In just a few months, the new Philippines president has sparked outrage around the world with a vicious crackdown on the drug trade, targeting everyone from dealers to judges. But the approach is carefully crafted for a domestic audience, writes Rebecca Townsend
“If this continues and you try to stop me, then all hell breaks loose … or would you rather I declare martial law? Filipinos are being killed. I grieve for so many women raped, men killed, infants raped. Now you put me against a corner.”
This latest tirade from the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, in response to criticism of his war on drugs by a top judge, is typical of the combative language that has seen him compared with another controversial political figure, Donald Trump. Trump, however, is only a candidate for leadership. Since his election in May, the 71-year-old president’s bombast has already unleashed a wave of vigilante violence that has killed more than 500 people.
Duterte actively courted controversy on the campaign trail. He rose in prominence as the wildly popular mayor of Davao City on the island of Mindanao. Under his rule, the city of 2.5 million was transformed from a battlezone plagued by murder and guerrilla fighting to one of the Philippines’ safest cities. His tactics, however, were questionable. Rumours circulated that he was the head of the “Davao Death Squad” (DDS) and personally involved in extrajudicial killings of supposed criminals. He gained the nicknames “The Punisher” and Kamay na Batal, or “The Iron Fist”.
Over the course of his campaign, the comparison between Duterte and the Donald became unavoidable. Both are defined by their outsider status and offensive remarks. Yet Duterte’s rhetoric is in a class of its own. In one campaign speech, he called Pope Francis a “son of a whore” for causing traffic delays during his 2015 visit to the Philippines – a term he also used in recent days to describe the American ambassador to his country. At other times, he threatened to dissolve congress and impose martial law if politicians refused to work with him. He gained international notoriety through a rape “joke” about a murdered female Australian missionary.
Duterte’s brazenness and apparent willingness to threaten national institutions fuelled speculation that the Philippines was on the brink of a return to authoritarianism. Duterte’s supporters shrugged off these comments, however, emphasising his background as a man of the people, prone to talk frankly in “gutter language”. Duterte’s comments also highlighted his troubled image with women. In the predominantly Catholic Philippines, Duterte is open about his annulled marriage and numerous relationships.
Despite all this, Duterte won the Presidential election comfortably, receiving 38.6% of the vote, and more than six million votes more than the second place candidate. Duterte achieved this in the midst of remarkable ballot turnout, with the Commission on Elections reporting that more than 40 million Filipinos, or 81% of voters, turned out on the day.
But since his inauguration, Duterte has shown himself to be a more calculated politician than expected. Threats against fellow candidates during the election turned out to be empty.
He had suggested that he would not give a cabinet seat to the incoming vice-president, who in the Philippines is elected on a separate ticket, Leni Robredo, because of his friendship with her defeated rival, Bongbong Marcos. But in the end he made her head of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council. He also has a history of working with different groups, treating Catholics and Muslims equally and promising to negotiate with guerilla communist groups.
Nowhere has Duterte’s subtle side been displayed better than in his administration’s response to the Hague verdict on the South China Sea. The arbitration panel handed the Philippines a resounding victory in its efforts to curb increasingly aggressive Chinese expansion into disputed waters. Rather than crowing about it, the official response from Manila called for “restraint and sobriety.” It went on to carefully state that “The Philippines strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision as an important contribution to ongoing efforts in addressing disputes in the South China Sea.”
This approach leaves open the possibility of bilateral talks with Beijing. There could be considerable potential for diplomatic gain here on the Philippines’ part here. However, any move by Duterte at odds with the arbitration ruling would risk alienating important security partners, including the United States, Australia, and Japan. Sandwiched between these regional pressures, sensitivity is paramount. The Philippines will be in a pivotal position next year when it takes the chair of the regional ASEAN group.
A surge in extrajudicial killings of supposed drug dealers has recently attracted worldwide attention and condemnation to the Philippines under its new president. Duterte’s open support for harsh measures against drug dealers and his naming of thousands of police, judges, and politicians as linked to the drug trade, as well as his professed indifference to human rights, has drawn sharp rebuke domestically and internationally.
The country’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Sereno last week issued a letter to Duterte admonishing his public naming and demanding for the surrender of possible criminals within the judiciary. Even Vice-President Robredo, on a visit to the United States, spoke against the killings and the “culture of hatred”.
Yet this crackdown, however brutal and chaotic it appears internationally, has been carefully judged against its domestic political benefits. The surrender of more than 500,000, including some politicians and police, is likely to be popular with the Filipinos who elected Duterte. Indeed, Duterte’s approach to drugs was hardly a surprise. A look back on Duterte’s history reveals both a consistently questionable approach to dealing with criminals and a conviction that he alone is capable of fixing the Philippines’ problems.
From the beginning of his mayoral tenure in Davao, extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals increased dramatically. The Davao Death Squad (DDS) arose as a vigilante force to kill suspected and known offenders. From 2001 at least, Duterte began his practice of reading off names to the public. Duterte became even more boastful about his practices during the campaign, even admitting to involvement with the DDS. Rather than putting off the electorate, the issue was a primary reason for his election.
The recent video of a police chief berating a group of officers with alleged ties to the drug trade shows that, even as images of murdered civilians in the streets resonates across the world, images of corrupt police and politicians surrendering may have a larger impact domestically.
Duterte isn’t merely popular because of his swagger, but because many support his approach. His tendency towards brutality is often tempered by his sympathies for the poor and condemnation of the entrenched elite. He has developed a cult-like following based on his rejection of the system. In the same speech where he suggested a turn toward martial law, he appealed passionately to the difficulty and slowness of the judicial system and directly stated that he would not follow the orders of the Supreme Court. He spoke to Filipinos’ enormous frustration with political corruption and a lack of access to legitimate legal and political processes. Duterte, in circumventing those processes, asserts himself as the only person who can get the job done. As he said in a 2002 interview with Time, “The only reason there is peace and order in Davao is because of me.”
While Duterte may not make good on his threats of martial law, his comments are far from Trump-like. Duterte is no “bullshit artist”. The clear and calculated message is that Duterte alone will fix the drug and criminal problem and that no person or institution will stand in his way.