By Gwynne Dyer
PHILIPPINE President Rodrigo Duterte once said that Ferdinand Marcos, who was overthrown by the first non-violent revolution (‘People Power’) in 1986, would have been the Philippines’ best president “if he did not become a dictator.” Just as Duterte himself had the potential to be the Philippines’ best president if he had not become a mass murderer.
He doesn’t react well to criticism, either. Last month the International Criminal Court began to investigate a complaint by a Filipino lawyer that the extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s anti-drug war (now 8,000 and counting) amount to ‘crimes against humanity’. He responded by declaring that the Philippines would not longer accept the authority of the world tribunal.
On Sunday he went further, urging other countries to withdraw from ICC too: “Get out, get out, it’s rude.” Rude? That’s a bit rich coming from a man who has called former US president Barack Obama, former US ambassador Philip Goldberg, and even the Pope “a son of a whore”, but Duterte does not suffer from an excess of self-awareness.
Less than two years into a six-year term, he has already threatened to pull out of the United Nations too. His main mode of speech is stream-of-consciousness, so he doesn’t necessarily mean what he says, but you can never be sure. He is not unintelligent, but the one constant that shapes everything he says and does is his tough-guy persona.
That’s what Filipinos love him for (last year he had a 91 percent approval rating), but the problem is that he really is a tough guy – and not in a good sense. He graduated from law school and became a prosecutor in his home city of Davao, the biggest city in the southern island of Mindanao. It was then the most violent city in the country, and he set out to tame it.
It is not clear when Duterte decided that a death squad was needed to accomplish that task, but he makes no secret of its existence. In fact, he boasts about it, and sometimes hints that he did some of the killing himself. He became the mayor of Davao in 1988, and claims that 1,700 suspected criminals were killed on his watch.
Most of them were street kids – petty thieves and small-time drug dealers – but it did work, after a fashion: Davao is now reputed to be the safest city in the country. And it was his promise to do the same thing country-wide that won him the presidency in 2016 with 39 percent of the vote, almost twice as many votes as the nearest runner-up among the five candidates.
It would have made more sense if the Philippines was an ultra-violent country overrun by crime and drugs, but it isn’t. It is a profoundly unequal country whose politics has been dominated by a privileged and largely hereditary elite, but neither the crime rate nor drug usage is significantly higher than in other southeast Asian countries.
Amphetamine use (the Filpino drug of choice) is around the same level as in the United States or Australia, and opioids and cocaine are virtually absent in the country. The murder rate is around the same level as the United States: four per 100,000 people in 2015, six per hundred thousand in 2016 (due to Duterte’s killing spree).
In less than two years in office, Duterte has presided over the extrajudicial murders of some 8,000 people, most of them drug-users who do little harm except to themselves. It is a classic displacement activity: the real problems are corrupt politicians and police and income disparities so huge that a quarter of the population lives in absolute poverty, but it’s much easier to wage a war on drugs and crime.
Displacement tactics are quite common in politics (like Donald Trump promising to bring back millions of lost American jobs from foreign countries when most of them were really destroyed by automation). But the pity of it is that Rodrigo Duterte, for all his bombast and vainglory, had other qualities that would have been very useful in the presidency.
He is an honest man, as Filipino politicians go, and he has a real empathy with the poor. During the Marcos dictatorship he protected opposition protesters in Davao, and he is gay- and Muslim-friendly in a country that has little tolerance for either. He calls himself a ‘socialist’, but the city of Davao achieved the highest economic growth rate in the country under his mayorship.
Alas, Duterte is also a mass murderer (he has said he will sign a pardon for himself “for the crime of multiple murder” before he leaves office.) He has become addicted to the cheap popularity he gets from saying and doing shocking things, and lacks the discipline to work on the country’s real problems.
He is a disaster for the Philippines, but that’s probably where the damage ends. And although he occasionally talks about abolishing the Congress and leading a self-appointed “revolutionary government”, he is unlikely to be able to carry it off, because by then he won’t be popular any more. The Philippines will not prosper under his rule.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries