Author: Mark R. Thompson, City University of Hong Kong
After just one year in office, President Rodrigo Duterte has established an illiberal democracy in the Philippines.
Because Duterte was elected in May 2016 in free and fair elections with media freedoms still in place, his regime differs from others in the region such as those of Malaysia and Singapore in which regimes play the electoral game while systematically violating principles of fairness. Deploying a populist ‘order above law’ narrative during his presidential campaign, any remaining institutional barriers to this illiberalism were quickly sidelined through mass defections in Congress and the timidity of the Supreme Court.
In his recent State of the Union address Duterte gave further indications of his growing authoritarianism. He accused major online newspaper Rappler — known for giving space to opposition views — of being foreign owned, which is illegal in the Philippines. Rappler has vigorously denied the charge. Duterte has also threatened to abolish the constitutionally mandated Commission on Human Rights for criticising his violent drug crackdown and has warned the Ombudsmen not to investigate police or military involvment without seeking his permission first.
Duterte first constructed this strongman political model at the local level as Mayor of Davao before ‘nationalising’ it as president. The drug war allowed Duterte to quickly erect an illiberal democracy in which he took advantage of the systemic crisis of a once dominant liberal reformist order. Despite the personal popularity of his predecessor Benigno Aquino III, the liberal order’s ‘good governance’ narrative had been undermined by a pork barrel scandal. Key elite groups backing it were discredited (particularly the Catholic Church through a series of scandals) and institutions remained weak (particularly a broken criminal justice system). Walden Bello points out that Duterte has not ‘feared to transgress liberal discourse [which] not only does … not trouble a significant part of the population, they’ve even clapped for it’.
The drug war has resulted in thousands of deaths, with one estimate as high as 9000. The Philippine Commission on Human Rights charged that the anti-drug campaign has involved ‘summary executions, corruption, and abuse of power’. An Amnesty International investigation claimed the drug war has created ‘an economy of murder’ with hundreds of US dollars paid for each extrajudicial killing. The most recent high profile killing — the result of a controversial police operation — was that of Ozamiz City mayor Reynaldo Parojinog, who Duterte had tagged as a narco-politician. But most ‘hits’ have been on poor and defenceless people — mainly users not big time dealers — making the war against drugs appear more like a war against the poor.
Before being forced to apologise, the Philippine president once even compared his violent campaign with Hitler’s Holocaust, saying he would gladly murder the country’s three million drug dealers and users. This showed Duterte to be a poor political mathematician. A 2015 survey by the president’s Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) revealed the Philippines has little more than half the number of drug users Duterte asserted: 1.8 million, with only a third taking illegal substances in the past year. Duterte fired the DDB head for sticking with these official figures.
Given Duterte supporters’ efforts to defend his record through the old political ruse of the ‘principle of deniability’, it is difficult to tie Duterte to particular deaths during the anti-drug campaign. The deniability argument is particularly widespread in the political class dominated by lawyers, since Duterte is an experienced former prosecutor. But such a strategy is unsustainable given Duterte’s repeated threats to kill drug dealers and users, telling Filipinos to ‘forget the laws on human rights’. John Collins has predicted that based on evidence from similar coercive anti-drug efforts around the world ‘the Philippines’ new “war” will fail and society will emerge worse off from it’.
As the first Philippine president from Mindanao, it is ironic that Duterte has faced his biggest security challenge from within his own region. As of July 2017, over 500 people have been killed (including civilians) and tens of thousands displaced since the Maute group, which claims Islamic State connections, seized large parts of Marawi city in late May. Distracted by the drug war, earlier chances to target the group were missed. Duterte’s declaration of, and now his request to extend, martial law in Mindanao is seen by critics as a first step toward declaring martial rule nationwide.
Upon taking office, the Duterte administration entered into peace talks with the Communists who have been waging an insurgency for the last half century. Duterte appointed three of their allies to his Cabinet and was also seen to have a warm relationship with the head of the Communists, Jose Maria Sison, who was Duterte’s former professor. But angered by several ambushes of government troops despite a ceasefire, Duterte broke off the talks. He and Sison have now entered into a war of words, with the latter calling Duterte the country’s ‘number one drug addict’ for his use of the opioid Fentanyl.
Duterte’s rapprochement with China has been read as a reaction to Western criticism of the violent drug crackdown, although his anti-US nationalism has deeper roots in the legacies of colonialism and can be linked to an attempt to equibalance foreign policy between the United States, China and other regional powers — particularly Japan but also Russia and India. But the impetus for the change was clearly Duterte’s illiberal realignment.
Although a nascent opposition to Duterte — led by Senator Leila de Lima, jailed on flimsy drug charges, and Vice President Maria Leonor ‘Leni’ Robredo — has emerged, it remains largely powerless and much mocked on social media. The social media landscape has become saturated with ‘Dutertards’ — fanatical Duterte supporters, some of whom have now been appointed to government positions.
Criticised by the former Obama administration for human rights violations during the drug war, Duterte seems to have found a new political friend in US President Donald Trump, who has praised the crackdown. Still popular at home and finding new allies abroad, Duterte promises national salvation by claiming that only violent strongman rule can bring political order to the country.
Mark R. Thompson is a Professor of politics and Head of the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong, where he is also Director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre.