantifiable measures/indicators[12]. As discussed previously, Dahl’s conceptualisation places regimes on a two-dimensional plane defined by the variables of levels of contestation and inclusion. Hence, it can be said that it is partially operationalised/measurable. Further, the DD measure can be understood as fully operationalised since it directly evaluates regimes based on four clear criteria. Since the direct quantification of these criterion is possible (through a Yes/No answer), its known as a measure[13]. A key characteristic of the DD measure is that it is dichotomous in nature i.e., a regime can either be a democracy or not. It does not measure the extent/degree to which the regime is a democracy. Conversely, operationalisation of Dahl’s idea of a democracy is seen as continuous since it explains the degree to which a country is a democracy or not. Freedom House is another continuous indicator of democracies. It is called an indicator since it observes proxies of democracies – namely civil liberties and political rights.

According to the latest Freedom House report[14], the Philippines was termed ‘Partly Free’ with an overall score of 56/100. One of the reasons for the low score of the Philippines is Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’, under which there have been many extrajudicial killings by the state. Suspected drug dealers and abusers are often killed without much verification due process.[15] This implies that the Philippines is only barely democratic (not as democratic as the Dahl and the DD measure evaluate it to be). This is because such a measure considers civil liberties a means to help preserve a democracy. Therefore, if the government incarcerates or persecutes ‘offenders’ (read: civilians) extrajudicially, it is an impediment on the citizens’ civil liberties, making the country less democratic. However, there is a flaw in this argument. It uses the substantive definition of democracy and hence interprets civil liberties and political rights as necessary for democracy. However, these are often viewed as the desired outcomes of a democracy – thus resulting in the argument/implication in a tautology. This is why Freedom House has also received criticism from scholars across the world.[16]

Polity IV is another continuous measure, developed by a team of researchers at the University of Maryland, that is often used to operationalise democracy. However, it only measures data on countries up to 2013.[17] Nevertheless, there are significant nuances that can be obtained by looking at current day Philippines through its framework. It generates democracy and autocracy scores (in the range 0 to 10) and calculates the difference (Democracy Score – Autocracy Score) to obtain the final score ranging between (10 – most democratic to (-10) – most autocratic).[18] These scores are generated by evaluating the competitiveness and regulation of political participation, competitiveness and openness of executive recruitment and constraints on the chief executive. The last of these (constraints on the chief executive/president) becomes quite interesting in the case of the Philippines. It can be argued that Duterte appears to have far less constraints on him in terms of what he can/cannot do as the president. This is because of his very controversial ‘War on Drugs’ wherein the regime has killed and incarcerated thousands of ‘suspected’ drug dealers and abusers without sufficient evidence or due process.[19] The lack of constraint on Duterte is also due the populist support he enjoys by presenting himself as the ‘saviour’ of the masses from drugs. Hence, this is likely to receive a high autocratic score on Polity’s scale. However, the Philippines is expected to receive a high democratic score on the other four parameters (as explained earlier through Dahl and DD measure). Rampant corruption and vote buying especially during the elections can negatively affect the regulation of political participation, however it is so extensive and bi-partisan that it arguably be called ‘self-regulatory’ since corrupt politicians on either side of the spectrum act as a balance for each other – making public opinion valuable. Therefore, in totality, the Philippines is still expected to get a positive overall score – terming it as a democracy.

In conclusion, the paper argues that the Philippines under Duterte can be termed as a democracy. This is done by looking at the conceptualisation and operationalisation of democracy in the Philippines from 2016 to the present day under Duterte. All measures seem to qualify it as a democracy, though more advanced measures such as the Polity IV framework seem to raise some red-flags indicating the beginning of a shift towards autocracy. It is for the future to tell what course Duterte’s Philippines will take in the 2022 general elections – whether it will make a U-turn into autocracy (something the Philippines defeated with the fall of Marcos) or continue to uphold and savor democracy.


[1] According to Weber, the state is a human community that successfully claims monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in a given territory#.

[2] Clark, William Roberts, Matt Golder, and Sona Nadenichek Golder. Principles of Comparative Politics. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2013 p. 146.

[3] Ibid p. 145.

[4] Dahl, Robert Alan. Polyarchy Participation and Opposition. New Haven, Conn: Yale Univ. Pr, 1973.

[5] Palatino, Mong. “Can a United OPPOSITION Defeat Duterte at the 2022 Philippine

Elections?” – The Diplomat. for The Diplomat, May 17, 2021.

[6] Cheibub, José Antonio, Jennifer Gandhi, and James Raymond Vreeland. "Democracy and

Dictatorship Revisited. Public Choice; 143, no. 1/2 (2010): 67-101. Accessed August

6, 2021.

[7] Harvey, Adam. “Controversial Mayor DUTERTE Wins Philippine Presidential Election.” ABC News. ABC News, May 10, 2016.

[8] Regencia, Ted. “Why Is DUTERTE Still Riding High Despite RECESSION, COVID?” Business and Economy News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, July 28, 2021.

[9] Curato, Nicole. “Politics of ANXIETY, Politics of HOPE: Penal Populism and Duterte’s Rise to Power – NICOLE Curato, 2016.” SAGE Journals. Accessed August 6, 2021.

[10] Sara Duterte Says She’s Open To Run For President In 2022 Elections But…. “Sara Duterte Says She’s Open to Run for President in 2022 Elections but…” Philippine News, July 9, 2021.

[11] Ibid p. 150.

[12] Ibid p. 152.

[13] Ibid p. 149.

[14] “Philippines: Freedom in the World 2021 Country Report.” Freedom House. Accessed August 6, 2021.

[15] “Stop Extrajudicial Executions in the Philippines.” Investigate extrajudicial executions in the Philippines | Amnesty International. Accessed August 6, 2021.

[16] Ibid p. 161.

[17] Monty G. Marshall, Ted Robert Gurr, and Keith Jaggers. “Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions, 1800-2016.” Center for Systemic Peace, n.d.

[18] Ibid p. 155.

[19] Caryl, Christian. “President Duterte’s Crazy Drug War Is Just the Beginning.” Foreign Policy, November 2, 2016.