Why a Death Squad Apologist Appeals to Filipinos
Rodrigo Duterte is the man for the job, a large number of voters say
On Dec. 4, the accounting firm KPMG, in collaboration with the Philippine firm RG Manabat & Co., issued a remarkably upbeat report forecasting that the nation has the capability to become a major Asian production hub once the Asean Economic Community becomes a reality at the end of this month.
The Manabat report is the latest in a long string of optimistic accounts of the turnaround over the past six years of a country that has lagged behind its neighbors ever since the Marcos days. The World Bank, in its most recent report, called the country “one of the most dynamic economies in the East Asia region, with sound economic fundamentals and a globally recognized competitive workforce. Growth in the Philippines has averaged above 5 percent in the past decade, significantly higher than in the previous decades.”
From outside the country, it appears that President Benigno S. Aquino III has been a startling success. It was only one of two major economies in East Asia, the World Bank said, to accelerate its quarterly growth from the first to second quarter of this year. Now at 5.8 percent, growth is expected to rebound to 6.4 percent in 2016.
So why not Mar?
One might think those figures would spur voters to continue Aquino’s policies via his anointed successor, Manuel A. Roxas, the blue-blooded aristocrat who has served at Aquino’s side for years, including giving way to Aquino when he ran for president in 2010.
Instead, in the latest poll by the firm Pulse Asia, Roxas is languishing in fourth place at 11 percent, behind scandal-tarred Vice President Jejomar Binay at 22 percent, Grace Poe at 26 percent and 34 percent for the gun-toting, tough talking Rodrigo Duterte, the Davao City mayor who jumped into the race in late November using a subterfuge, replacing a placeholder who turned over his position to him, and who is said to be suffering from serious illness.
Duterte himself has acknowledged in several interviews that he suffers from Buerger’s Disease, an inflammation of blood vessels mostly in the limbs that has been traced to smoking. He is also reported to have Barrett’s Esophagus, a more serious form of gastroesophageal reflux, in which the lining of the esophagus is replaced by intestinal tissue and, if not managed, can progress into esophageal adenocarcinoma – a form of throat cancer.
Poe, Roxas and Binay have been jockeying for months to come out of the gate in the lead. After saying for months that at age 70 he was too old to run, Duterte’s entry seems to have turned Filipino politics absolutely upside down.
Crime, crime and sick of crime
The reason, according to one young Filipina political observer, is that the progress represented by Aquino and Roxas has not filtered down to the average Filipino, including members of her own family. Over lunch, she said when she returns home from Jakarta, where she works and lives, there is no family talk of economic progress. Instead, the fetid legacy of the Marcos years remains – bribes for virtually every service provided by government and crime that makes it unsafe to be on city streets after 10 pm.
That is echoed by a wide cross-section of Filipinos. The manager of a Western Union accounting unit enthusiastically endorsed Duterte, echoing a demand to get rid of street crime. An architect in charge of building a hotel in a northern province said the local chieftain demanded a 50 percent bribe to license the building and countered a protest that people who object often end up dead.
“Crime and law and order, these are things that Filipinos have visceral feelings about,” said the director of a human rights NGO. “Crime and drugs have a very direct impact on everyday people. A lot of Filipinos don’t see economic progress, they are mired in poverty, none of that matters if walking the streets at night you get mugged.”
So along comes Rody Duterte. In November, newspapers exposed an extortion racket at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in which customs officials were planting bullets – supposedly illegal to possess – in the luggage of poor domestic helpers on their way overseas, then demanding bribes to overlook the ammunition. Duterte roared that he would go to the airport and if he could find the culprits, “I will put bullets in their ass.”
A one-time prosecutor and lawyer, Duterte won his spurs by undeniably cleaning up Davao City. He famously advocated summary executions of minor crooks and hardly denies association with death squads that enabled local warlords to settle scores, killing anyone they labeled as drug dealers. But in any event, Davao City, the nation’s third largest, is by all accounts one of the safer cities in Mindanao, the Philippines’ wild west, or south, as the case may be.
He is not the first to promise to clean up the Philippines. In fact virtually all politicians routinely say they will. But cleaning up Davao City isn’t like cleaning up a nation of 100 million whose cities are run by mayors who are largely warlords in their own right.
“By contrast, the position of president is relatively weak,” according to a Dec. 7 subscribers-only report by Pacific Strategies and Investments, the Manila-based country risk firm, “by constitutional design to avoid creating another dictator and to force checks and balances with the legislative and judicial branches. The president of the Philippines must be a backroom negotiator, consensus builder and political arm twister to get things done. Antics like forcing people who violate a smoking ban to eat their cigarettes have little value on the national stage.”
More ominously, PSA points out, Duterte has said he would bring his advocacy of extrajudicial killings to the country as a whole, a dangerous policy in a country where warlords still rule in Mindanao and private armies still operate in Luzon. Allowing them the latitude to “wipe out crime” almost certainly means license to kill their enemies.
The issue of advocating vigilante justice would also make Duterte vulnerable to impeachment and criminal prosecution if he were to be elected president. Investigations that he could block in Davao City would flourish at the national level. If vigilantes and police officials in his city were found by national investigators and testified of his direct orders to kill people, his impeachment could be easily obtained.
“The endurance of Duterte’s national popularity will become increasingly questionable as the election nears,” according to PSA. “In Mindanao, where security is a top concern of individuals and businesses alike, mayors can become wildly popular by being tough on crime. There are many single-issue voters in Mindanao who will vote for anyone who maintains security. This is not the case at the national level.”
Duterte is more complicated than his cowboy image makes him appear, however, said the director of the human rights NGO. He has given formal representation to the indigenous Lumad and Muslim communities, mandated an anti-discrimination ordinance, used city funds to build a US$250,000 drug rehab center and offered a monthly allowance to addicts committed to kicking the habit.
Duterte has also sought to negotiate with the Communist New People’s Army and has advocated diplomacy over armed action. Thus, according to Duterte’s supporters, whatever the complexity of the issues facing the country, a tough, strong, honest and straight-talking leader can handle them.
This is old news
Voters in the Philippines have heard that campaign pitch before. In 1998, Joseph Estrada, the popular, tough-talking mayor of San Juan, was elected president with the same promise. Three years later, as PSA points out, Estrada was impeached and imprisoned on corruption charges. Duterte, by all measures, isn’t likely to suffer corruption charges. But he may be forced to learn that, even in a country where crime is an abiding issue, the voters aren’t going to put up with his roughshod ways.