“If I succeed perhaps that would be my greatest contribution to the country, but if I fail, kill me,” declared Rodrigo Duterte during his winning presidential campaign in which he vowed to eliminate criminality and illegal drugs in six short months.
“With the help of the people, we will end the reign of drug lords and make our streets safe again for our people,” he added, presenting himself as the ‘law and order’ candidate in a hotly contested race which featured more prominent and richly financed candidates.
His invective-laced rhetoric, dirty jokes, long-winding speeches and macabre threats gradually became the pillars of Dutetre’s ‘authenticity’ – a crucial attribute that helped him overshadow business-as-usual competitors in one of the most dramatic elections in Philippine history.
Months later, with Duterte becoming the undisputed presidential frontrunner, he upped the ante, vowing a “bloody” campaign against drug pushers. Comfortably standing before a group of businessmen, he vowed on the hustings to “use the military and the police to go out and arrest them, hunt for them,” and if necessary, “kill them all and end the problem.”
Duterte promised to kill 100,000 criminals within his first six months, dumping so many bodies into Manila Bay that the “fish will grow fat.” Many, including his legions of supporters, took his rhetoric as mere braggadocio, reflecting a strong political will to address the country’s perceived state of lawlessness.
When Duterte took office, however, it became immediately clear that he meant what he vowed. Within days, he unleashed the full force of the state on suspected drug dealers and users, resulting in the shooting deaths of thousands of Filipinos.
The public’s response was a strange mélange of fear and awe. On one hand, eight of ten individuals expressed satisfaction with Duterte’s fight against criminality and illegal drugs.
Yet, almost the same number of people made it clear that they preferred the drug suspects were kept alive, while expressing fear about their own safety amid widespread allegations of extrajudicial killings.
Nonetheless, Duterte’s fidelity to his campaign promise helped boost his popularity throughout his first year in office. For the majority of Filipinos, he represents a sincere and decisive leader, though often unstatesmanlike and sometimes misguided in his methods.
Duterte’s war on drugs, which heavily targeted the poorest of the poor, has been most enthusiastically supported by the upper classes of the society.
Yet it has heavily undermined the Philippines’ position in the international community, especially in light of diplomatic spats between Duterte and the United Nations, the European Union and traditional allies like the US over human rights concerns.
As a result, many began to doubt the Philippines’ attractiveness as an investment destination, especially Western investors. And, for the first time in history, a Filipino president now faces possible charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
The EU is also considering sanctions against the country, which is traditionally a large recipient of its grants and preferential trade arrangements.
Bilateral relations with the United States, the Philippines’ sole treaty ally, hit a new nadir on disagreements over Duterte’s war on drugs, especially during the previous Barack Obama administration. (Incumbent President Donald Trump has commended Duterte’s “strong leadership” and invited him to visit the White House.)
Japan, China, and the EU have offered assistance via the establishment of drug rehabilitation centers, but Duterte has consistently expressed skepticism towards public health-focused approaches to the drug epidemic.
As disagreements with traditional allies piled up, Duterte pivoted strongly to China, which offered to protect him in international fora in exchange for a pragmatic accommodation in the South China Sea. Duterte also doubled down on economic engagement with Beijing, which is set to become a key player in his massive infrastructure development plan.
Duterte’s outreach to and growing dependence on China, however, has emboldened the latter to push the envelope in both the western (South China Sea) and eastern (Benham Rise) shores of the Philippines, much to the chagrin of his defense establishment.
Yet, his single-minded focus on the war on drugs not only blinded him to other major concerns in the country, especially the economic welfare of ordinary people, but also overstretched his domestic security forces, who have been grappling with limited manpower and financial resources.
As a result, Duterte ended his first year in office with a full-fledged crisis in his home island of Mindanao, where Islamic State-affiliated fighters have sought to capture Marawi, the country’s largest Muslim-majority city, to establish an Islamic caliphate.
Duterte has used the crisis in Mindanao as a pretext to declare martial law across the entire southern island, well beyond the epicenter of the crisis in Marawi. He suggested extending it across the country if necessary, raising fears of a lurch towards full authoritarianism.
Duterte’s political gambles have so far paid off, with much of the political establishment rendered subservient and a well-oiled propaganda machine not only rallying public support behind the president, but also gradually silencing opposition through systematic intimidation.
Duterte’s chief critic, former Justice Secretary and incumbent Senator Leila De Lima, is currently in jail awaiting trial on drug-related charges, which many view as politically motivated. Much of the political opposition is under siege with no clear leadership.
The Supreme Court, the final arbiter of constitutional order, has toed Duterte’s line on two key occasions, first the controversial burial of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Cemetery of National Heroes, as well as his fast and furious martial law declaration in Mindanao.
Civilian checks and balances on Duterte’s rising power are thus now in a state of hibernation, leaving him with significant leeway to shape the Philippine state in his own image.
In his first year, Duterte, a former provincial mayor, has proven himself as an astute national leader, one who knows how to employ a combination of fear and charm to mobilize support and punish critics.
Yet his authoritarian streak has undermined checking and balancing institutions, putting the country’s increasingly fragile democracy to a new age strongman test.