In 2016 the world’s media was focused on the United States, anxiously awaiting the results of the November U.S. presidential election. However, six months earlier another populist presidential candidate came to power across the Pacific, when Rodrigo Duterte was elected President of the Philippines. Pledging to crack down on drugs and corruption, Duterte received 39% of the national vote and secured an alliance with a majority in congress. Duterte attracted international media attention by making outrageous statements, including joking about raping a dead reporter and calling Pope Francis a “son of a whore”. Duterte has even claimed “in jest” multiple times that he has personally murdered people. Nevertheless, with Trump occupying much of the international news space, the Philippines has largely disappeared from Western news outlets. Yet the Philippines should not be ignored, as only two years into his six-year term, many Filipinos have suffered under the democratically-elected Duterte.

Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ has been brutal. Human rights groups estimate that more than 20,000 people have been killed by anti-narcotics police during Duterte’s first 17 months in office, including 3 mayors. Naturally, government figures are much lower, with only 3,967 deaths for “resisting arrest” and over 16,000 deaths still “under investigation”. Prior to becoming president, Duterte was renowned for violently cracking down on crime and drug-users during his tenure as mayor of Davao and was accused of employing vigilante death squads. After becoming president, Duterte decided to bring Davao-style justice to the rest of the nation by appointing a Davao officer as National Police Chief and relocating Davao officers to Manila for their “special kill skills”.

Duterte’s war on drugs is not only worrying because of the high death toll that has ensued but because of how it has unfolded. Although official reports state officers only fired when fired upon to minimize casualties, several sources say otherwise. Eye-witness reports and security camera footage tell of officers entering areas, executing suspects and then taking the bodies to hospitals to construct cover stories of firing in self-defence. Former senior officials have even claimed that police also orchestrated the vigilante killings of “troublemakers” in exchange for cash rewards. Such corruption within the police casts further shadows over the already troubling death toll.

Duterte’s drug war has of course been protested against. Marches and protests in opposition of Duterte have been held frequently, often led by the influential Catholic Church. Duterte is not above removing his opponents though and is currently attempting to impeach the Chief Justice for corruption. The lower house of Congress claims to have “probable cause” to impeach her. Yet given that she is perhaps the most high-profile opponent of Duterte’s crackdown on drugs and Duterte’s allies have a majority in congress, it seems the move is at least partially about silencing dissenters.

Duterte has also been condemned by international human rights groups. In February 2018, the International Criminal Court announced that it was opening preliminary investigations into Duterte’s war on drugs to determine whether the issue should be considered as ‘crimes against humanity’ and thus fall under their jurisdiction. Duterte reacted poorly to the announcement, claiming that the organisation is biased against him and has withdrawn the Philippines from the ICC. He has since announced that ICC prosecutors will be arrested if they travel to his country.

For 5 months in 2017, the southern city of Marawi was controlled by groups affiliated with Islamic State. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The ‘war on drugs’ is not Duterte’s only conflict in the Philippines though. On his home island of Mindanao, Duterte faces several other troubles. The first problem is the communist insurgency, who have been fighting government forces since 1968. Here, Duterte’s talent for offense has resurfaced, as he encouraged his troops to shoot female fighters in the genitals so they would “be useless”. More concerning though, have been his offers of cash bounties per rebel fighter killed, for which he was accused of inciting people to commit war crimes. Nevertheless, communist rebel leaders say they still want to resume peace talks, which had been progressing before Duterte called them off in November 2017 and labelled the communists a terrorist group.

The next problem is radical Islam. In May 2017, fighters allied with Islamic State captured the city of Marawi. Duterte responded by declaring martial law and sending in the military to force them out. While Duterte was praised for regaining control of Marawi, he has now extended martial law to last until December 2018, despite regaining control in October. Back in the 1980s, dictator Ferdinand Marcos also deployed martial law, first on the grounds of fighting the communists, and then simply to maintain his own grasp on power. Duterte’s opponents therefore warn that Duterte is similarly using martial law to control areas by force.

Finally, Duterte is faced with the risk of a peace treaty collapsing. For decades, various groups fought for Mindanao independence from the Philippines. After 17 years of negotiations, a peace deal with Muslim self-rule in Mindanao was agreed upon under President Aquino in 2014. However, the self-rule legislation has since stalled, with Duterte asking congress to rush the bill through before another civil war erupts. Given Duterte’s majority, the bill should have long ago passed through Congress, and the longer his government takes to pass the bill, the more likely the conflict is to recommence.

Despite a myriad of domestic issues, Duterte remains incredibly popular, with approval ratings  around 70%. For comparison, Trump’s ratings have floated between 36-42% approval, Emmanuel Macron’s approval has fallen to 40%, while Theresa May’s approval is even lower. The only major world leaders who can rival Duterte’s ratings are those such as Putin or Erdogan, who use state-controlled media to massage public opinion. However, state media is minimal in the Philippines, suggesting his approval ratings reflect reality.

For many in the West, Duterte’s popularity seems unfathomable, and many Filipinos continue to oppose him vocally as well. To his domestic critics, Duterte poses a serious threat to both democracy in the Philippines and the lives of ordinary Filipinos, many of whom consider him to be a dictator. Nevertheless, Duterte’s approval ratings suggest that  he has somehow become the people’s dictator, and he seems to have no plans to stop now.

Tristan Fleming-Froy

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