Ro­drigo Duterte: The ‘Moder­ately Suc­cess­ful’ Pop­ulist

Global Asia - - CONTENTS - By Michael Vatiki­o­tis

Per­sonal vul­gar­ity and glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of vi­o­lence haven’t un­der­mined his rule, but is Philip­pine democ­racy suf­fer­ing?

The more that Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte rev­els in the mur­der of sup­posed crim­i­nals as a le­git­i­mate tool of state­craft, the more his pop­u­lar­ity seems to grow. His per­sonal vul­gar­ity, at­tacks on low-level drug deal­ers and heavy-handed as­sault on the po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion have done noth­ing to un­der­mine his rule. Be­yond these head­line­grab­bing es­capades, how­ever, he has de­liv­ered on parts of his agenda to forge peace deals and ad­dress cor­rup­tion, writes Michael Vatiki­o­tis, but at what cost to the struc­ture of Philip­pine democ­racy and its frag­ile rule of law?

On a re­cent VISIT to Is­rael, Philip­pine Pres­i­dent ro­drigo Duterte’s con­found­ing abil­ity to sur­prise was on full dis­play. Vis­it­ing the yad Vashem Holo­caust memo­rial in Is­rael in early septem­ber, he laid a wreath and said he could not imag­ine a coun­try obey­ing an in­sane leader like Hitler: “I could not ever fathom the spec­ta­cle of the hu­man be­ing go­ing into a killings spree mur­der­ing old men and chil­dren.” yet just two years ear­lier, he fa­mously com­pared his war on drugs to the Holo­caust and said that he would be happy to slaugh­ter three mil­lion drug ad­dicts — a re­mark that gen­er­ated out­rage and for which he was forced to apol­o­gize.

more than two years into Duterte’s pres­i­den­tial term, po­lice con­duct­ing his War on Drugs have shot and killed around 4,000 peo­ple, mostly poor slum dwellers (al­though hu­man rights ac­tivists sus­pect the body count could be as high as 12,000-15,000). the crack­down on drugs has re­sulted in the deaths of elected city of­fi­cials and even Catholic priests. Duterte has shown no re­morse. yet, con­found­ingly, he re­mains pop­u­lar. He may have si­lenced his crit­ics us­ing ex­tra-ju­di­cial means, sack­ing the supreme Court chief jus­tice in the process, but he con­tin­ues to de­liver on key parts of his prom­ise to ad­dress chronic prob­lems of cor­rup­tion and in­equal­ity.

While Duterte draws most at­ten­tion be­cause of the war on drugs and his foul-mouthed dis­re­gard for women and re­li­gion, as a pop­ulist leader he is moder­ately suc­cess­ful. the rep­utable so­cial Weather sta­tions sur­vey showed that Duterte had a “very good” trust rat­ing of 65 points as he marked his sec­ond year in of­fice

in mid-2018. these fig­ures have fallen in re­cent months be­cause of the eco­nomic down­turn, but they re­main re­mark­ably high and vis­i­tors to the coun­try find many or­di­nary Filipinos quick to de­fend their er­ratic, un­con­ven­tional, in­for­mally dressed chief ex­ec­u­tive.

Un­der­stand­ing why this is so, re­quires a deeper un­der­stand­ing of the Philip­pine na­tional psy­che and Duterte’s own up­bring­ing and per­son­al­ity.

what Makes duterte tick?

the Philip­pines, a coun­try of more than 106 mil­lion peo­ple, is an odd bas­ket of con­trasts. sur­veys re­veal that the av­er­age Filipino is happy and op­ti­mistic, yet so­cio-eco­nomic data sug­gests they are se­verely af­flicted by in­come in­equal­ity in a coun­try where 40 of the rich­est fam­i­lies ac­count for al­most 80 per­cent of the wealth. starved of op­por­tu­ni­ties at home, al­most 12 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion live or work over­seas, one of the world’s largest di­as­po­ras. and yet Philip­pine so­ci­ety is deeply na­tion­al­is­tic and given to fits of jin­go­ism. It is some­times easy to for­get that the coun­try was a colony of the Us from 1898 un­til 1946.

