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Portrait of Rodrigo Duterte - President of the Philippines

Portrait of Rodrigo Duterte - President of the Philippines
 François-Xavier Bonnet
Geographer, associate researcher at Irasec

The Philippines is far away and the country’s political culture is not well known in France. Rodrigo Duterte, the "strong man" of Manila, is the typical example of a leader who came to power through the ballot box but whose exercise of power, of unprecedented brutality, breaks with democratic traditions. François-Xavier Bonnet, associate researcher with the Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia (Irasec), allows us to better understand where Rodrigo Duterte comes from and what he represents.

Michel Duclos, Geopolitical Special Advisor, editor of this series.

Rodrigo Duterte, elected on 9 May 2016 with 39% of the votes (the vote is in one round) is probably the most controversial President in Philippine history. Alternately nicknamed by the Western media the "Trump of the Philippines", "Dirty Harry", "The Punisher" or even, in the newspaper Libération, the "serial killer", Rodrigo Duterte built his entire election campaign on an unorthodox program to eradicate criminal activities, particularly drug-related ones, and to restore security within three to six months. He also proposed to eliminate corruption among civil servants, to simplify and accelerate administrative procedures, to allow for divorce and same-sex marriage, to improve traffic in Greater Manila, to reduce inequalities in rural areas (agrarian reform), to improve the speed of the Internet, etc. This catalogue of heterogeneous measures enabled candidate Duterte to "cast a wide net" and speak to all classes of society. His charisma as an orator combined with a strong dose of humor and machismo, along with a very strong presence on social networks, can explain his excellent scores in the election, in all social classes.

An unyielding mayor in a violent city

Rodrigo Duterte, born in 1945 and son of a former governor of the province of Davao (on the southern island of Mindanao), spent his entire political career in Davao City. In 1986, he was elected deputy mayor, and then mayor of this city, and remained so for 22 years. In the late 1980s, Davao City was called "Little Nicaragua" because communist and Muslim guerrillas sent death squads there to assassinate soldiers, politicians, businessmen and other "enemies of the people", and crime syndicates took advantage of this chaos.

Rodrigo Duterte's reputation grew because of his ability, thanks to a carrot and stick approach, to transform Davao City into a city with a flourishing economy, where the safety of both the people and property was ensured, on an island ravaged by various guerrillas. The first strategy - the carrot - aimed to sign secret peace agreements between the City Hall of Davao and various rebel groups that stipulated, for instance, that Davao City was a neutral area that could be crossed by the rebels as long as they left their weapons at the entrance of the territory.

The undisciplined who wanted to discipline his people switched, against all odds, from the position of "local potentate" to that of father of the nation.

The dark side of Rodrigo Duterte’s pragmatism - the stick - targeted the criminal underworld and drug offenders. Human rights organizations, both local and international, as well as parliamentary inquiries shed light on the presence of death squads, composed of former soldiers, police officers and rebels, who killed criminals and delinquents whose names were on lists read out on the radio by the mayor of Davao a few days earlier. To date, no investigation has been able to definitively prove that Duterte was leading these death squads. Between 1998 and 2014, no fewer than 1,424 people were murdered by these squadrons, including 132 children.

The strong man of Davao, who is very open about the fact that he was undisciplined during his youth (he was expelled twice from high school, and once from a private university), was special advisor on security issues to President Gloria Arroyo (2001-2010). He was later elected on slogans such as: "I was able to develop Davao, I will develop the whole nation". Or: "if necessary, I will impose martial law to establish discipline, the martial law under President Marcos was a good thing for the country". Thus, the undisciplined who wanted to discipline his people switched, against all odds, from the position of "local potentate" to that of father of the nation. The use of possessive pronouns in his speeches is one of the President’s trademarks: "my police", "my soldiers", "my city", etc. are all clues hinting at the fact that Rodrigo Duterte has not yet donned his presidential clothes, and remains first and foremost the mayor of Davao. In fact, he returns to Davao very often and spends as little time as possible at the presidential palace (Malacanang) in Manila, because he can only sleep in his bed in Davao- or so he says. 

"The war on drugs", a political weapon?

"I promise you blood, the bay of Manila will be covered with corpses and the fish will grow fat", claimed candidate Duterte during his campaign. And in fact, a key element of the President's program, "the war on drugs", was immediately implemented. To date, since 1 July 2016, 108,059 anti-drug operations have been carried out (almost 40% of which since the end of 2017), resulting in the arrest of 155,193 people and the killing of 4,854 people during these police operations. Yet human rights organizations estimate that more than 12,000 people have been summarily executed by death squads. In less than two years, President Duterte's "war on drugs" thus exceeded the number of summary executions committed during the 14 years of President Marcos' dictatorship.

