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Since coming to power in mid-2016, Rodrigo Duterte has waged a violent campaign against drug-related criminality, with estimates of the number of those killed in the first 18 months of his presidency running as high as 12,000. In spite of international criticism, fewer than five percent of Filipinos do not support the anti-illegal drug campaign. Is the high level of support for Duterte and the drug war evidence of penal populism? Penal populism is based on a plebiscitarian notion of legitimacy that promises order, if not the law; street justice rather than due process. This paper thus theorizes that preferences for penal policies should be associated with populist attitudes and a preference for charismatic leadership. Using evidence from surveys conducted in the Philippines in 2016 and 2017, it provides robust evidence of relationship between populist attitudes and support for the extra-judicial killing of suspected drug users and dealers in addition to conditional evidence of a relationship between populist attitudes and support for the campaign against illegal drugs in general. It also provides a novel measurement of charismatic leadership, and demonstrates a relationship between belief in the charisma of Duterte and support for the campaign against illegal drugs.
Paul Kenny is Fellow and Head of the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University. He received PhD in Political Science from Yale University in 2013. His research covers several areas of comparative political economy, including populism, corruption, inequality, and immigration. His first book, Populism and Patronage: Why Populists Win Elections in India, Asia, and Beyond won the American Political Science Association’s 2018 Robert A. Dahl Award.