Explaining Rodrigo Duterte’s Popularity

By Hyung Jun You

New Rule: No More Rule of Law

Rodrigo Duterte never shied away from talking about his past human rights abuses when he was running for the Philippines presidency in 2016. When he became a mayor of Davao in 1988, one of the most crime-ridden city in the country (it was known as the “murder capital”), he ordered numerous extrajudicial killings of drug offenders by embracing a vigilante group called the Davao Death Squad, or DDS. This group, under the guidance of Duterte, have assassinated more than a thousand people during his term as a mayor.

Actions by DDS and other vigilante's (such as off-duty officers) led to high casualties among innocent civilians and people with minor criminal offenses. During Duterte’s campaign trail, he threatened to take the law into his own hands by saying, “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there is [are] three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them”.

Who Did He Harm the Most?

Duterte’s anti-drug policy targeted the poor, even though drug users came from all economic classes. According to news sources, drug users that were not in the low-income bracket usually got a warning from the police and were not persecuted with the same intensity. This was part of the reason why middle- and high-income classes supported Duterte’s campaign, because they received special treatment barred from the poor.

Duterte presented clear intention to expand the drug policy that had harmed the poor as exemplified when he said, “Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as a mayor”. Despite his appalling human rights record and harsh rhetoric, Duterte gained support from all socioeconomic spectrum and won the election. At present, after two years of Duterte’s presidency, more than 12,000 Filipinos have become victims of government sponsored extrajudicial killings.

However, his approval rating among the poor is high at a consistent figure above 70 percent. So the question remains, if his anti-drug policy is particularly harmful towards the poor, why did they support him and why are they still supporting him?

They Don’t Mind His Drug Policy

Drugs and drug-related crimes have been a thorny issue in Filipino politics for many decades. Numerous politicians have attempted to eradicate these issues, but ultimately failed to even curtail it. Enter Duterte, with his disarmingly direct rhetoric and a passionate dislike towards drug users and dealers. Many Filipinos believed that he would follow through his rhetoric because of his work in Davao.

Those in the low-income bracket knew that there was going to be an increase in random searches by the police, as well as more law enforcement presence. However, the poor approved of his anti-drug policy because of their personal experiences with drugs, and the negative impact drugs had on their families and communities. They recognized that illegal drugs were a serious problem and a contributor to the continuous cycle of poverty.

It is difficult to imagine anyone trading away his or her own fundamental human rights in exchange for security. However, human rights in the Philippines do not enjoy the same status they do in more advanced liberal democracies. Human rights are viewed as a right for those who can afford them. The poor never enjoyed the same political and civil rights as those in middle- and high-income brackets, but what they lacked was security.


Support for Federalism

Support for federalism was popular among Filipinos because the country is made up of several big islands. Giving more power to federal states would have made governing more localized. However, when the constitution was being drafted for the First Republic (1899), there was an impending fight with the Americans. So, the people agreed that unifying the country was crucial and went for a unitary government. Since then, there were many attempts to revise the constitution to federalism but it never came about.

The idea of federalism is especially popular among the lower classes because they see it as a right path to bridge the income gap. Stronger local government would be able to distribute resources more effectively across the country and it would allow local governments to enact their own tax code without being required to give up most of their resource to the central government.

The issue of unequal wealth distribution becomes clear from the fact that the majority of poor Filipinos live outside of the Manila region (the capital city). Because of the extreme wealth gap, people living outside of the capital region call the central government, “imperial Manila.”

As the former mayor of Davao, Duterte is familiar with the disadvantages of the current form of government. He has publicly endorsed federalism on the campaign trial and promoted it as a way to reduce poverty. For low-income Filipinos, Duterte’s unapologetic endorsement of federalism was a welcome change from traditional candidates who did not specifically address a major change in government structure.

Duterte also built his political career outside of Manila, while all past presidents and most candidates started their political career in the capital. His background made his statement on federalism even more authentic in the eyes of the poor.


What Can We Do?

Duterte’s strong energy and determination continues to pay off, as he manages to get approval ratings of 78 percent among the poor while bodies of dead drug users and dealers are being laid out in the slums.

The U.S. State Department and the Treasury Department should work together to come up with a list of names to sanction in Duterte’s administration. Those individuals would include some military, police, and government officials who have links to the anti-drug campaign, such as the chief of the Philippine National Police, Ronald dela Rosa.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) should cease military training exercises with the Filipino army or ban officers who are tied to the drug war from participating in those exercises. The DoD should also restrict arms sales and military hardware to the Philippines because the equipment can be used to aid Duterte’s drug war. The Philippines armed forces and the DoD have a close relationship, and pressure from the U.S. could make Philippines military personnel less inclined to participate in Duterte’s drug war.

There should also be a domestic effort to investigate the president. The Philippines Congress should open up their own investigation into Duterte by: collecting data and statements from victims’ families, direct the Department of Justice to nominate an independent prosecutor to investigate, and start a public awareness campaign to encourage the victims’ friends and families to come forward and report on government abuses.

The concern is that Rodrigo Duterte will enter history books as an unpunished individual. He might have earned enough votes to be the president but that should not exempt him from crimes against humanity. By showing that human rights apply to everyone and that abusers are punished with the same seriousness as for any other crimes, the Filipino public will have more faith in human rights and will think twice before electing a leader with a poor human rights record.

Hyung Jun You is a junior at Loyola Marymount University where he is studying International Relations.

Image Source: https://news.abs-cbn.com/news/06/28/18/duterte-quotes-the-bible-theres-a-time-to-be-calm-silent