Yet, beyond statistics, the fact that the "war on drugs" was used as a political strategy to eliminate both national and local opponents to power seems to be confirmed. The first victim was Senator Leila De Lima, former Chair of the Human Rights Commission and then Justice Secretary under the Aquino administration (2010-2016). Rodrigo Duterte's number one enemy was accused of controlling the archipelago's drug trade and was incarcerated in February 2017. Similarly, the mayor of the city of Iloilo, Jed Mabilog, in exile in Japan, is accused of protecting drug trafficking in the Visayas. Mr Mabilog is a cousin of former President of the Senate and Liberal Party chairman Franklin Drilon. For many observers, there is no doubt that the government is attacking Mabilog in order to try to intimidate Senator Drilon, the President's leading critic. Vice President Leni Robredo is not spared either. Indeed, since August 2018, her brother-in-law, Butch Robredo, has been accused by President Duterte of leading a mafia controlling drug trafficking in Bicol province, and more particularly in the city of Naga.

Other personalities opposed to the "war on drugs", but not accused of protecting mafias, were targeted by President Duterte in 2018. The first was Maria Lourdes Sereno, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Ms Sereno has been President Duterte’s prime target since he took office in June 2016. The latter not only insulted her, but went so far as to call her "a personal enemy" in some of his speeches.

President Duterte’s goal is not only to fight Ms Sereno herself: his ambition is ultimately to control the Supreme Court in order to weaken it, and limit the opposition to the constitutional reform that could take place after the midterm elections in May 2019. This would also be a way for him to protect himself from any potential legal proceedings at the end of his term in office. To this end, and as a first step, in March 2018, he officially declared that the Philippines was leaving the International Criminal Court (effective as of March 2019). Then, from 2019 to 2022, he will appoint several judges to replace those who are retiring. In 2022, the Supreme Court will thus be composed almost exclusively of judges related to Rodrigo Duterte (13 out of 15 judges).

In less than two years, President Duterte's "war on drugs" thus exceeded the number of summary executions committed during the 14 years of President Marcos' dictatorship.

Senator Antonio Trillanes IV is yet another figure targeted by this administration. The latter, along with Senator De Lima and Ms Sereno, was one of the very first to oppose President Duterte's "war on drugs" head-on, and to request the intervention of the International Criminal Court (ICC). This former naval officer, who led two attempted coups (in 2003 in Oakwood, and in 2007 at the Peninsula Hotel in Makati) against President Gloria Arroyo’s administration (2001-2010), was elected Senator in 2007 while he was still in prison. In 2011, the Aquino administration granted a general amnesty to the 277 mutineers, including Senator Trillanes. In one of his speeches in Davao, President Duterte acknowledged, before later retracting, that his only target was his personal enemy Senator Trillanes, and not other former mutineers, some of whom are his friends and in government.

When officials of government agencies cannot be dismissed, Parliament, which is mainly pro-Duterte, uses pressure tactics such as intimidation and humiliation, through the vote on budget. Thus, the Chair of the Human Rights Commission, Jose Luis Martin "Chito" Gascon is the first to criticize the "war on drugs". In this respect, he is the most exposed personality to President Duterte’s wrath. Unable to make Mr Gascon leave through legal means, the deputies of the majority voted a ridiculous budget for the Commission: ₱1000, i.e. €20, for the year 2018! Pressure from the street, from the Catholic Church, from left-wing organizations and the intervention of the Senate (the sister of former Senate President Koko Pimentel is the Deputy Director of the Human Rights Commission) forced deputies to propose a more reasonable budget, although still lower than the real needs. 

Press freedom in danger?

While political figures are being attacked and harassed by the administration, the media have also become a recurring target of the President's diatribes. Indeed, one of the two major private television channels, ABS-CBN, owned by one of the most powerful families in the Philippines, the Lopez, is accused by the President of being biased, given that it refused to broadcast its campaign clips during the 2016 elections. In retaliation, Mr Duterte promised not to renew the franchise allowing the channel to broadcast its programs. This franchise is due to expire in March 2020, and requires a law passed in Parliament. Conversely, the other major private channel, GMA-7, easily obtained the renewal of its franchise for a period of 25 years.

In the front line against the "war on drugs", the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper became President Duterte's favorite target.

The written press is not spared either. Since its creation after the 1986 revolution against Marcos, the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), which belongs to the Prieto-Romualdez family, faced threats, intimidation etc. from all of the the succeeding administrations of the past 32 years. In the front line against the "war on drugs", the newspaper became President Duterte's favorite target. In 2017, the PDI was boycotted by advertising companies, which led to the depreciation of its value and the acceleration of its acquisition by President Duterte’s very close friend, the businessman Ramon S. Ang. The latter, who is the 11th richest man in the Philippines, was one of the main funders of Rodrigo Duterte's election campaign.

