PoliticsWhy the Philippines Loves Rodrigo Duterte
He's waging a bloody extrajudicial war on drug dealers. He's fine with the assassination of journalists. And, to top it all off, he's cussed at the Pope. Yet, his trust rating is a soaring 91%. What the hell is going on?
At a press conference last April, then-Filipino presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte spoke to journalists, wearing a white graphic T-shirt advertising “Industrial Carbon Technology Corp.” It was the kind of T-shirt you would get at a company picnic, but here it was on the future leader of the Philippines, answering the press for remarks he made days earlier at a campaign event, joking about the 1989 rape and murder of an Australian missionary. The incident occurred at a prison in Davao City, where Duterte had been mayor for more than 22 years.
He was under fire for saying, according to the translated transcript: “I was angry she was raped, yes that was one thing. But she was so beautiful; I think the mayor should have been first. What a waste." He received condemnation from the Australian Ambassador and the remarks grabbed international headlines. Still, while sitting backwards on a plastic lawn chair, candidate Duterte “stuck to his guns,” left an ambiguous apology, and swore at the media for allegedly twisting his words.
He was elected as President of the Philippines in a landslide victory later that May.
Despite a growing laundry list of incidents like these, like calling the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines a “gay son of a whore,” sanctioning summary executions for alleged drug dealers and users, and saying journalists deemed corrupt are not exempt from assassinations, Duterte remains massively popular since coming to office in June. In a recent poll, 91% of Filipinos expressed trust in the new President. For the tens of millions of Filipinos living in poverty or struggling to make a decent living, his casual clothes, modest Davao home, and lack of formality make him much more relatable to the average Filipino than to the Manila elite. They needed a change from the status quo, and in the last election and Duterte appeared to be their only hope to challenge it. And yet, it’s become difficult for anyone to criticize the President without attracting angry rebuttals from his aggressive partisans.
They’re quick to defend the President as being “misunderstood” or having his remarks “taken out of context” by Western media. You’ll get responses like “he’s doing the right thing” and “they probably deserve it” if you condemn his open calls for murder. His fiercest supporters will yell “bias” and “media corruption” at even the slightest criticism while, at the same time, sharing stories in support for the President from bogus news sources. In the most extreme cases, Duterte critics were faced with threats of violence and murder from his most fervent supporters, despite his own calls to chill out. Though 86% of the Filipino population is Catholic, Duterte has publicly cussed out the Pope—all without his own popularity suffering one bit.
For many, Duterte is an authentic leader who stays true to his word. The President really couldn’t care less if he’s seen as offensive, and would rather lose an election than change his character. The superficial comparisons to Donald Trump are probably inevitable, but Duterte isn’t lying when he threatens people with death; he’s just being honest. Duterte’s presidency has felt like a breath of fresh air for Filipinos who feel they have been voting for liars and cheaters, manufactured out of political dynasties, for far too long. Still, unlike Trump, there is no backtracking, deflection, or distant reality from his proposed policies. While coercing Mexico to pay for a wall sounds like a half-baked plan, executing alleged criminals without due process in the Philippines is a lot easier to carry out. Duterte means what he says with no apologies and acts on it, no matter how terrifying that is.
The purpose of President Duterte’s open calls for violence, rather ironically, is for peace; to end crime and corruption perceived as endemic in the Philippines. He offered a simple, horrifying, solution that tens of millions of Filipinos elected him to implement through unrestricted police operations, death squads, and hired assassins.
Not only does Duterte follow through on his policies, but he’s killed alleged criminals himself. The President’s War on Drugs has already claimed more than 2,500 lives, or 38 people per day since launching in June. His supporters had little doubt that they were voting for extrajudicial killings which they hope will end, in their view, a rampant drug problem (though statistics show years of decline in drug abuse and only 1.3% of the population actually using illegal drugs).
His violent reputation has also, ironically, brought about hopes for peace talks in the Southern Philippines. His home island of Mindanao has long been excluded from economic development while suffering decades of violence between the government, Islamic militants, and communist guerrillas. But under Duterte, it would seem that peace can finally be delivered to Mindanao simply because he would be the first president of the Philippines from the region. Leaders of armed groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the New Peoples Army have placed their trust in Duterte, and are willing to finally settle down and talk peace. But it’s not like these hardened militias are scared of the new president; they actually like him. Could their willingness to seek peace with Duterte simply be because they’re finally talking to someone they see as one of their own?
It is often argued by his supporters that these policies of vigilante justice worked during Duterte’s time as Mayor of Davao which was once seen as a hotbed of crime and violence. They would argue that today, Davao is one of the safest cities in the country thanks to his ruthless policies. However, the city also very recently suffered a bombing in a busy marketplace that killed at least 14 people. The President warns that more bombings are likely.
President Duterte’s policy of kill people, burn drugs, and screw human rights may be popular policies in the Philippines right now. Short-term wins, drug busts worth millions of dollars on display, and images of bloodied bodies lying on the streets could give many Filipinos the impression that this is working. But the past has shown that these kinds of Drug Wars are doomed to failure, and most of the innocent victims caught up in the conflict come from the poorest parts of the country; the same poor and marginalized that helped Rodrigo Duterte come to power. Right now, the love for Duterte is unconditional. The question now, is: How far can the love affair carry on?