Unconventional Hero? by Harriet Ferrer @ University of California, Los Angeles
The Philippines is one of the oldest democracies in Asia, but the country has been plagued with regimes that undermine the institutions of democracy, which result in its instability. The Philippines has experienced authoritarian leaders and presidents from the inner circle of Manila’s elites. The economic growth under the last president did not translate into the hands of the majority of the citizens; instead, wealth is continuously being retained among the elites.
Rampant with corruption, poverty, and crime, the Philippines became susceptible to electing a populist leader who is devoted to change and helping the lower class. Controversial populist candidate Rodrigo Duterte was voted into office by many who believed that he would be capable enough to materialize their hopes. Duterte’s main promises are to rid the streets of drugs and crime and distribute wealth equally among all citizens. Despite being popularly elected and maintaining high approval ratings, Duterte’s authoritarian tendencies have raised red flags of democratic backsliding.
Since he began his term, Duterte has made international headlines for his crackdown on drug abusers, which has been anything but humane. His crusade against drugs has claimed over twelve thousand lives and among those numbers are innocent victims including children. Ironically, most victims are from poor regions of the country; the people he vowed to protect.
Not only does Duterte tolerate violence, but he is an advocate for it. He has compared himself to Hitler and once claimed that he personally killed criminals when he was mayor. He has even encouraged the public to kill those suspected of using and dealing drugs. Duterte has claimed that drug users are not human and are beyond redemption. He singles out a subset of the population, disregards them, and hunts them down. Doing so is undemocratic; he cannot choose who to represent. Democratic leaders should not be promoting violence and instead should be upholding the safety and rights of the citizens.
Even if his strategy is effective, his approach is morally conflicting. He remains in the international spotlight only because his war on drugs has become known as a human rights violation. He has attracted a lot of negative international attention, most notably from the United Nations(UN), urging him to end the extrajudicial killings. Despite many criticisms and threats from the United States to pull aid from the Philippines, Duterte only snaps back with his own threats. He has threatened to dismiss EU ambassadors and has recently decided to pull the Philippines out of the International Criminal Court(ICC) after they initiated an investigation against him. Duterte felt attacked by the UN and claimed that the ICC “failed to follow due process and presumption of innocence.” His reasoning was hypocritical since he does not even allow those rights to his own citizens. The suspected criminals do not get a trial and most are simply found dead. We will never know if they were guilty or not.
Duterte has been openly vulgar against his critics and he is merciless against the media. The two biggest news outlets, ABS-CBN and the Inquirer, have been vocal against Duterte and he has threatened to abolish them. Coincidentally, the Inquirer changed ownership a few months later, with the new owner being Duterte’s friend. He has recently condemned Rappler, an online news site, and had its certificate of incorporation invalidated. His suppression of the press is a clear violation of democracy. While he recognizes that some people do not see from his viewpoint, he cannot stand negative press about him circulating. This censorship is typical of dictatorial regimes, which is supposedly not what Duterte’s reign is. Duterte’s interference of the press signals that he does not care about the civil liberties of the people that include freedom of speech. He has also publicly stated that the police can shoot human rights advocates who are obstructing his type of justice.
For two decades, Duterte was mayor of Davao City, where he first started his fight against crime and drugs. For years, he has been involved in “stopping crime” and there have been rumors of a Davao death squad patrolling the city. However, Davao still has the highest numbers of murder and rape in the country. This suggests that Duterte’s strict enforcement is not effective and the killings are futile.
He is doing what he promised, but is his attention on the wrong issue? With widespread poverty across the nation, Duterte should shift his focus elsewhere. He has stated before that “drug dealing and drug addiction were major obstacles to the Philippines’ economic and social progress.” Instead of literally getting rid of the problem, he should approach it with reform and rehabilitation. Drug addiction can be helped and unnecessary murders can be avoided. We are dealing with human lives and it is a serious issue. In a country overwhelmed by social and economic issues, we should find out why citizens are turning to drugs in the first place.
With the working-class majority fed up with power remaining in the hands of the elite, it is no wonder that Duterte gained mass support. His campaign was centered around bringing power and wealth back to the people and, despite his unethical killings of criminals, is the main reason he is still popular. Duterte won a free and fair election, but his populist roots can give rise to trouble for the future of democracy. His representation of a fraction of the population will lead to the discontent and possible uprising of the others. The way he ruthlessly encourages violence and suppresses opposing views is concerning.
With a foul-mouthed president leading the way, the country is undergoing a fight against drugs, instead of a fight against poverty. The Philippines has experienced worse, but there is still a lot of work to do to achieve and maintain a consolidated democracy.