2017 Yearender: Leaders in the limelight

A challenging year for Duterte

In the first of a four-part series this week, we look at key regional and global personalities who made the news

President Rodrigo Duterte is ending the year as popular as ever, but the past 12 months have not been without serious challenges to his boundary-pushing rule.

Perhaps the biggest shock came from Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-inspired extremists in the conflict-ridden island of Mindanao.

In May, about a thousand of them stormed and seized large parts of Marawi city. They held on to it for five months, beating off assaults by six army battalions in the biggest security crisis to face the Philippines in years. Most of the militants eventually perished in Marawi. But their zeal endures, inspiring fighters beyond the Philippines' borders.

There has also been a strong pushback to Mr Duterte's signature anti-crime drive from human rights groups, church groups and opposition politicians. The furore over the death in August of 17-year-old Kian de los Santos, who was killed by anti-narcotics agents as he knelt face down in a dark alleyway, forced Mr Duterte two months later to withdraw the police, for a second time, from his war on drugs.

Mr Duterte responded to these challenges by upping the ante.

He declared martial law across Mindanao in a bid to go after remnants of the groups that laid siege to Marawi. Congress this month agreed to extend it till end-2018.

And, after only about a month, he put the police back on the trail of drug users and dealers.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte looking at arms confiscated from extremists who had seized large parts of Marawi.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte looking at arms confiscated from extremists who had seized large parts of Marawi. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

As a new year starts, these challenges remain and may yet distract Mr Duterte from pursuing a key political agenda: a shift to a federal form of government to decentralise authority and resources away from Manila. That will require him to expend much of his political capital, as it can only be done by amending the Constitution.

Mr Duterte will also have to shepherd through a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country's largest Muslim insurgent group. Experts say a deal that will lead to an "autonomous Muslim region" is key to stemming the rise of violent extremism in Mindanao.

As the nation's chief diplomat, Mr Duterte steered Asean through the year with minimal discord. A high point in his tenure as Asean chair was the conclusion of talks on a "framework" for a "code of conduct" meant to avoid armed confrontation among nations claiming parts of the South China Sea.

Ties between the Philippines and the United States, meanwhile, seem to be on the mend.

And the booming economy continues to run on autopilot, with a further boost expected from Mr Duterte's ambitious US$180 billion (S$242 billion) "Build, Build, Build" infrastructure programme.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 25, 2017, with the headline A challenging year for Duterte. Subscribe