In this con­text, Duterte’s ap­peal be­comes more un­der­stand­able. Born into the fam­ily of a provin­cial gov­er­nor in the city of Davao in min­danao, Duterte’s fa­ther was of­ten ab­sent. His mother was a stern dis­ci­plinar­ian who forced him to at­tend strict Catholic schools where he was al­legedly mo­lested by an amer­i­can priest. to es­cape the stric­tures of life at home and at school, he ran with his fa­ther’s po­lice body­guards, who in­tro­duced him to guns, booze and life on the street. later, he at­tended law school in manila, where he fell un­der the in­flu­ence of left­ists and com­mu­nists.

this com­plex lat­tice of ex­pe­ri­ences ex­plains both his skill and ap­peal: Duterte is a canny po­lit­i­cal an­i­mal who served for more than a decade as mayor of Davao; he speaks the rough lan­guage of the un­der­classes and is in­clined to sym­pa­thize with their plight. His ex­pe­ri­ence as a young boy at the hands of the church ex­plains his dis­dain for re­li­gion, and per­haps a dis­taste for amer­i­cans; al­though com­ing from min­danao, where Us colo­nial rule was harshly im­posed, could also have in­spired a deep re­sent­ment of amer­i­cans.

so what was it about the state of the Philip­pines that en­abled Duterte to so ef­fort­lessly win al­most 40 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote, given that he only en­tered the pres­i­den­tial race late in the day?

at first, this seems hard to fathom. the coun­try was grow­ing at a healthy clip un­der his pre­de­ces­sor, Pres­i­dent Benigno aquino III. In the first quar­ter of 2016, the elec­tion year, the Philip­pines econ­omy grew by al­most 7 per­cent — faster than any of its asean neigh­bors. the eco­nomic fun­da­men­tals also im­proved — bet­ter rev­enue col­lec­tion, higher cap­i­tal re­serves and an im­prove­ment in the level of public ser­vices. Credit rat­ings went up and in­vestors crooned. But for the sin­gle six-year term limit im­posed on the Philip­pine pres­i­dency, many in­vestors would have ap­plauded a sec­ond term for the quiet and busi­ness-like son of the late Co­ra­zon aquino, who was her­self pres­i­dent af­ter as­sum­ing power in 1986 on the back of the Peo­ple Power protests that over­threw Fer­di­nand mar­cos.

No trickle down

yet for many or­di­nary Filipinos, very lit­tle of this progress in the for­mal econ­omy has trick­led down. the faster the coun­try grew, the more ob­vi­ous its poverty be­came. the rich got richer, the cor­rupt es­caped jail, crime rates soared and manila’s creaky in­fra­struc­ture groaned un­der the weight of its pop­u­lace. mea­sures of in­equal­ity in the Philip­pines soar above its re­gional neigh­bors, with a Gini co­ef­fi­cient of more than 44 and poverty rates above 20 per­cent; the mur­der rate at close to 9 per­cent is the high­est in south­east asia.

set against this fail­ure to de­liver on prom­ises

and dashed ex­pec­ta­tions, there has de­vel­oped a fa­tigue with democ­racy and the lib­eral elite who rose to power in the post-mar­cos era. Peo­ple started to re­mem­ber “the good old days of dic­ta­tor­ship” un­der Fer­di­nand mar­cos. mar­cos’ son, Bong Bong, stepped into the elec­toral ring with fa­vor­able num­bers. It was rel­a­tively late in the 2016 cam­paign that the di­sheveled fig­ure of the mayor of Davao, ro­drigo roa Duterte, emerged as a promis­ing can­di­date for the pres­i­dency.

One of Duterte’s first prom­ises was to stamp out cor­rup­tion — es­pe­cially in govern­ment ser­vices. next, he promised to tackle crime, in par­tic­u­lar drugs. Cor­rup­tion and crime hit the as­pir­ing up­per end of low-in­come house­holds in the Philip­pines — they are the peo­ple with hopes of a bet­ter fu­ture, per­haps more than one in­come earner and a mod­icum of ed­u­ca­tion. so when Duterte promised to ad­dress cor­rup­tion in the bu­reau­cracy and erad­i­cate the drugs that are per­ceived to be a source of crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity in many ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods, vot­ers came out in droves for him.

the ap­peal of the drug war

more than two years into his term, what has been achieved? like some of Duterte’s pop­ulist peers else­where in the world, the re­sults are mixed — not all bad, but tem­pered and un­der-

More than two years into his term, what has been

achieved? Like some of Duterte’s pop­ulist peers else­where in the world, the re­sults are mixed — not all bad, but tem­pered and un­der­mined by au­thor­i­tar­ian ten­den­cies threat­en­ing democ­racy and the rule of law.

