Image: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte speaking at Camp Aguinaldo during the turnover rites for the country’s armed forces.
When Rodrigo Duterte finally initiated his campaign for the Philippine presidency in November 2015, he made no secret of his view on how best to handle crime.
“Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men, and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’d kill you,” he stated in his final rally, just days before the election. He added that he would “dump all of [the drug users and dealers] into Manila Bay and fatten the fish there.”
Just seven months into his presidential term, the effects of Duterte’s hardline policy are already being felt: at least 5,800 people have been killed in the campaign against drugs, many as a direct result of his promise to exonerate any member of law enforcement implicated in an improper or extrajudicial killing. Even more worrisome is his encouragement of violent vigilantism: Duterte has told the public to “do it yourself if you have the gun . . . I’ll give you a medal.”
The president’s methods, while extreme, have yielded immediate results: as of December 1, close to a million drug dependents and pushers have surrendered to authorities to avoid becoming victims. Not coincidentally, Duterte boasts an unprecedented 86% approval rating among Filipinos.
But despite his reverence at home, the same cannot be said of Duterte’s reputation internationally. Frequent western condemnation has evoked an often-colorful response from the Filipino president, who has referred to Barack Obama as the “son of a whore,” and to Europe’s leaders as “hypocrites.” Duterte’s response to European concern for the rising death toll was to raise his middle finger and liken himself to Hitler, saying he would “be happy to slaughter” the three million drug addicts residing in the Philippines.
So why is there a disconnect of opinion between the Philippine public and international bodies?
At home, many Filipinos have begun to subscribe to the “strongman syndrome”, the ill-founded belief that their tough-talking and authoritarian leader can, through force and conviction, address the complicated issues in governance of a nation. To many in the Philippines, Duterte’s tirades against Obama, the EU, and even the pope represent his commitment, in the face of heavy opposition abroad, to the promises he made while on the campaign trail.
But rather than preempting any sort of decisive action, Duterte’s remarks have only led to confusion amongst his allies and enemies alike. For example, Duterte previously claimed that this year’s military exercises with the United States would be the last, severing a 65-year military alliance, only to change his mind just days later stating that “we will maintain our military alliance because… they say, we need it for our defense.” He would eventually officially sever ties with the US when he visited China, stating that “I announce my separation from the United States, both in military but economics also.” (This, too, he quickly took back, saying “it’s not a severance of ties.”)
The list of Duterte’s bellicose contradictions has since grown to include the execution of Mary Jane veloso, his attendance at the ASEAN-US summit, and even his government’s stance on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
His double-talk on the international stage is a distraction from the failures of the war on drugs. To accommodate the 830,000 drug dependents who have surrendered themselves to the police there are less than 50 government-accredited drug rehabilitation centers in the Philippines. With more than 17,000 people awaiting trial and prisons packed to over four times capacity, drug-dependent Filipinos will be lucky to receive any more than a taxpayer-funded meal or two by way of assistance.
The war on drugs is complicated, tragic, and ultimately caused by the state’s weak bureaucratic system coupled with an impoverished populace desperate for security. A broken judicial system and the upper classes’ ability to evade justice have caused many Filipinos to distrust the government, and helps to explain why over 16 million people voted for Duterte in May. He is seen as the man who could ‘get things done’ and is willing to go above the law to achieve his end goals, just as he had done before in Davao where he had served as mayor for over two decades.
However, the prioritization of the war on drugs has come at a grave cost to the Philippines’ economy and its issues with poverty. Anxious about Duterte’s leadership, many foreign investors have pulled their money out of the Philippines, rapidly dropping the value of the Peso to a seven-year low. The greatest consequence of the war on drugs is the dehumanization of drug addicts—many of those who are dependent on drugs also live in endemic poverty, unable to pull themselves out of addiction alone. In truth, this war is not so much a righteous struggle against drug usage in the nation as it is a crusade against the destitute of the Philippines. What few seem to have realized is that Duterte’s is less a war on drugs than it is a war on those stricken by poverty.
Filipinos hoping their new strongman president can help them tackle the very real issues of poverty and security are likely to be disappointed. The checks and balances of political power in the Philippines are gradually becoming dismantled by their worryingly popular and increasingly authoritarian leader. The Philippines needs systemic reform and an effective, democratic, and stable government committed to all its constituents, including the poorest and most vulnerable of Filipinos. But this will take time and patience—two things the Filipino people are running out of.
Alec Regino is an undergraduate at McGill University double majoring in Economics and History. He is particularly interested in international affairs, Southeast Asian politics, international security, and foreign policy.