It is difficult to avoid politics at Filipino social gatherings. This last festive season was no exception: at least five drug suspects were executed by police on Christmas Day alone. These were just the latest casualties in Rodrigo Duterte’s vicious war on drugs – a violent crackdown that has now claimed the lives of over 8000 people.
For months I have struggled to reconcile the contradictions between the professed life-affirming values of my devoutly Catholic loved ones and their profound admiration for the man who has unleashed a storm of violence across the Philippines. For one cousin, the brutality of the past year has not been enough; what the country needs, she tells me, are two more typhoons to ‘trim down’ the population. The poor, it seems, are superfluous mendicants hindering the country’s economic growth. My cousin thinks we need another Ferdinand Marcos. Or perhaps a Lee Kuan Yew who could transform us into a Singaporean utopia. It is not uncommon to hear such sentiments: from corporate boardrooms to impoverished slums, Duterte and his tough-on-drugs policies have been welcomed as a godsend. Even the Filipino diaspora came out in droves for the election, helping Duterte clinch a landslide victory.
Many of Duterte’s supporters wield substantial influence. Wildly popular slumdog-turned-millionaire-boxer-turned-senator Manny Pacquiao has repeatedly endorsed Duterte, claiming the president has the best interests of the country at heart. More recently, he supported Duterte’s threat to reintroduce martial law as a means to curb the country’s drug trade – a problem that is apparently so bad, it has become a threat to national security.
For Manila’s growing middle class, Duterte embodies change. Many are angry at the previous administrations for failing to deliver basic services like public transport or to establish a functioning government bureaucracy. For much of the diaspora who voted for Duterte, he represents a stabilising force in country that has changed both too much and far too little. And for the poor, residing in slums thick with petty crime, Duterte has inspired a perverse hope – that they too can become model Filipino citizens: disciplined, hard working and, above all, not addicted to shabu (low-grade crystal methamphetamine).
If one were to go by Duterte’s campaign rhetoric, shared widely on social media and in the tabloid press, shabu is the demon of all demons, responsible for the unnatural energy of gang rapists, thieves and other criminals.
Shabu does banish the desire for food and sleep. It is also incredibly cheap. That is why it is regularly used by the poorest of the poor to help them work long hours. Indeed, it has become the drug of choice for those struggling to survive – it allows pedicab drivers to stave of exhaustion and construction workers to survive long shifts in Manila’s poorly regulated building industry.
On the surface, the frustrations that have led to the current impasse appear misplaced. Much has been made of the country’s booming economy, with optimistic analysts situating the Philippines on a trajectory to ever-greater prosperity and stronger democratic institutions. But such an analysis disregards the country’s growing wealth divide, high rates of inflation and unemployment, and endemic corruption.
A visit to Manila is jarring: its skyline of corporate towers and empty condominiums, propped up by a relentless tide of speculation about ‘the next big thing in the Asian gambling industry’, stands in stark contrast to the ramshackle shanties that house millions of urban poor. Fancy malls stand next to overburdened trains, while pedicab and jeepney drivers ply their trade in traffic-choked streets. It is from this reality that Duterte has emerged as a political powerhouse.
But Duterte’s support base extends well beyond the capital. His message resonated most strongly in rural areas starved of development; here was a man with the accent of a commoner – a provinciano to boot – challenging the political establishment. For many, he became a quasi-messianic figure, promising peace, stability and change. He urged the masses to redirect their anger: the problems plaguing society, he proclaimed, stem not from the fat cats above, but from the shabu-worshipping rats even lower down the social ladder.
During the presidential campaign, Duterte positioned himself as a prophet of transformation: ‘Change is coming’ his slogan announced. Whether the consequences we are seeing now are what most had envisioned is a different matter. Perhaps there was no genuine expectation he would carry out the most brutal aspects of his campaign promises, such as the slaughter of all drug addicts and pushers.