mined by au­thor­i­tar­ian ten­den­cies threat­en­ing democ­racy and the rule of law. so while Duterte has moved fast to im­ple­ment a mod­est amount of land re­form, pro­pose a de­cen­tral­ized fed­eral sys­tem and im­ple­ment a lan­guish­ing peace agree­ment with mus­lim rebels in his home re­gion of min­danao, he has acted equally quickly to muz­zle crit­ics, ar­rest­ing some of his most vo­cal op­po­nents in the se­nate and or­ches­trat­ing the sack­ing of the supreme Court chief judge.

most con­tro­ver­sially, he has made no bones about us­ing ex­tra­ju­di­cial vi­o­lence to elim­i­nate crime. Dur­ing the cam­paign, Duterte warned that he would be killing peo­ple once he got elected: “When I be­come pres­i­dent, I’ll or­der the po­lice and the military to find [crim­i­nals and drug push­ers] and kill them,” can­di­date Duterte de­clared in the fi­nal weeks of his cam­paign: “the fu­neral par­lors will be packed … I will sup­ply the dead bod­ies.”

While mayor of Davao City, Duterte made a name for him­self as a bru­tal en­forcer. In Duterte Harry, a re­cently pub­lished bi­og­ra­phy by Bri­tish tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ist Jonathan miller, the au­thor tracked down former mem­bers of the so-called Davao death squads, which the mayor used to clean up the city known as the nicaragua of asia in the 1980s. “Bod­ies were dumped ev­ery­where,” a lo­cal para­medic tells miller. amnesty In­ter­na­tional al­leges more than 1,000 vic­tims of the death squads over a decade be­tween 1998-2008.

al­though fall­ing short of claim­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for these deaths, Duterte has of­ten boasted of per­son­ally us­ing vi­o­lence to deal with crim­i­nals. “If you are cor­rupt, I will fetch you us­ing a he­li­copter to manila and I will throw you out. I have done this be­fore. Why would I not do it again?” he was quoted as say­ing in De­cem­ber 2016.

Duterte’s War on Drugs has at­tracted the most at­ten­tion. For the past two years, pho­to­jour­nal­ists have doc­u­mented al­most nightly killings, mostly of poor peo­ple in slum ar­eas who are found slumped in pools of blood — a few of the killings have been caught on CCTV cam­eras. In Jan­uary this year, the Us-based Hu­man rights Watch re­ported that “more than 12,000 sus­pected drug users and deal­ers, mostly from poor fam­i­lies in ur­ban cen­ters across the coun­try, are es­ti­mated to have died in the “drug war,” in­clud­ing an es­ti­mated 4,000 dur­ing op­er­a­tions led by the po­lice and the re­main­der by “uniden­ti­fied gun­men.” the Philip­pines na­tional Po­lice has strongly re­jected mul­ti­ple re­ports in both for­eign and do­mes­tic me­dia of higher num­bers, in­sist­ing that they are sim­ply “deaths un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

the killings ap­pear now to be af­fect­ing a wider

pool of peo­ple, with a num­ber of elected city of­fi­cials and even Catholic priests mys­te­ri­ously shot in re­cent months. Duterte has used ac­cu­sa­tions of com­plic­ity in the drug trade to jail some of his fiercest crit­ics, most notably sen­a­tor leila de lima.

Be­yond the grisly spec­ta­cle of blood­ied bod­ies, griev­ing wives and or­phaned chil­dren, there are those who ques­tion Duterte’s as­ser­tion that the coun­try has more than four mil­lion drug users, or that the war on drugs is hav­ing much im­pact on the sit­u­a­tion. true, close to 800,000 sup­posed drug users have sur­ren­dered to au­thor­i­ties and vol­un­teered for re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, but the in­fra­struc­ture to cope with this vol­ume of treat­ment is in­ad­e­quate. mean­while, an­other so­cial Weather sta­tions sur­vey re­vealed in 2017 that eight out of ten Filipinos fear they may be­come vic­tims of the war on drugs, while a sim­i­lar num­ber nonethe­less sup­port the cam­paign.

away from the car­nage on the streets of manila and other parts of the coun­try, Duterte has gen­er­ated con­tro­versy on the world stage. like Us Pres­i­dent Don­ald trump, the former city mayor is given to sur­pris­ing out­bursts — such as when he called both Us Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Pope Fran­cis a “son of a whore” in taga­log. He has shown lit­tle pa­tience with the for­mal as­pects of diplo­macy, show­ing up late for sum­mit meet­ings, dressed in­for­mally and some­times even skip­ping key events.

