How a Failed Peaceful Revolution Led to Rodrigo Duterte
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has confirmed that he killed three men during his time as mayor of Davao city, despite officials trying to downplay an earlier admission. Duterte’s comments might yet hurt his popularity but that seems unlikely.
Duterte’s national crusade has resulted in an alarming daily average of 34 drug war-related murders. Despite this death toll and international condemnation, public satisfaction with his anti-drug war is at a significantly high rate of 78%.
How can this be explained in a country that a mere 30 years ago brought down a dictator without resorting to violence? How could a nation that inspired the world with its peaceful “People Power” revolution now welcome a return to the state-sanctioned murders of the martial-law era of 1972-1981?
Duterte’s rise is an evolving lesson in the vulnerability of democracies in the face of a neglected public. The democratic institutions of the Philippines have little power when faced with a populist president determined to channel frustrations into immediate actions.
In 1986, millions of Filipinos ended Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship through sustained civil resistance against government violence and electoral fraud. This culminated in a massive peaceful protest in the capital along Epifanio Delos Santos Avenue (EDSA). The event is now popularly known as the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution.
Marcos was ousted after 21 years in power. He had been democratically elected as president in 1965, but essentially ruled as a dictator from 1972 to 1986.
To the disappointment of many, an elite-dominated democracy replaced Marcos’ authoritarian rule. From 1987, a small number of families started to restore their control of the government and rotate the seats of power among themselves. They included the Marcos family, who returned from exile in 1991 and were welcomed by their allies.
In the public imagination, the promises of the People Power Revolution went beyond restoring democratic institutions. The narrative went like this: a return to democracy would secure prosperity and security for everyone. The overall framework and various social justice provisions of the 1987 Philippine Constitution clearly reflect this.
But three decades later, the post-EDSA pact is far from being fulfilled.
A neglected public
The post-EDSA leadership has failed to solve many of the problems that concern Filipinos. Despite promising national growth rates, the gains appear to have largely benefited the rich. More than 26 million Filipinos remain impoverished. And unemployment rates are said to be the worst in Asia.
This widening gap between rich and poor, recurrent domestic economic crises, epidemic levels of corruption and failed attempts to significantly reduce criminality, have left the public deeply frustrated. Surveys in recent decades have consistently shown that these are the most urgent national concerns for many Filipinos.
The 1986 revolution, once a symbol of the promise of democracy and prosperity, is now synonymous in the Filipino popular imagination with the dysfunctional transport system in Metro Manila.
National commemorations of the EDSA consensus have become officially important, but in the public imagination they tell the tale of how promises are meant to be broken.
Amid political and economic exclusion and malaise came Duterte. He offered empathy to the economic strugglers and protection from the violence of criminals and politicians. His was a twin campaign narrative of care and power. His supporters often highlighted how they felt that Duterte truly cared for them.
And he was not just all talk. Duterte is seen as a man of action: decisive and quick. His “authenticity” is manifest in his everyday language coupled with humour that comes from the streets.
Duterte articulated the public’s deep-seated feelings of precariousness and powerlessness using rhetoric they could relate to. His campaign rallies, which many proclaimed as a marvel to behold, showed the rapport between the candidate and his supporters.
Many felt that Duterte rose from the ranks of ordinary citizens despite coming from a traditional political family and holding various political offices for 30 years. This is especially evident in his overwhelming support in the southern Philippines, as the first president from a region long neglected by the capital.
How did it come to this?
When democracy doesn’t deliver, its legitimacy becomes difficult to defend. And when successive elite-dominated governments have used democracy for their own ends, the balance tilts towards authoritarianism.
Under post-EDSA democracy the richest families amassed more wealth than ever while poverty, hunger, homelessness, and crime continued to afflict ordinary Filipinos. It’s not difficult to imagine why some are nostalgic for the authoritarian past. Although national statistics show otherwise, people felt those were the country’s golden years.
Extrajudicial killings are a regular feature of post-EDSA governments as they were of the martial law years. Examples include the 1987 Mendiola massacre, 2004 Hacienda Luisita massacre and 2009 Maguindanao massacre, to name a few.
Perpetrators have not been brought to justice. Even before Duterte, the Philippines was known as the country with the worst state of impunity. Government critics were the usual victims until Duterte took aim at alleged drug dealers and users.
