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Understanding Authoritarianism and Corruption in the Philippines

The political psychology of Marcos, Duterte, and their followers.

By Jenavieve Hinton

The political history of the Philippines is complex: full of colonial twists, local and tribal influences, and religious devotion. These characteristics are common in Southeast Asian countries, but the Philippines’ persistent attraction to authoritarianism complicates its politics in unique ways. To understand authoritarian tendencies in Filipinos, we must consider the specific cultural background along with what we know about the psychology of authoritarianism (Altemeyer, 2004), populism (Obradović et al., 2020), and system justification (Jost, 2020).

As the Philippines emerged as “the first ‘democratic’ republic in Asia,” the new focus on democratic elections was blended with the historical and cultural legacy of the encomienda system, whereby Spanish royalty rewarded colonists with the right to enslave and convert non-Christian natives. As dependence upon local landowners and ruling figures shaped the political system, local authorities came to “control the electoral process” through the “widespread use of bribes and corruptions” in exchange for voter loyalty (Reid, 2021).

This tit-for-political-tat system enabled Filipino politicians to operate on the basis of coercive power, including violence and the threat of violence. “Strongman” politicians continue to dominate the Filipino political scene, as exemplified by the current president, Rodrigo Duterte. While campaigning, Duterte exploited anti-elite sentiment to win support, promising to bring peace and order to the country by cracking down on crime and corruption. Duterte’s political career rode “a fevered wave of resentment and outrage against an entrenched political elite” (Uyheng & Montiel, 2020).

But Duterte did not simply sow discontent among the Filipino electorate in relation to elites; he also stoked fear and anger in the population as a whole, pitting non-elite, often poor, Filipinos against one another. For example, his campaign targeted small-time criminals as scapegoats for the country’s woes, claiming they were “enemies of society” and promising to “kill every drug dealer and user, and… feed their corpses to the fish in Manila Bay” (Lamb, 2017). This promise of violence ushered in a reign of blood and terror, and Duterte’s presidency has been marked by thousands of extrajudicial killings that he has actively encouraged.

Although Duterte himself openly calls for needless and illegal violence, he has faced little disapproval from the electorate. In late March 2019, just a few weeks before the country’s midterm elections, 79 percent of survey respondents said they were “satisfied” with the President’s performance. During those midterm elections, of the 24 Senate seats, half were up for election and all 12 went to Duterte’s supporters (Santos, 2019). “A nation at war,” even one that is fabricated, Nicole Curato (2021) notes, “justifies authoritarian practices.”

No doubt Duterte was influenced by Ferdinand Marcos, the authoritarian leader of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. Marcos eventually ruled as a dictator under martial law during the New Society movement from 1972 to 1981, the peak years of his authoritarian regime. Like Duterte, Marcos gained support for his initial campaign by capitalizing on the discontent of the Filipino working class. Before his reign, there was “deepening stagnation of the economy and increased tensions within the elite,” providing a strong basis for his messages to be well-received (Reid, 2021). Marcos’ regime espoused the need for hands-on government policies to address these conditions, and “New Society technocrats frequently… identified with a hard-line advocacy of authoritarian political tools for achieving development” (Stauffer, 1977).

The focus on the economic development of the lower classes did not exist in isolation. Marcos expended vast resources to disseminate “public information programs” aimed to “convince Filipinos that the goals of the New Society [were] populist in nature and designed to achieve greater well-being for the poor and a greater degree of equality” (Stauffer, 1977). This strategic messaging contributed to Marcos’ popular support, despite the vast degree of corruption and restrictive authoritarian practices that occurred during his presidency.

Marcos declared martial law in the country in 1972 following a series of bombings in Manila, the country’s capital. He justified this move by framing it as “anti-communist” and used military power to “suppress subversive elements” and to jail his mainstream political opponents. When Marcos became a dictator under the new constitution in 1973, these efforts intensified, as he engaged in widespread “misuse of foreign aid, repression, and political murders” (Onion et al., 2020).

The Psychological Forces at Play in the Philippines

To understand support for Marcos, Duterte, and authoritarian practices in general, we must first analyze the social and psychological factors that drive Filipino political behavior. According to Montiel and Chiongbian (1991), a deep psychological need for group affiliation is a core concern of many Filipinos. These authors argue that “Filipinos become confident only when they are part of a larger group,” and this partially explains their devout loyalty to local political communities, the dominant national political party, and their susceptibility to Marcos’ and Duterte’s messaging. Although the political messaging actively pits citizens against one another, by siding with the dominant group and allowing mistreatment of the out-group, Filipinos ground themselves in a stronger subjective sense of group identification.

