Rodrigo Duterte: “The Punisher” in Profile


On the 20th September, Rodrigo Duterte raised his middle finger to the European Union. The Philippines’ president is no stranger to such behaviour; he has also drawn attention to himself in recent months by referring first to Barack Obama and then Pope Francis as “sons of whores”. Despite these actions, Duterte’s positive reputation in his own country seems to be unaffected. Away from the media scandals, the Journal International aims to determine the reasons behind his popularity.

Following his election as President of the Philippines on the 6th May 2016, Rodrigo Duterte styles himself as a completely different animal to the average politician. After twenty years in office as Mayor of Davao, the man known as “Rody” has ridden a wave of populism to lead a successful electoral campaign, winning around 16 million votes (38.6% of the overall vote). He is a controversial and often even a reviled figure on the international scene, and insults, crimes, misogyny, and drugs have earned him the nickname of the “Asian Donald Trump”.

“The War on Drugs” – A president with blood on his hands

He said he would do it, and he delivered. After a career-long crusade against drug traffickers and consumers, Rodrigo Duterte had promised in his presidential speeches that he would kill them all, and the wheels seem to be in motion. Around three thousand people have been massacred; one third by the police, and the rest by private militia, in a murderous campaign by a man with “no concern for human rights”. In September, a headline in the fortnightly French magazine Society reported around “36 deaths a day.” Since then, corpses have been found scattered through the streets on Manila on a daily basis, often with placards bearing slogans such as; “I am a drug dealer; don’t copy me” hanging from their necks.

“If God wants to direct me there, be warned, because the thousand (people killed) will become 100,000. You will see the fish thrive in the Manila Bay; because it will be there that I throw your bodies.” This brutal threat is a fairly accurate summary of Duterte’s politics. Before becoming President, he was Mayor of the city of Davao, and he has recently been subject to an inquiry accusing him of being part of a “death squadron”. This militia-like group, known by the abbreviation DDS (Davao Death Squad), has waged war against drug traffickers in the city since 1998, and is thought to be responsible for over a thousand deaths.

On the 15th September, a former member of this squadron, named Edgar Matobato, testified against Duterte. According to Matobato, the President himself has blood on his hands. This collaborator explains that the squadron set its sights on other targets upon Duterte’s arrival. Matobato claims that the former Mayor arranged the assassinations of his daughter’s boyfriend, journalists, adversaries’ bodyguards, and even his son’s enemies. The methods described by the ex-criminal sound like the stuff of horror films. While at the bar in court, he recalled how victims would be thrown live to crocodiles, burned, decapitated, or drowned at sea. Matobato accused the president of these crimes because he claims to have been a first-hand witness when the President gunned down a court official with an Uzi rifle. It seems that the “DDS” could just as easily stand for Duterte Death Squad.

The Punisher: a local personality

Despite his unpopularity on the international scene, the Philippine people are less unanimous when it comes to their President. Before his rise to power, Duterte spent twenty-two years as the Mayor of Davao, the country’s fourth largest city. To understand the President’s image, we must look back at his political career. When Duterte became Mayor of Davao in 1988, he was in charge of a city blighted by drugs and crime, known as the “Nicaragua of Asia,” and even the “crime capital”. In twenty-two years, “Rody” claims to have radically changed that; and Time magazine concedes that the city now has the lowest crime rate per capita in the country.

The methods used to re-establish security in the city, such as the DDS, are entirely non-conventional. The city was gripped by a kind of terror, and Time would label Duterte as “The Punisher”. However, these policies were effective, and the Mayor would take advantage of that fact; even creating an aura about himself. Duterte was popular at a local level, and it was during this period that he fashioned his image; he is seen as a man of action who keeps his promises, making a positive contribution to the city. He used his political reputation and his frankness to generate support and goodwill.

This reputation stayed with him during the presidential elections, which Duterte won “at a canter” with 38.6% of the votes. According to political analyst Richard Heydarian, the President boasts an approval rating of 91%. He adds that Duterte’s message has resonated strongly with the Philippine people, who are tired of a farcical justice system, a paralysed government, and, above all, the weakness of law and order. The effectiveness of Duterte’s anti-drug policy cannot be denied. The three thousand executions have sent such a strong message to that point that 600,000 drug traffickers (and mere users) have turned themselves in to the police, through fear of Duterte’s violent policies.

Although Duterte’s presidency eschews democracy, justice and pacifism, he seems to draw support from across all areas of Philippine society. The more well-off Philippines now feel safer in a country with historically high crime rates, while working class citizens feel that they are playing an active role in national politics, and that their voices are being heard.

“Hate breeds hate”

With all this in mind, is there a more concrete explanation for the captivating effect of Rodrigo Duterte’s personality? The Journal International has tried to look at the situation from an alternative viewpoint to Western criticism, in order to better understand the perspective of Philippine citizens. To this end we interviewed Michael Sy, a Philippine student living in the capital city of Manila.

Firstly, Michael points out that the current president is very different from his predecessors. “Now we have Duterte; a solid, non-corrupt, authentic, and lively person.” The student explains that Duterte dares “to do things which all Philippines wanted, but which no president had yet done”. Unlike the previous incumbent Benigo Aquino, who focused on the economy, road services and developing infrastructure, Michael claims that Duterte “pointed out the government’s failings, rather than covering them up. He developed a solid programme.” In doing this, he sought to improve the quality of life for citizens, and took their needs into account. For example, he wanted to create a society where citizens would no longer be afraid to walk the streets at night. “He has a different approach. Personally, I can feel the change”, adds Michael.

As for the question of the “War on Drugs”, Michael has allowed us a more nuanced look at the claims made in Western newspapers. “I don’t think that Duterte is the sort of person who wants to kill innocent people. The killings that have taken place are effects of Duterte’s presidency. Many criminals have benefited from his election. When they kill innocent people, they claim that their actions are justified because they are killing drug barons.” According to Michael, Duterte has simply started off a trend which he is no longer capable of controlling. Michael finishes with this phrase; “hate breeds hate”.

A new way of governing?

On the subject of the murders committed by the police, the young Philippine is clear; “obviously, I condemn these actions, because I am in favour of peace, and because I believe in human rights. I don’t support the killing of innocent people”. He qualifies this by saying that Duterte has taken it upon himself to deal with the drug problem, an issue which no previous President had been capable of tackling. “From the moment he made this decision, was it possible that there would be no victims? If you could say that it was possible, then I would tell you that Duterte was unfit to be President. However, whatever the state of things, I realise that there will be victims”.

Duterte’s election poses questions on the future of the Philippines. Democracy in the country is still in its infancy, having been established in 1986 after the fall of Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship. Will Duterte’s intense populism set a trend towards a new way of governing, or will it plunge the country into tyranny once again? Duterte’s motion towards reinstating the death penalty will probably be an indicator of the answer in the near future.

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