Philippine President's shocking attack on U.S. ambassador -- and democracy

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is threatening to dismantle democracy with his brash behavior
  • He's encouraging killing, insulting the US ambassador, joking about rape and making threats to the Supreme Court, she says

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Imagine a presidential election campaign in which a bombastic candidate campaigns by insulting people, and by making promises and threats that sound so outlandish that people think, surely, he must be exaggerating.

Now imagine that candidate wins.
    Frida Ghitis
    Welcome to the Philippines, where Rodrigo Duterte, also known as "The Punisher" assumed the presidency on June 30. The experience should prove informative for people considering the election of another "tell-it-like-it-is" politician, America's very own Donald J. Trump.
    Duterte just caused an international incident when he called the US ambassador a "gay son of a bitch," during a recent speech to a military group. He claimed he used those words in a conversation with Secretary of State John Kerry when Kerry was visiting the Philippines. Duterte recounted for his audience how he complained to Kerry about Ambassador Philip Goldberg, one of America's most senior diplomats, because he interfered with the election by "giving statements here and there."
    The State Department immediately called in the Philippines' representative in Washington to seek "a better understanding of why the statement was made," according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau. What's to understand? The candidate who campaigned with insults and threats is now governing with insults and threats. Much worse, it turns out his campaign threats, even the most outrageous, were not empty.
    Damage to the Philippines' international relations and diplomatic crises are the least of it.
    Duterte's brand new administration already has the worst traits of an emerging fascist dictatorship. Cross the thin-skinned strongman at your own risk.
    Like Trump, Duterte came across as a plainspoken strongman. He attracted voters with promises to tackle the country's problems without regard for the niceties of human rights or the trivial objections of the elites. He vowed to clean the streets of criminals and drug dealers. He said he would fill Manila Bay with the corpses of criminals.
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    His previous pronouncements were just as shocking, and he refused to apologize for anything he had said or done.
    The US ambassador apparently "pissed off" the President when he criticized an astonishing joke by Duterte at a campaign rally about the rape and murder of an Australian missionary in the city of Davao when Duterte was mayor there. Duterte said, "I was angry she was raped, yes, that was one thing. But she was so beautiful, I think the mayor should have been first. What a waste." The comment sparked criticism not only from the American envoy but also many others.
    Duterte refused to apologize, and when his party expressed regrets on his behalf he disavowed the apology.
    Apologizing is anathema to would-be strongmen, who portray themselves as infallible and all-powerful.
    To those who could not conceive of Dutarte's scandalous, lawbreaking promises becoming reality, his 5-week-old administration is coming as a shock. Those who feared it would be bad are watching in astonishment as the reality surpasses their fears.
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    On June 25, several days before taking office, he addressed a crowd gathered in Davao to celebrate his victory. In the speech, broadcast nationwide, he announced a crackdown on drug dealers, telling people to turn them in or just kill them. "Shoot him," he said, "and I'll give you a medal."
    In the five weeks since he took office, hundreds have been murdered, killed without facing a judge, a jury or a trial. A local newspaper has a regularly updated "Kill List," to track "the casualties of Duterte's war on crime." Their count is 611 since the election. Other tallies top 1,000.
    The stunning provocation alarmed many Filipinos, including Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Maria Lourdes Sereno, who issued a letter politely urging the President to respect the "constitutional order."
    The President warned the Supreme Court that if it gets in his way he would order the executive branch not to obey the court. And he said he might declare martial law. That, in effect, would make him a dictator.
    In less than two months, the President is threatening to dismantle democracy and set supposedly co-equal branches of government at war with each other. One member of Congress implored the President and the justice to "work together for the good of the country."
    The President is not content to attack judges, criminals, and others in government who might interfere with his plans. If Duterte doesn't like you, whatever the reason, the future looks bleak. He has already declared that some journalists should be killed. And refused to apologize.
    If the business community thought they'd have a champion in the executive mansion they're thinking again.
    On August 3, the President started to unveil his war on powerful business figures. "I am fighting a monster," he said, "... believe me, I will destroy their clutches in our country." Then he went on to name some of the "monsters" he planned to destroy, wealthy individuals in a number of industries.
    Among those he listed was Roberto Ongpin, chairman of of PhilWeb, a major publicly traded gaming technology firm. PhilWeb stock nosedived and Ongpin resigned.
    In this new world, Duterte decides who stays and who goes. If you want to stay, Duterte has to like you. Not all billionaires are monsters in his eyes. Gina Lopez, for example, a wealthy member of his Cabinet, doesn't have to be destroyed because, "She's a billionaire. But she's a crusader," the President explained. "She loves the country and she hates oligarchs."
    Can the Philippines' hard-won democracy survive the Duterte autocracy? We will see. But for voters in others countries, enticed by this global wave of alluring autocrats -- including the United States and Donald Trump -- the disturbing news from the Philippines is a cautionary tale. Sometimes the hyperbole of the campaign trail is not hyperbole. Sometimes what you hear on the trail is just a preview of worse to come.