Moment that mattered:Rodrigo Duterte is elected as president of the Philippines
It was obvious to me from the start of the campaign that Duterte would be the runaway winner,” says Solita Collas-Monsod. “He was not my candidate. And two months after he took power, I am still not convinced that he will make a good president. You need a cool head to be able to make changes and he doesn’t have that. He’s all shoot-from-the-hip.”
On 9th May, Filipinos went to the polls and delivered a landslide victory to Rodrigo Duterte. The wildcard candidate gathered 16.6 million votes – six million more than his closest rival, Mar Roxas, who had been endorsed by the incumbent president. Seven weeks later Duterte was sworn in at the Malacañang Palace in Manila.
“Throughout the campaign, the mood in the country was one of absolute excitement because he was something new,” recalls Collas-Monsod, a professor emeritus, newspaper columnist and former government minister. “It’s the Trump phenomenon all over again – he’s not cut from the ordinary cloth. But new is not always better.”
With his contentious rhetoric, the former mayor of Davao – the Philippines’ fourth most populous city – drew international attention during his election campaign. He called Pope Francis a “son of a whore” for causing traffic jams during his visit to Manila and he boasted about his Viagra-powered sexual prowess. In April, he sparked outrage when he made a “joke” about the 1989 rape and killing of an Australian missionary during a prison riot. “I was mad she was raped, but she was so beautiful. I thought, the mayor should have been first. What a waste,” he said at a campaign rally. Collas-Monsod downplays Duterte’s verbal outbursts. “A lot of the things he says are just posturing,” she says. “I was hoping this would go away but he likes audience approval. He says these ridiculous things and everybody laughs. It’s like a show – it’s entertainment.”
But his first two months in office have also given Collas-Monsod grave cause for concern. During his campaign, Duterte branded himself as the anti-crime candidate, swearing to take on the illegal drug trade in a way that earned him the nicknames ‘The Punisher’ and ‘Duterte Harry’. During his time as mayor of Davao, more than 1,400 people – mostly small-time criminals and street children – were killed by vigilante death squads. While Duterte has denied allegations of involvement with these groups, he has condoned their activities publicly more than once. He pledged to kill 100,000 criminals if he became president and dump their bodies in Manila Bay so that the “fish will grow fat”.
The first seven weeks of Duterte’s presidency have seen a worrying proliferation of killings by police and vigilantes. On 22nd August, the Philippines’ national police chief said that 712 suspected drug dealers had been killed in police operations since Duterte was sworn in. A further 1,067 people were reported to have been killed by vigilantes: a “kill list” maintained by the Daily Inquirer newspaper claims that many of the victims were drug users rather than dealers.
“There is a lot of collateral damage,” says Collas-Monsod. “Duterte seems to think that drug use and drug pushing are equal crimes in the eyes of the law – that’s crazy. I’m very upset at how the rule of law is not being followed, I’m very upset at the vigilantism that has been happening. This is not the Filipino way.”
“It’s the Trump phenomenon all over again – he’s not cut from the ordinary cloth. But new is not always better”
Duterte has been unapologetically fanning the flames of violence. On 1st July, he told police officers to “do your duty, and if in the process you kill 1,000 persons because you were doing your duty, I will protect you”. On 7th August, he gave a talk in which he listed dozens of officials including seven judges who he claimed were linked to the illegal drug trade. In a letter to the president, supreme court chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno pointed out that one of these judges had been dead for more than eight years. She noted that several judges did not deal with drug cases at all. “It would be helpful to know the specifics on how judges without jurisdiction over drug cases influence the drug trade in their localities,” she added dryly.
“I have no idea where he gets his information and I cannot understand why he doesn’t try to validate it,” says Collas-Monsod. “It worries me, because these people might be innocent, yet they become targets for the vigilantes.”
Despite the violence, Duterte’s most recent approval rating, released on 20th July, was a historic high of 91 percent. But Collas-Monsod expects the honeymoon period to be over by the end of the year. “Duterte was the favourite candidate across the social economic classes. The highest social class is now suffering from a ‘What have I done?’ shock. In the other classes, I expect it will take more time for an awakening. If there is more abuse, my countrymen won’t be closing their eyes forever,” she says.
Still, Collas-Monsod stresses that Duterte has made some positive changes too. For one, he has stood by his pledge to stand up to the mining industry by appointing an environmentalist as minister of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. He has also appointed a former peasant leader as the secretary of agrarian reform. “There are some positives, but at this point the negatives outweigh them,” Collas-Monsod says. “I do think that the negatives have a chance to be corrected because Duterte seems to be a creature who will listen to public opinion. He’s like a little boy. He’s not affected by what his advisers tell him – what will affect him is what the people think.”
She hopes the not-too-distant memory of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled from 1965 to 1986 and was known for his brutality and corruption, will help Duterte to steer clear of becoming a similar type of strongman. “Marcos said if you give up some of your freedom you will get more development,” she says. “We learned – though we are forgetting – that he not only took our freedom away, he took our growth too, because the Philippines’ economy collapsed. I think Duterte knows that.
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