In January 2018, it was Rappler’s turn (another highly critical media) to be targeted by the Duterte administration. The founders (Maria Ressa and Glenda Gloria) of this online magazine, which specializes in investigative journalism, are accused by the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) of circumventing the anti-dummy law. Indeed, according to the SEC, Rappler's real owners are in fact American, thanks to complex financial arrangements. Yet the Constitution of the Philippines does not allow foreign investors to own more than 40% of their own investment (Philippine partners must obtain at least 60% of the shares). The Rappler trial began in October 2018, and the two founders are potentially facing between five and 15 years in prison.

The rise of the military

When journalists asked about the reasons for the government's "militarization", President Duterte ostensibly replied: "The military, by definition, obey the leader. They do not ask questions, they execute, they are disciplined and efficient. Unlike civilians who criticize, chat and delay projects." The military and the police are de facto the Duterte presidency’s spoiled kids.

Indeed, since 2018, uniformed services personnel (including customs and coastguard officers) had their salaries doubled, as promised by candidate Duterte. Moreover, nearly 65 retired army and police colonels and generals have been appointed to various government positions. These positions range from director to minister (Secretary). Thus, ministerial positions normally held by civilians, such as in the Department of Social Welfare and Development, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, or the Department of the Interior and Local Government, are held by generals.

The military and the police are de facto the Duterte presidency’s spoiled kids.

This rise in the army's power was followed by the resignation of most of the communist Secretaries in government. As a token of the Duterte government's desire to make peace with the world's oldest Maoist guerrillas, the latter were appointed to important ministerial position, such as in the Department of Agrarian Reform and the Department of Labor and Employment. However, the honeymoon between the Philippine Communist Party (PCP) led by Jose Maria Sison (Rodrigo Duterte's Political Science professor in the 1960s) and the government was short-lived. As early as November 2017, President Duterte officially qualified the CPP and its armed wing the New People's Army (NPA) as terrorist organizations, and threatened his former teacher (in exile in Holland).

A pragmatic foreign policy?

Beyond the insults - and there are many in the President's speeches - against the United States in general and President Obama in particular (despite an admiration for Donald Trump), the European Union and human rights organizations, three phenomena seem to be emerging: a distancing of the United States, along with a spectacular thaw in the country’s relations with China (but also with Russia), and a clear desire to strengthen defense and security cooperation with certain countries in the ASEAN.

At first, it could seem like this change of direction in Philippine foreign policy is linked to President Duterte's mood, as he reacts to criticism from the United States, Europe and the United Nations about the thousands of deaths and human rights violations linked to his war on drugs. However, a second layer of analysis reveals a much deeper underlying ideology. Indeed, President Rodrigo Duterte considers himself a disciple of the nationalist diplomat and academic Renato Constantino (1919-1999).

Constantino had a long history of anti-colonial resistance. Before the Second World War, when he was a Law student at the University of the Philippines and editor of the Philippine Collegian student newspaper, he denounced the atrocities committed by Americans during the war between the Philippines and the United States. He was arrested for this offense by the American authorities, and released after demonstrating that he had used open sources published in the United States. During the Second World War, he became one of the leaders of a spy network against Japanese forces. Then, after the independence, Constantino very quickly rose through the ranks of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

President Duterte seems to be applying Renato Constantino's concepts with pragmatism.

The young diplomat then started to advocate for an independent Philippine foreign policy. This independence was to be reflected in a distancing of the United States and in the development of relations with mainland China and the Soviet Union. However, in the context of the late 1940s and early 1950s, he was accused of being pro-communist and had to resign from the Department. As professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines, Constantino deconstructed colonization in his many books, and rewrote the history of American colonization in the Philippines from a nationalist point of view. His criticism later extended to the topic of globalization.

President Duterte seems to be applying Renato Constantino's concepts with pragmatism. Contrary to what was feared at the beginning of his mandate, there should be no diplomatic break with the United States, but rather a rebalancing of relations with China and perhaps Russia, as Constantino advocated. In this context, the President's threats to stop military exercises between the United States and the Philippines, to evacuate US forces stationed in Mindanao, to challenge the new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), signed in April 2014, and ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court of the Philippines in January 2016, can be interpreted as pressure tactics that could give him greater leeway in future negotiations.
The coming to power of Donald Trump, who refuses to speak out on human rights violations in the Philippines (and might even regret not being able to do the same in the United States), and the appointment of an American ambassador of South Korean origin, have significantly softened the relations between the two countries. The United States remains the country’s main historical partner, but China and Japan offer more generous funding for the big infrastructure projects planned by the Duterte administration.


Illustration : David MARTIN for l'Institut Montaigne.

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