The desire for group identification does not wholly explain Filipino authoritarianism, however. Theory and research in political psychology suggest that “motives to reduce uncertainty and threat may be associated with preferences for conservatism, and these motives are sometimes more pronounced among members of disadvantaged and low-status groups” (Jost, 2021), as in the case of the vast majority of the Filipino electorate. This connection between the desire to reduce uncertainty and threat and authoritarian conservatism can be seen clearly in the case of Filipino politics. The regimes of both Marcos and Duterte arrived in moments of intense economic threat and social unease, enabling these politicians to capitalize on widespread feelings of insecurity and chaos. In this way, they were able to gain widespread support for authoritarian, conservative platforms among low-status Filipinos.

The Filipino affinity for authoritarian conservatism is not merely derived from psychological needs, however; it is central to Filipino family structures. Studies of adolescent perceptions and family dynamics indicate that “the Filipino family tends to be authoritarian” (Montiel & Chiongbian, 1991). Parents are seen as reigning supreme as “the sole decision-makers,” whereas children are commanded to “keep to their own spheres” and obey authority figures from a young age.

Obedient behavior learned in childhood contributes to a preference for political authoritarianism in adulthood. Bob Altemeyer’s work provides a useful framework for understanding the ways in which authoritarianism and conservatism combine to produce an actively hostile, aggressive approach in dealing with “deviant” and devalued out-groups. The vigilante killings of presumed drug affiliates under Duterte and the martial law restrictions imposed under Marcos are obvious examples in the Philippines. The Filipino electorate has come to accept, endorse, and justify violence and discrimination against those who are defined as the out-group. Leaders such as Duterte and Marcos whip up fear in the general population and then respond by providing “strength” and force to offer protection against perceived threats. In the language of Altemeyer, many Filipinos are locked into a “dominance-submissive authoritarian embrace” with their leaders. The average citizen, it appears, has become less concerned with the morality of the strongman’s actions, many of which are clearly inhumane, and more concerned with a personal sense of safety and stability, even if it is illusory.

Filipino elites may have self-interested reasons for accepting the status quo. The attitudes and behavior of non-elites may be analyzed, at least in part, from the perspective of system justification theory, which seeks to illuminate the processes that lead people to defend and rationalize existing social, economic, and political arrangements—sometimes even at the expense of individual and collective self-interest. The theory seeks to explain why even members of disadvantaged groups would—for psychological reasons—want to believe that the existing social system is legitimate and justified (Jost, 2020). Perhaps this framework is useful for understanding why Duterte’s and Marcos’ authoritarian policies continue to enjoy widespread popular support, despite the fact that they inflict considerable harm on mass society.

The citizens of the Philippines, which is a predominantly and devoutly Catholic country, may also be especially susceptible to system justification tendencies. A large-scale internet survey conducted by Jost and colleagues (2014) found that religious people, especially Catholics and Protestants, tend to score higher than atheists and agnostics on various measures of system justification and authoritarianism. Furthermore, because the localized political system offers favors and preferable treatment in exchange for votes, many poor Filipinos are extremely dependent on the system. The need for survival, and the uncertainty as to whether one’s needs will be met without the help of local, corrupt politicians, creates an intense desire for certainty and security. According to system justification theory, these desires lead people to accept inequality and resist social change (Jost, 2020).

Duterte, Marcos, and other political elites have exploited religious and other psychological predispositions by using system justifying messages to reinforce the legitimacy of corruption and authoritarian domination. Top-down processes of elite communication and bottom-up psychological needs and interests meet in the middle, so that system-justifying messages find their audiences and inflame lower class insecurities (Jost, 2021). In the Philippines, anti-elite, anti-criminal, and anti-drug rhetoric has been used to make scapegoats of certain groups, and it has successfully exacerbated feelings of insecurity, the penchant for authoritarianism, and reliance on current political systems, which are then defended and justified. This sequence of events contributes to a political environment in which everyday Filipinos feel no need for social change and profess satisfaction with and reliance on the existing system. Of course, it is impossible to determine conclusively the precise reasons for the persistence of authoritarianism and corruption in Filipino history, but psychological theories of authoritarianism, populism, and system justification shed some light on how and why the regimes of Marcos and Duterte were able to accumulate power, maintain it, and attract long-standing support from everyday Filipinos.

In 1986, Ferdinand Marcos was finally deposed through a people’s revolution. After decades of authoritarian rule, the social, economic, and political landscape shifted and Filipinos overcame oppression, at least temporarily. The ensuing period provided much-needed relief to the Philippines, but the country has since made its way back to authoritarianism with the election and continued support of Rodrigo Duterte. In this article, we have sought to analyze the tendency toward authoritarianism in the Philippines through the lens of political psychology, but we do not mean to imply that Filipinos are inevitably bound by those tendencies. Just as Filipinos have been drawn to authoritarianism in the past, they have also rejected it before. History shows that the country is capable of breaking away from the authoritarian dynamic, and this is another pattern of behavior that may yet repeat itself.


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