What’s behind Filipino strongman Duterte’s popularity?

Extrajudicial killings have skyrocketed in the Philippines, with the approval of the new president. Why does so much of the country support him?

Lean Daval Jr/Reuters
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a news conference in Davao city, southern Philippines, Aug. 21, 2016.

On the campaign trail, Rodrigo Duterte promised to stamp out criminality within three to six months. Filipinos believed him, electing him with a large mandate to carry out an agenda of openly avowed brutality.

Now, in his first seven weeks as the nation's president, the rate of extrajudicial killings linked to his anti-drug campaign has spiraled. More than 1,900 people have been killed in a crackdown on drug trafficking in the Philippines since Mr. Duterte was elected, said the top police official there on Tuesday, according to NBC News. About 800 of the deaths came at the hands of police during anti-drug operations, with the rest occurring under as yet unknown circumstances.

Few expect that the wave of violence will do much to dissuade the public from its trust in a man chosen by the public for his perceived authenticity. A July poll showed that 91 percent of Filipinos said they trusted the new president.

What's emerging is a portrait of a leader – and a people – willing to at least temporarily suspend the judicial process – the rule of law and the right to a trial – in favor of a hardline path to greater sense of security. 

“Filipinos are very weary of high crime rates in the country, and the president has played successfully to insecurities. A lot of people see the killings as a necessary evil in the pursuit of his agenda,” says Anni Piiparinen, a specialist on Southeast Asian security at the Atlantic Council and assistant director of the cyber statecraft initiative there. The crime rate has gone down since Duterte entered office, she tells The Christian Science Monitor, as it did in Davao City during his term as mayor. “Many people are willing to make this tradeoff.”

The nation's police chief, Ronald de la Rosa, made his comments at a Philippine Senate hearing conducted as part of an inquiry into the deaths. Mr. De la Rosa insisted that there existed no official policy to kill drug dealers or users, according to NBC.

“We are not butchers,” he said.

As the Monitor reported earlier this month, human rights groups have suggested that vigilantes acting with the tacit approval of police – and in other cases, police themselves – are responsible for many of the unsolved killings.

And on the campaign trail, Duterte seemed to brag about reports of extrajudicial killings of drug dealers in that city during his term as mayor and promised to replicate them on a national scale.

“Forget the laws on human rights,” he said in his last campaign speech, as The Guardian reported in May. “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.”

As the Monitor reported from Davao, drug crimes plummeted 75 percent after Duterte became mayor, according to city spokesman Leo Villareal. Muggings and pickpocketing are rare, he said, and leftists are no longer violent. 

The most common drug, the methamphetamine strain called shabu, is no longer sold in the streets, locals say, and it’s safe to walk anywhere at night.  Smoking in public is banned, as is the use of firecrackers and driving at more than 19 m.p.h. on downtown streets. Traffic accidents have fallen more than 40 percent since the speed limit took effect in 2013.

Last year Davao, a city of about 1.5 million people, was named the world’s fifth-safest city by crowd-sourcing survey website Numbeo.com.

Duterte’s rise to power was also based upon the perception that he would end a different kind of impunity: that of a tiny, insular political class beholden less to their parties and constituents than to their own interests.

More than two-thirds of Filipino legislators belong to political dynasties, noted Richard Javad Heydarian, political science professor at Manila’s De La Salle University, in an April analysis for CNN. Those same dynasties have been the beneficiaries of an overwhelming portion of recent economic growth.

And when politicians got caught pilfering from public coffers, they could often leverage their influence to escape punishment, novelist and New York University professor Miguel Syjuco wrote for Time.  

“After every election, officials abandon any party loyalty to join the winning candidate,” he writes. “During any administration, many a politician is caught doing something too criminal for the incumbent to leave unpunished. Over the years, alleged political pilferers leverage their influence to support an opposition that can eventually throw out their cases, or grant pardons, or return them to power as needed allies.”

Combined with longstanding weariness with crime, say analysts, such impunity has helped create a longing among many Filipinos for the sort of strongman figure embodied by former dictator Ferdinand Marcos – and perhaps, too, by Duterte.

But human rights and faith groups and the families of many of those killed say that state-sponsored violence, which has prompted 114,833 people to turn themselves in, as either drug addicts or dealers, has mainly taken its toll on poor Filipinos who are seldom given the chance to defend themselves from accusations, The New York Times wrote earlier this month. 

Phelim Kine, a deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, told The New York Times that the vast majority of those killed were “not the wealthy and powerful drug lords who actually have meaningful control over supply of drugs on the streets in the Philippines.”

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