In reality, no-one should be surprised. Duterte’s record as mayor of Davao, a position he held for almost three decades, said a great deal about how he would run the country. According to Duterte mythology, he transformed a gang-infested, crime-riddled backwater into a beacon of peace and prosperity. Duterte lent his support to the dreaded – yet also admired – Davao death squads, groups of vigilantes who ‘cleansed’ the streets of the (allegedly) drug-addicted poor, including children. Duterte has even admitted to killing many of them himself: ‘Actually, I was the most active,’ he said in one interview. ‘I even emptied two magazines of my .45 [handgun].’ Buried in the cowboy rhetoric was Davao’s history as a port city made prosperous less through Duterte’s iron fist than through its strategic economic location and its roots as a twentieth-century American colonial outpost.
Equally lost to his supporters is how overblown the actual issue of addiction is. The Dangerous Drugs Boards estimates about 1.4 million addicts, with numbers falling each year since 2004. This is far less than the three million claimed by Duterte during his campaign.
Neither the widely covered barbarism of Duterte’s mayoral exploits nor the hard facts of drug prevalence appear to be lessening his support. Despite considerable international scrutiny, Duterte continues to remain popular across all social classes, both domestically and within the diaspora; according to a recent media poll, 81 per cent of Filipinos indicated having ‘much trust’ in the president.
It is worth remembering that the techniques used for the drug war are not new, nor would they be particularly surprising to the general public. The Philippine National Police (PNP) seems to regard extrajudicial killings as a sad necessity in the battle to preserve Filipino society. In the absence of a properly functioning criminal justice system, impunity has become a sad reality. The drug war is only the tip of the extrajudicial iceberg; the murder and disappearance of journalists, activists and indigenous persons was a common practice well before Duterte came to power. By some counts, the country remains the second worst place in the world for journalists to practise their profession, topped only by Iraq.
What differentiates the conduct under Duterte is how the ‘cleansing’ is likened to a spiritual calling. Officers see themselves, in the words of one cited in the Guardian, as ‘angels that God gave talent to, you know, to get these bad souls back to heaven and cleanse them’.
The PNP offers a daily tally of the drug war’s victims, posting the numbers for all to see in public view, such as alongside Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), one of Manila’s major highways.
Duterte’s drug war is not unique (similar wars have been a staple in Latin America), but it is remarkable in terms of how quickly it has happened – Duterte only assumed office 30 June 2016 – and in how this manufactured crisis has been so successful in justifying exceptional mass violence against a mostly urban underclass.
Rodrigo Duterte is a man who has likened himself to Adolf Hitler and Idi Amin. These dramatic comparisons seem so absurd as to barely warrant a response, but it is important not to underestimate their role in normalising an authoritarian mythology – a key ingredient behind Duterte’s success. Others, too, have noted similarities: in a recent article for the Nation, Filipino academic and politician Walden Bello described the President as a ‘wildly popular fascist’.
But there is a closer historical parallel from which Duterte and his supporters have repeatedly, and selectively, drawn: the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
Duterte has openly praised Marcos as ‘the best president’ the country has ever had. His admiration for the dictator was made abundantly clear when he fulfilled his campaign promise to bury Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Cemetery of Heroes), an honour typically reserved for military veterans and celebrated political figures. The controversial transfer of Marcos’ remains from his family’s loyalist stronghold was in effect a reversal of historical memory – one reinforced by the near victory to the vice-presidency of the dictator’s son, Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr.
During his campaign, Duterte consciously cultivated an image of himself as a successor to Marcos. On top of an obsessive focus on the drug ‘crisis’, Duterte consistently attacked the feeble performance of the post-Marcos administrations – in particular that of his predecessor, Benigno Simeon ‘Noynoy’ Cojuangco Aquino III, whose parents were figureheads of the People Power Revolution (aka the EDSA Revolution), the mass movement that ousted Marcos in 1986. Playing off the Aquino administration’s failures, Duterte recast Marcos’ leadership as a golden era.
