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Explaining the Inexplicable: The Duterte Phenomenon

Since being elected three months ago as president of the Philippines with 39 percent of the vote, Rodrigo Duterte has publicly called for the killing of drug users and sellers. To date, over 2,500 people have been killed, for the most part extrajudicially. Another 700,000 have surrendered themselves to the police in fear of being killed. Duterte has compared himself positively with Hitler, saying of 3 million drug users, “I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me].” He jokes about rape and threatens martial law if he is challenged. Atrocities such as these may seem inexcusable, yet Duterte currently enjoys approval ratings above 90 percent, well above those of other international leaders. With his cavalier personality, extreme far-right stances, and appeals to nationalistic foreign policy, he has assembled a following that reaches across all segments of Filipino society. The package deal of Duterte and drug killings seems to not have dissuaded them.

What does a politician do when an election is won? The morning after polls closed in the Philippines, as the results were coming in, Rodrigo Duterte must have realized he was going to be president. That morning, he went to the public cemetery in his home city of Davao, and cried on his mother’s grave, saying “Ma, please help me, I can’t believe this. Who am I? I’m just a nobody.”

It is this sort of authenticity, the sense that he is a normal and typical person, that propelled Duterte to the presidency. He eschews anything posh, curses at just about anybody (including President Obama), and flirts with women. For a political oddity, Duterte has been in power for a remarkably long time. He was the mayor of Davao City for over 20 years, where he created death squads and a militarized police force and advocated for the killing of drug users and sellers. He also established a drug treatment center and offered a monthly stipend to drug users who tried to quit, all while threatening these same people’s lives. He was even the first mayor to give representation to the indigenous and Muslim communities in his city and passed anti-discrimination and women’s rights laws. These contrasts exemplify a pattern of dangerous dissonance in the policies of Duterte. He is concerned with the well-being of his community, a group in which drug users clearly do not belong. Drugs, and anyone involved with them, are a scourge to Duterte — something to be wiped out. He seems to care about most of society at the cost of extreme persecution of a smaller group. This dialectic between perceived kindness and strength is where Duterte thrives; his campaign slogan, “Compassion and Courage,” suggests as much. What is distinctly lacking from these words is recognition of the dehumanization forced upon drug users by Duterte himself.

The location of the Philippines does not help the drug problem. Drug suppliers take advantage of the country’s geography for easy access to China and other countries. The Philippines is mostly ineffective and inefficient in policing the drug trade with a top-down strategy. A police force prone to taking bribes and reselling seized drugs presents major obstacles. In this case, there are three broad policy choices. One, to regulate drugs and attempt to build a healthy and legal framework for drug users and sellers. Two, to continue on with the current strategy of top-down drug enforcement. Three, to stage an all-out war. Duterte has opted for the third. Not only has he worked to destroy top-level drug syndicates, but he is also seeking to eliminate the market for drugs in the country by killing or imprisoning all drug users and sellers. These tactics, while not completely unfamiliar to the Philippines, are tolerated in part due to the large rise in crime over the past few years. Duterte, during his time as a mayor, hugely decreased crime in his city of Davao. He is now aiming for the same result nationally. The issue of urban crime and violence is one of special importance to the rich, whose support for Duterte can be traced to these priorities. The option of complete destruction has immense human costs and ignores the root of the issue: a dehumanization of drug users to the point of their lives being worthless. Creating effective drug policy is a challenge for most leaders, and while few choose paths as extreme as Duterte, the philosophy of drug users as submembers of society is widespread. The Philippines is not alone in its strategy for dealing with drugs, but its war is more public.

Duterte’s popular personality has fed into his foreign policy as well — he is pushing for a more sovereign state. Only recently, he cancelled joint Filipino-US military drills, saying that there will be one last exercise this week. Duterte stressed the importance of commercial agreements and cited the fact that “China does not want” the military exercises to happen. The new president has hinted at wanting new alliances with China and Russia, and he has been openly critical of US-centric foreign policy. The turn from the US seems based in assertion of sovereignty and need for economic benefit, but may be tangentially related to drug policy. All these actions go along with Duterte’s appeal to a common nationalism. To this point, Duterte has fought for the rights of overseas Filipino workers much more than the previous administration did. He immediately sent a high-level diplomatic mission to Saudi Arabia, the main country of destination for these workers, who are often underpaid and poorly treated yet contribute 8 percent of GDP in remittances. With over a quarter of the population living under the poverty line, the importance of advocating for these workers should not be understated. These policies reinforce Duterte’s position as a champion of the poor and the common people.

It seems as though nothing can forgive the humanitarian abuses that Duterte is largely responsible for initiating. As president, he has ignored murders and inflamed passions with hate speech. Many thousands of his citizens are dead, killed by vigilantes, their guilt predetermined. However, it must be understood that Duterte is using existing models of drug enforcement in an ultra-violent way. One cannot escape a certain hypocrisy in wondering why Duterte is popular and in implying that we would never support these sort of atrocities. To be clear, Duterte is not popular because of the killings — he is popular because he lowers crime, because he advocates for the poor, and because his citizens can see themselves in him. With these qualities in mind, it becomes easier to see why he is tolerated and, in many cases, celebrated.


About the Author

Bastien Ibri '19 is a Culture Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.