(Art by Zymon M. Gailo/The Varsitarian)

In “Duterte Watch,” veteran journalist and editor Vergel O. Santos traces outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte’s “descent into authoritarianism” beginning in early 2016, the year he won the presidency, to the eve of the 2022 elections and the last year of his term.

Indeed, six years have already come and gone for one of the most polarizing political figures in Philippine history. In this collection of selected commentaries—published mainly in Rappler, some in the Philippine Daily Inquirer and The New York Times—Santos asks us to look back on the Duterte regime, but the proper perspective.

During his first year, Duterte boldly threatened to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and allow warrantless arrests should the country spiral into a state of lawlessness. The reality, however, was that of a government marred by human rights violations, suppression of press freedom, and the overall undermining of the rule of law.

“Authoritarianism may not be Mr. Duterte’s political goal, but it defines his manner and his temperament,” Santos wrote in the titular piece, referring to his war against drugs and terrorism. “And with no institution or political force strong enough to counter him, authoritarianism is where the Philippines seems to be heading.”

London-based think tank The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) ranked the Philippines 54th out of 167 countries in its 2021 Democracy Index Report earlier this year. Interestingly, the country remains a “flawed democracy,” which refers to countries with free and fair elections and basic civil liberties but are weakened by problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture, and low levels of political participation—aspects Santos tackles across these hundred or so commentaries.

While some of the subjects of his writings are time-bound, there are those that reverberate even in the present: the case of the incarcerated Sen. Leila de Lima, who recently made headlines again after three key witnesses retracted their testimonies against her, which they claimed they executed under duress; the maritime dispute between the country and China over the West Philippine Sea and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic situation in the country.

Several key political figures also made appearances throughout Santos’ writings, especially in the context of the 2022 national polls. There is outgoing Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo and former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., who won the bid for the presidency by a landslide.

The collection is arranged chronologically, and readers may find themselves reliving the events of the last five years like a historical supercut. They might even draw startling connections between some of the past political matters discussed here and the ones happening in the present.

But where the collection excels in argumentation and propounding sharp perspectives, it does ever so slightly suffer from its length—101 commentaries—and the lack of variation in themes can often feel like reading the same opinion but re-angled and repurposed. Perhaps trimming it down to its central or most hard-hitting pieces could offer a more concentrated impact to this Duterte watch. 

Still, Santos gives a stark and unflinching account of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte’s government and his descent, in whatever capacity, into authoritarian rule. At its core, Duterte Watch is a work of fearless journalism. And in the years to come, a crucial piece of history and memory.

Duterte Watch is published by the UST Publishing House.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.