Method and Mad­ness

yet, as with trump, there is some method to his ap­proach. Duterte in­sisted that there was lit­tle point in press­ing the le­gal case against China’s en­croach­ment on Philip­pine is­lands in the south China sea, ar­gu­ing that the coun­try had nei­ther the means nor the sup­port for con­fronta­tion. His ap­proach ul­ti­mately helped re­duce ten­sions in the re­gion — even if it al­lowed China to com­plete its con­struc­tion of de­fen­sive fix­tures on small islets within the Philip­pines eco­nomic ex­clu­sion zone. sim­i­larly, Duterte has con­founded scep­tics who said he would face an up­hill strug­gle im­ple­ment­ing the peace agree­ment reached un­der his pre­de­ces­sor with mus­lim armed groups in min­danao. Us­ing his pow­er­ful ma­jor­ity in Congress, Duterte rammed through an en­abling law in July and a plebiscite is sched­uled for Jan­uary to launch the new au­ton­o­mous re­gion of Bangsamoro. as a re­sult, lev­els of or­ga­nized vi­o­lence in min­danao have de­clined– al­though there re­mains the threat of fringe groups al­lied to the Is­lamic state.

Per­haps the most dis­turb­ing as­pect of Duterte’s ten­ure so far is the man­ner in which he has dealt with po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion. Crit­ics have been han­dled harshly, and of­ten threat­ened with vi­o­lence. sen­a­tor de lima, who cut her teeth in­ves­ti­gat­ing the Davao Death squads, lan­guishes in prison. supreme Court Chief Jus­tice maria lour­des sereno was re­moved al­most with­out a whim­per — she was a critic of Duterte’s War on Drugs. more bizarrely, an­to­nio tril­lanes, a former naval of­fi­cer given amnesty for an at­tempted re­bel­lion against the govern­ment in 2013 who is now a sen­a­tor, faced the prospect of ar­rest by the military in the se­nate af­ter crit­i­ciz­ing Duterte.

Hu­man rights and civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists have sounded warn­ings that Duterte may be un­der­min­ing four decades of democ­racy in one of south­east asia’s most en­dur­ing ex­am­ples of demo­cratic tran­si­tion. al­though it should be re­mem­bered that two pres­i­dents have al­ready been ousted by ex­tra-con­sti­tu­tional means — mar­cos in 1986 and Joseph estrada in 2001 — and there have been re­peated coup at­tempts since 1986.

Hav­ing said this, the Philip­pines’ pres­i­den­tial sys­tem, mod­elled on that of the coun­try’s former colo­nial ruler, is pow­er­ful in a set­ting where the oli­garchy craves the pro­tec­tion of govern­ment, and many leg­is­la­tors are drawn from the fam­i­lies who con­trol the coun­try’s wealth. “Pres­i­dents

in the Philip­pines have usu­ally been able to sub­or­di­nate the leg­isla­tive and ju­di­cial branches of govern­ment, cre­at­ing the dan­ger of ‘elected au­toc­racy’ or even out­right dic­ta­tor­ship,” ar­gues mark thomp­son, an aca­demic at City Uni­ver­sity in Hong Kong. mind­ful of the vi­o­lence en­abled af­ter mar­cos de­clared mar­tial law in 1972, many were alarmed when Duterte de­clared mar­tial law in the is­land of min­danao af­ter mus­lim ex­trem­ists oc­cu­pied the city of marawi last year.

much of this con­cern is un­voiced in the Philip­pines, es­pe­cially since the govern­ment has sought to muz­zle out­spo­ken me­dia out­lets such as the pop­u­lar news web­site rap­pler. and per­haps it says a lot about the sorts of peo­ple who now serve Duterte that his own spokesman, former hu­man rights lawyer Harry roque, had once spo­ken out against Duterte, al­legedly telling a fo­rum on the mar­cos pe­riod of mar­tial law be­fore the elec­tions in 2016: “Please do not vote for this mur­derer, this self-pro­fessed mur­derer.”

Michael Vatiki­o­tis has covered south­east asian pol­i­tics for more than three decades and is the au­thor of Blood and Silk: Power and Con­flict in Mod­ern South­east Asia.

Photo: Bul­lit Mar­quez/ap

Pop­ulist en­forcer: Ro­drigo Duterte poses with a ri­fle on a visit in April to the Philip­pine Na­tional Po­lice head­quar­ters in Que­zon city near Manila.

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