Yet Marcos’ twenty-year dictatorship (1965–86) was one of the most corrupt in recorded history. The regime left a legacy of staggering foreign debt, from which the country is still struggling to recover. The Marcos family personally pocketed tens of millions of dollars from World Bank loans, leading to crippling structural adjustment packages that continue to prevent desperately needed social reforms.
Hopes that the revolution would bring economic justice were short lived. By the 1990s, the business interests of the well-connected elite began to take precedence, leading to widespread privatisation of key industries and social services. The dismantling of the Marcos economy was in some ways easy, with everything associated with the state perceived as tainted by the dictatorship.
The shrinking of the public sector further weakened the state’s ability to carry out its basic functions. The post-Marcos administrations seemed unable or unwilling to address the structural defects of the economy (for instance, there were few incentives to promote domestic job growth through manufacturing and industry), resulting in swelling urban slums, high unemployment and large numbers of economic migrants. Land reform would be repeatedly stalled by the country’s traditional elites, sharpening urban-rural economic divides and limiting the potential for broad-based development. Alongside an apparently booming GDP, courtesy of a distorted real-estate market and service sector, there has been rising inequality and its attendant social impacts – crime and addiction.
The Philippines’ system of patronage politics, which necessitates the cultivation of relationships with social blocs organised around elite families, has undermined the effectiveness of state regulatory systems. The institutions left in place after the dictatorship are fragile at best; at worst they serve the interests of dynastic clans alienated by the Marcos regime. Many political parties continue to cater to these clans instead of developing coherent ideological platforms.
The most obvious example is the country’s barely functioning criminal justice system. Plagued by corruption and inefficiencies, the courts have helped to foster a culture of impunity. The country’s jail cells and rehabilitation centres are filled way beyond capacity: in Quezon City jail, some 3000 addicts have been stuffed into a facility built for just 800.
Far-right forces and Marcos loyalists have kept a low profile since the end of the dictatorship, but this has begun to change with the ascendance of Duterte and his supporters. The drug war’s agents of violence mirror those of the past: death squads made up of people as poor and desperate as their victims, husband-and-wife vigilante teams, corrupt police officers who are more intent on arresting civilians than cracking down on organised crime.
The methods being used to ‘cleanse’ the streets also carry echoes of the dictatorship. It was during the Marcos years that ‘desaparecidos’ (the disappeared) entered the Filipino lexicon, referring to the fate of left-leaning activists and Muslim separatists. The Marcos regime justified these practices by identifying communism as an internal threat requiring the restoration of ‘law and order’. Considered in this context, Duterte’s own appropriation of a law and order discourse is more than a little unnerving.
Surveying the performance of the Filipino state over the last thirty years affords some understanding of the current neo-Marcosian revival. The transition from authoritarian rule featured contradictory processes of democratisation and economic liberalisation, ensuring the entrenchment of old and new elites. The radical aspirations of the People Power movement were abandoned for a liberal democracy that afforded few opportunities to the majority. For those faced with this dispiriting reality, nostalgia for the imagined stability of the past is perhaps understandable. Duterte’s spectacle of violence signals change, however bloody, and this holds more appeal than the stasis that has defined recent decades.
But Duterte, like Trump, is far from the anti-status quo politician he claims to be. His selection of cabinet members was based not on merit, but on the ‘personal trust’ earned while he was mayor of Davao. His cabinet includes former college classmates, fraternity connections and business people who financed his campaign. Moreover, while he rode in on a populist platform of alleviating poverty via curing the nation’s drug problem, there is little sign of an alternative to the economic approaches of previous administrations.
Unsurprisingly, the country’s wealthy have been unaffected by the rise of a political authoritarianism that combines the slow violence of structural poverty with the horrific violence of the drug war. Figures like Don Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala and Enrique Razon Jr, two of the Philippines’ richest tycoons, have been eager to emphasise stability. ‘[T]he Philippines is still the same Philippines as it was in the last two or three years,’ Razon has said. Duterte, he continues, is ‘doing a very serious job with what he has promised to do … no-one can fault him for delivering all these promises.’ In some ways, he is correct: there has been no significant change in economic policy, and the financial priests of Bloomberg expect a peso rebound once investors get over the president’s most outrageous statements (and the scrutiny brought on by Amnesty International’s recent damning investigation).
In other words, while the country is hell for the drug-addicted poor, it is safe for big business and foreign investment.
Further complicating matters is the Philippines’ position in a delicate geopolitical chessboard. A real novelty has been Duterte’s direct critiques of the US – or rather the Obama administration – in the face of a traditionally pro-American population. Beneath the inflammatory remarks (for example, calling the American ambassador, among other things, a ‘gay … son of a whore’) is the very real possibility that the Philippines will reorient itself toward Russia and China. The US under Obama withdrew some economic and military aid over ‘human rights violations’, but the US under Trump is unlikely to bring much pressure to bear. Indeed, Trump has praised Duterte’s tough-handed approach, providing something of a mirror into American politics.
In many ways, Duterte is part of a global shift toward nationalism and authoritarianism. His repeated snubbing of the United Nations, for example, echoes the bravado of other headstrong leaders like Putin to Netanyahu.
It is in moments like these that one wonders what has become of the country’s left – a social force that was once at the fore of the struggle against authoritarianism. The answer is unexpected: Duterte has, to date, had the support of the largest organised presence on the far left.
The Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), one of the longest-running communist insurgencies in Asia, was once driven by the hope of a peasant-led democratic revolution. In part, it was Duterte’s anti-imperialist and nationalist image that originally attracted the CPP to his banner; others had cultivated a working relationship with him when he was mayor of Davao. Moreover, he promised peace talks with the CPP, offering members of the party cabinet positions in return for their support. Sympathisers of the party, who prefer to call themselves ‘national democrats’, remain in Duterte’s cabinet as of this writing.
But the CPP was in a weak position entering into negotiations, with NPA recruitment and trust in the left at an all-time low. Indeed, the CPP’s recent closeness to the administration was perhaps driven less by ideology than by organisational self-preservation and the realities of sustaining an armed rebellion.
Having been a key figure in the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship, the party refused to break away from Duterte even after his endorsement of Marcos’ hero’s burial, and even when it has become obvious that the peace process is falling apart.
Tensions over economic policy and political prisoners strained the alliance further, and left the CPP waxing hot and cold: they celebrated Duterte’s anti-US posturing, even as they condemned the country’s ‘worsened impunity’. Ultimately, anti-imperialism and the fate of its own members appear to have overtaken concern of the welfare of non-party members. Indeed, the CPP’s presence, even among the urban poor that it organises (at times derogatorily referred to as the ‘lumpenproletariat’), and the main target of the drug war, is characterised by an instrumentalist approach.
In early February, the CPP cancelled a unilateral ceasefire, originally presented as a gesture of confidence in the Duterte administration’s ‘peace talks’; they failed to mention the military attacks on the NPA’s rural strongholds as a reason for the loss of trust.
Shortly after, the government declared an all-out war on the Maoist rebels, which will continue to have dire implications for human rights in the country and for the left more broadly. Duterte has since rescinded diplomatic immunity for the party’s leading negotiators, threatening to arrest them – it’s an unprecedented move.
It is not clear what the CPP leadership plans to do next, or whether there is pressure from within the party’s ranks to reassess its recent positions and alliances.
What is clear is that the disorientation of the (broadly defined) left created a vacuum in the political landscape, allowing figures like Duterte to emerge. While smaller leftist groups, some of which broke away from the CPP in the 1990s, do exist, they are scattered and politically weak. Some new political initiatives have arisen, such as the #BlockMarcos campaign in response to the Marcos burial, suggesting possibilities for the renewal of progressive politics and a reimagining of democracy in the wake of the failures of the EDSA. It is too soon to tell how successful they might be at contesting the popular consensus around Duterte; as in the days of People Power, established elites might well take the reins of any future resistance to the current administration and its drug war.
In the Philippines, real change is an uncertain prospect.
If you enjoyed this essay, buy the issue