Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte Image Credit: AP

Come May next year, the Philippines will enter a new phase with a new president in Manila — but it will mark the end of the political career of President Rodrigo Duterte. On Saturday, the colourful and controversial leader of the Philippines announced that he would be retiring from politics.

Barred under the nation’s constitution from running for a second term as president, Duterte had been the focus of speculation that he would run for the vice-president’s position, raising the prospect that both positions would be occupied by daughter and father if Sara Duterte-Carpio wins the contest next year.

Duterte has been an outspoken and populist leader, one who has certainly raised his nation’s profile on the international stage. It is a style of political leadership that he developed in becoming a popular mayor for the city of Davao, projecting his office and personality onto the national stage.

Indeed, the Duterte dynasty remains popular in the third-largest city in the Philippines, with Duterte-Carpio currently holding the municipal position held by her father.

Aged 76, his decision to stand down from politics ends a 35-year span where he carefully crafted his image as a strongman. It is an image that raised his profile, allowing him to be the first candidate to hail from the island of Mindanao to be elected to the presidential palace in Manila.

His election as president cast him as an anti-narcotics and crusader against crime and gangs. By instigating a shoot-first policy against drug dealers and narcotics kingpins, Duterte faced severe international criticism by rights advocates. It is this criticism that he shrugged off with characteristic toughness, firmly believing that the means justify the ends to ridding large cities in the Philippines of drugs and narcotics-related crimes.

Human rights advocates estimate that some 7,000 people died in extrajudicial killings in his war on drugs. His domestic critics say that police used the policy to eliminate their opponents and critics.

For many in the Philippines, Duterte was a leader who provided direction, did what he said he was going to do, and shook off many of the trappings previously associated with his office.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Duterte imposed strict lockdowns, including use of lethal force at a time when the national economy was among the fastest growing in global terms and, with an annual growth rate of 7 per cent in GDP, surpassed regional counterparts.

While his retirement from politics now does potentially open the door to future prosecution by international courts, the reality is that he will likely receive immunity from any future successor — such is his popularity.