In my fieldwork in a massive poor urban community in Quezon City, residents have welcomed Duterte’s war on drugs. They now feel more secure in what they call their “drug-infested community” even though drug use has substantially declined compared to previous decades, according to one village official.
Residents argue that their perceptions of community security are just as important as the numbers in government records. For people to feel safe in a city where 92% of villages face drug-related crimes and in a nation where crimes against persons and property are rising is no easy thing.
When Duterte’s campaign translates to perceived everyday safety, it is no wonder that drug-war murders have not met considerable resistance.
Anyone with experience of the country’s institutions of justice knows how elusive criminal justice is. Around 80% of drug cases end up being dismissed and it may take a decade to achieve a conviction.
There are many reasons for this, but Duterte’s narrative that drug lords are so powerful that they can influence even the judiciary is not far-fetched. Most people do not trust the judiciary and many are convinced that power and money are needed to claim justice.
Previous administrations also made a mockery out of the national justice system; even convicted corrupt politicians enjoy their freedom while innocents languish in jail. A corruption whistleblower, Jun Lozada, was recently convicted, while ex-president Gloria Arroyo was acquitted and set free.
The legislature has been used to turn issues of justice into a public circus, such as in the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Corona and the hearings on allegations of graft and corruption against former vice president Jejomar Binay.
Is it surprising then that Duterte’s supporters find calls to follow the rule of law and due process hypocritical? When institutions do not work, it becomes unreasonable to rely on them.
Duterte’s narrative plays on the temptations for a disgruntled public to claim swift justice. In the context of his rise to power, it’s no surprise that calls to respect human rights or the rule of law fall on deaf ears.
The election of Duterte may be seen as the nadir, but possibly also a turning point, in the long-standing democratic deficit in Asia’s oldest democracy. His rejection of the rule of law and liberal democracy represents a rupture in the post-EDSA consensus.
It’s not a stretch to say that the Philippines’ elite democracy had it coming. The failure to deliver on the promises of the People Power revolution made the rise of Duterte politically possible.
Duterte Didn’t Like When I Called Him a ‘Strongman.’ Here's Why I Stand By My Story
Earlier this month, I authored a piece for TIME on a trend I see building in international politics today: the emergence of “strongmen” as national leaders in many countries. Among those I profiled were Russia’s President Putin, Egypt’s President Sisi, Turkey’s President Erdogan, Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. These are all leaders who’ve won elections in their countries while restricting basic freedoms to tighten their hold on power.
Over the past few days, President Duterte has more than once taken public exception to the article. “I am not a strongman,” he said during a speech in Davao City. “I have never sent anybody to jail for criticizing me. I said, for all I care a security guard, or police general, or a teacher, or a gardener can criticize me and bullshit me to no end. I will take that.” Then Mr Duterte added, “But if you’re a foreigner, that is another thing.”
To set the record straight, yes, Duterte won a fair election. So did Viktor Orban, Hungary’s self-proclaimed champion of “illiberal democracy.” Duterte is popular, and so is Vladimir Putin. And according to a 2018 report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), a source I consider highly credible, Duterte has “plunged the Philippines into its worst human rights crisis since the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and 1980s.”
By enabling extrajudicial killings by police and encouraging vigilante justice in his country, Duterte’s “war on drugs” has killed an estimated 12,000 people, including children, most of them poor people. The evidence suggests that some are drug dealers in need of prison, some are addicts in need of treatment, and some are innocent bystanders in need of protection. As for not sending anyone to jail for criticizing him, Senator Leila de Lima, Duterte’s most forceful critic, has been detained on drug charges that HRW says are “politically motivated.” Just this week, the Philippines’ Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, another fierce Duterte critic, was removed from her post following an 8-6 vote by her fellow justices; Duterte pushed hard for her ousting, calling himself an “enemy” of hers and threatening to forcibly remove her should it come to that.
I’m far from the only foreigner with opinions Duterte rejects. His government dismisses evidence of his drug war death toll, substantiated by international rights organizations, as “alternative facts.” He has tried to harass and intimidate United Nations officials charged with investigating the evidence.
Given that Mr. Duterte has made his reputation as a man who loves to talk tough, perhaps he likes being called a “strongman” a bit more than he’s willing to admit. He’s spent more time talking about it than I have.
One last note: a Time reader in the Philippines suggests my use of the term “strongman” reveals a bias against my own gender. Show me a female head of government anywhere in the world guilty of ordering human rights abuses on this scale and, in future, I’ll refer only to “strongpersons.”