The Filipino president has murdered thousands but people still love him
It's no exaggeration to say that there are few political leaders more aggressive or contentious than Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines. Since Duterte assumed office back in June of 2016, the press has eaten up his controversial statements, often laced with extreme profanity. Duterte has expressed an ambition to clean up his crime-ridden nation and eliminate the predominantly Chinese drug cartels, by any means necessary. Despite his total disdain for diplomacy, Duterte's supporters are devoted to him. But over the last 30 years, and during his term, Duterte has allegedly been guilty of a number of brutal atrocities and human rights abuses. It has been estimated that approximately 7,000 people have died by his hand.
Born in Maasin on March 28, 1948, Duterte was the son of a lawyer and a school teacher. From an early age, he exhibited the kind of charisma that would later allow him to acquire power. He was no stranger to politics either: his father became the mayor of Danao and later the provincial governor of the Davao province, which allowed him to make a number of valuable connections thanks to his father's reputation and legacy.
He studied political science at the Lyceum of the Philippines University, graduating in 1968, before obtaining a law degree from San Beda College of Law in 1972. While on campus, he shot a fellow student who allegedly bullied him about his Visayan origin. When asked to comment on this incident, Duterte stated: "I'm used to shooting people. When we were about to graduate from San Beda, I shot a person." He declined to elaborate further apart from clarifying that the bully in question survived his gunshot wound.
His hands-on approach to crime and punishment could easily put one in mind of Dirty Harry or Judge Dredd. But as audacious as his methods were, they did little to slow his rise to political prominence. After working as a lawyer and prosecutor in Davao City, he decided to follow in his father's footsteps and run for mayor. He was elected in the wake of the Philippine Revolution of 1986, in which the autocrat Ferdinand Marcos and his regime was deposed and democracy was restored to the nation.
Marcos' administration tolerated gang violence and police corruption, and criminal syndicates were happy to take advantage of the widespread poverty in large urban centres in order to expand territory. Duterte became popular thanks to this tough stance and fiery personality, and went on to serve seven mayoral terms: a total of 22 years in office. During this time, he personally killed three kidnapping suspects at a police checkpoint, something which he candidly admitted to numerous times.
From then on, his incumbency only got bloodier. Although there's no doubt that the Philippines boasts high crime rates, particularly when it comes to rape and homicide charges, even the most hardline prosecutor would baulk at some of his methods. Yet Duterte has repeatedly stressed that he is the only man for the job, despite being dubbed as "The Punisher" by Time magazine. He has made no secret of the draconian tactics he has employed to counter narcotics.
In 2009, he stated: "If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination." That same year, a report by the Philippine Commission on Human Rights linked him with a number of extrajudicial killings of drug dealers and addicts via death squads, claiming that he was responsible for 1,400 executions in Davao before he assumed office.
Now that he is in power, his vitriol has only increased. He has promised to reinstate the death penalty and kill as many as 50,000 people if that's what it takes to keep the streets safe. He asked citizens to take it upon themselves to murder drug pushers ("if you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself"), stated that killing a criminal should not be illegal ("when you kill criminals that is not a crime against humanity, the criminals have no humanity") and stated that human rights are holding his policies back ("when I investigate the people from the commission of human rights and find out that they're conspiring against me ... if they are obstructing justice, you shoot them").
Yet despite all of this, a significant number of Filipinos still support him ardently, even when drug addicts have been condemned to death. Some have gone so far as to compare him to US president Donald Trump, another divisive and outspoken leader who has inspired a devoted following thanks in part to social media. Like Trump, many Filipinos saw Duterte as a maverick who worked outside the political establishment; someone who wasn't afraid to take extreme measures in the name of nationalist welfare.
The data speaks for itself. Upon inauguration, his trust rating stood at a shocking 91 per cent. According to a poll conducted by Pulse Asia in June 2017, 82 per cent of Filipino citizens surveyed stated that they trusted Duterte. Social Weather Station conducted its own survey and discovered that, of those polled, 54 per cent were "very satisfied" with the war on drugs, 30 per cent were "somewhat satisfied," four percent "somewhat dissatisfied", four percent "very dissatisfied", leaving eight per cent "undecided". How can a man who has been so criticised abroad be so beloved in the country where he commands total authority? The answer is that many feel that liberal and lucklustre law enforcement has led to civic chaos in the past, and even those Filipinos who don't agree with Duterte's extrajudicial methods have been willing to overlook them because of his social policies.
But this isn't to say that dissenters don't exist, or that Duterte's popularity hasn't wavered. Many rallied in mass protests on September 21 over the imposition of martial law in the city of Marawi and the censorship of Duterte's critics, as well as the fallout from the gruesome death of Kian delos Santos, a minor who was allegedly murdered by police officers.
Furthermore, Duterte's own son Paolo was himself implicated in drug smuggling and in September was forced to appear before the senate in a hearing to regarding his supposed links with Chinese triads. In response to the allegations involving his son, Duterte stated that he would step down as president if Paolo was proven to be corrupt, and ordered the Philippine Police to kill his children if they were involved in drugs trafficking. Duterte added that he was willing to show Paolo's body to his critics to prove his own zeal, stating "I can say to people 'There, you keep talking. There’s my son’s corpse.'"
The Philippines have often been characterised by political commentators as a place where the mistakes of politicians are easily forgiven compared to other nations, and where newly-elected officials often enjoy a honeymoon period when they enjoy a large amount of support. But even taking this into account, it seems surprising that Duterte still inspires so much loyalty, and that his actions and words have not provoked more outrage.
Perhaps this is indicative of a global political trend. The grandstanding, larger-than-life characters who make outrageous statements and enact controversial laws have become more prominent. Meanwhile, quieter, more moderate figures have faded into the background. Many Filipinos would argue that harsh measures are necessary, but it's difficult not to be alarmed by Duterte's methods and speeches, and wonder how many people will have to die in order to build his better world.
Featured illustration by Egarcigu