The Philippines has been under a heavy spotlight in the past few months. Unfortunately, the attention does not correlate with positive news. Since Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency on 30 June 2016, politics and the lack of rule of law and justice in the Philippines have become increasingly perturbing. The rapidly unfolding reality in the Philippines has inflicted grave repercussions on thousands of Filipinos and for the country’s relations with the international community, particularly with the United States.
From the beginning of Duterte’s term, he has made no bones about his severe and intentional departure from the platform and agenda of the previous president, Benigno Aquino III. Aquino was named by TIME in 2013 as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. Duterte, on the other hand, has achieved a level of international recognition for all the wrong reasons. He has fallen into a comfortable rhythm of perpetuating the carnage of drug users and dealers against a backdrop of increasingly authoritarian policies. But first, who was Rodrigo Duterte before he became president? And what led him to seek the presidency? These answers can be gleaned from a brief glimpse into his early political career.
The origins of Rodrigo Duterte
The story can be said to have begun in Davao, a city that lies on the southeastern coast of the island of Mindanao. Having worked as Special Counsel in the City Prosecution Office since the late 1970s, Duterte became Assistant City Prosecutor in 1983. However, his big break arrived in 1988 when he won the city’s election for mayor. Duterte continued to run for the post and win, serving a total of 21 years as Davao’s mayor. Over the course of those 2 decades, Duterte achieved a feat that very few thought was possible. He succeeded in lifting Davao out of a dark history, helping to transform it into the fifth safest city in the world, according to a June 2015 rankings report by Numbeo. The transformation of Davao was aided by Duterte’s imposition of curfew for minors and restrictions on late-night liquor sales. What is less known, however, is that Duterte’s crackdowns were brutal and anarchic – hardly in line with the standard exercise of rule and law. He allegedly spearheaded the creation of the Davao Death Squad in 1988, which was comprised of thugs, former soldiers, and police who were responsible for the deaths of more than 1,400 alleged drug dealers in the city. It is against this blood-curdling backdrop of extrajudicial killings and a promise to continue fighting crime and corruption that Duterte went on to win the May 2016 presidential election.
Duterte at the helm of government
Now, a look at the present-day situation in the Philippines reveals the extent to which President Duterte has cast a blind eye to justice and rule of law. In July and August 2016 alone, over 2,000 alleged drug dealers were murdered as part of Duterte’s relentless campaign to exterminate (as described by him) crime and drug dealers in the country. To be sure, drug addiction and drug trade are some of the most concerning problems to have beset the Philippines. However, Duterte’s blatant embrace of extreme measures to rid the country of drugs is a gross violation of established legal norms and principles of human rights. Innumerable human rights organizations and heads of governments worldwide have sounded alarms in response to the situation, including U.S. President Barack Obama.
Duterte has taken several swipes at the United States, headlining the media with his gross insult toward Obama in early September 2016, prompting Obama to cancel a scheduled meeting between the two leaders at an international summit in Laos. If Duterte continues to lob insults and threats toward one of the Philippines’ most historically steadfast allies, the future of the Philippines’ relations with the U.S. will unravel quickly. However, despite having diplomatic ties that extend over 50 years — beginning when they fought together against Japan during World War II, being co-signatories of a 1951 mutual defense treaty, and establishing a military-related agreement in 2014 between President Obama and then President Aquino III — President Duterte has been overtly pivoting away from the U.S. and toward a different ideological camp.
In mid-October 2016, speaking from Beijing, Duterte announced the Philippines’ military and economic separation from the US. Expectedly, audiences in the Philippines and the U.S. scrambled to make sense of the statement and its potential implications. Would it imply the severance of diplomatic relations between the two countries; would Filipinos in the U.S. be adversely affected; what would be the fate of U.S. troops currently stationed in the Philippines, and more questions. President Duterte and his Foreign Affairs Secretary later clarified that by “separation,” the former was not referring to the cutting of diplomatic ties with the U.S., but rather the pursuit of a different ideological policy. The meaning of this soon became evident when President Duterte professed an ideological alignment with China and Russia, claiming, “there are three of us against the world,” as reported by Foreign Policy. Duterte’s pivot to ally with China and Russia comes at a precarious time, amidst Chinese claims to islands in the South China Sea that other Asian countries (including the Philippines) have also staked claim to. Further, the U.S. is also engaged in an ongoing conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin over opposing views on how to end the 5-year long civil war in Syria. The Philippines has traditionally maintained a cooperative and non-interference approach to foreign relations and diplomacy. Thus, President Duterte’s decision to pivot toward Russia and China casts an ominous harbinger on the evolution of Philippine foreign policy.
Even as the domestic, regional, and global repercussions of Duterte’s authoritarian policies and abrasive rhetoric, for which he has shown no restraint or remorse, are clear as day, his approval rating among Filipinos remains relatively high. An October 2016 poll conducted by the Social Weather Station, a research institution based in the Philippines, found that 76% of the population is satisfied with the presidency of Duterte. This percentage would strike most as perplexing and disconcerting, especially if one considers some of the most recent announcements by President Duterte, such as his praise of President Putin as his “hero”, his rejection of the Paris Agreement on climate change — arguing that it would hinder efforts to further industrialize the Philippines — and his demands for the removal of all U.S. troops from the Philippines within two years.
In brief, there is no doubt that President Duterte has significantly altered the face of Philippine politics in the first four months of his presidential term. While the tide seems to have taken a significant turn for the worse, the full extent of the “Duterte effect” will be most clear at the end of his term in 2022.