On May the 4th 2022, five days before the presidential elections in the Philippines, CETRI had a conversation with four members of Focus on the Global South to better understand Rodrigo Duterte’s legacy and the stakes surrounding his succession. This article is the first of a two-parts series derived from this conversation.
CETRI: At the end of last year, FOCUS published a series of articles on Duterte’s legacy called “Duterte and the Damage Done”. A few days before a crucial election that will determine the future of the Philippines “post-Duterte”, can you come back on some of the main elements that you raised in those articles?
Joseph Purugganan: I would like to start by mentioning that FOCUS has been documenting Duterte’s policies, particularly economic, environmental, and social policies as well as human rights issues, since he was elected in 2016. He ran for president on the slogan “change is coming”, positioning himself as a maverick politician apart from the traditional politics – even though he’s been a politician for many years prior to running for the Presidency – notably making the drug crisis and related criminality his number one issue. But more broadly, his campaign was hitting all the right notes, for example by promising to end contractualization, which was a big call from the labor sector, or by promising indigenous communities and environmental groups stronger regulations on mining. He couched all those promises on an anti-elite, anti-corporate rhetoric, that he backed up at the beginning with the appointment of the late Environment secretary Gina Lopez, for example, who tried to oppose mining projects (ultimately in vain). So aside from the campaign promises, there were some initial actions that led some groups to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Now if you look at his economic policy, while he was projecting a strongman approach to governance, his economic policy was basically the same neoliberal economic policy as before. He even said he would keep his hands off the economy, and leave that to the economic managers. And if you look at these economic managers, their qualifications and their background, you find, for example, consultants from the World Bank with a deep neoliberal profile. https://focusweb.org/dutertenomics-recipe-for-inclusive-development-or-deeper-inequality/
But of course, his centerpiece policy from the beginning was his so-called “war on drugs”. And faced with this, we joined a broad movement called the In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity (iDEFEND), which was very consistent from day one in highlighting issues of human rights and extrajudicial killings. But what we saw under Duterte’s six years term was really a demonization of human rights and constant attacks against human rights defenders, and from an early stage, even an attack on human rights institutions like the Commission on Human Rights. And this was done because it was largely these groups that represented a critical voice from the very start, in the otherwise, very popular administration of a very popular president like Duterte.
So in terms of human rights, his presidency was really a backpedaling, not only in terms of commitment to international human rights laws, where it is well known that the Philippines has historically supported very progressive positions, but also at the national level. This is not to say that there were no human rights violations, even state-committed, prior to Duterte. But it’s safe to say that it became really much worse, not only because of the war on drugs, a violent, deadly war that resulted in the deaths of around thirty thousand deaths according to human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. And other studies conducted by organizations like Philrights have also concluded that the war on drugs was really a war against the poor. That those targeted were the small time drug users or suspected drug users, while the big drug Lords were let free. https://www.philrights.org/the-killing-state-the-unrelenting-war-against-human-rights/
And then, of course, a big issue at the center of that war on drugs was what happened to Senator Leila de Lima. There are new developments now with two of the key state witnesses – one was a confessed drug Lord, the other was the chief of the Bureau of Correctional – actually recanting their earlier statements and now saying that they were forced by government officials – the Department of Justice Secretary was mentioned – to make false statements against de Lima, because she was challenging not just Duterte’s current war on drugs as the President, but also his record dating back to when he was the mayor of Davao and the death squads that he put in place to instill fear and try to establish his brand of peace and order in that city.
So it’s a backpedaling of commitments, it’s a worsening of the human rights situation which later on got merged into a very strong counterinsurgency narrative. Because at the international level there was strong pressure, or at least the pressure was heightening up in the UN Human Rights Council, for example, it pushed the Philippine Government to respond, and its response was to create and advance this narrative of denial, claiming that all these human rights concerns were not true, that there were just the handiwork of small but well-funded terrorist communist groups. So instead of addressing the human rights issues that were being raised to deflect it, it advanced a counter narrative that was really more about counter insurgency.
They were also saying to the international community that the drug crisis was something within the government’s powers to address, and that they were addressing it the way they saw fit. And secondly, they would also argue to have the mandate of the Filipino people by citing the high popularity and trust ratings of Duterte.
The latest articulation of this strategy was the formation of this national task force to end local communist armed conflicts, and the heightened killings of activists as well. So it’s not just the killings associated with the war on drugs, but also the killings of activists that are red tagged or terror tagged. This has been heightening in the last two years of his term and then culminating with the passage of the anti-terror bill, which again was a big setback, especially because the Supreme Court deemed it’s constitutional apart from a few, a couple of the provisions.
You can even relate the point about economic policies here because Duterte advanced an economic agenda that in fact displaced a lot of communities, so you have a double whammy there of the displacement from the projects like dam projects, mining projects and then if the communities resisted or raised concerns they were tagged as Communist terrorist groups.
Raphael Baladad: About the impacts on human rights, most impacts have been felt by communities who are struggling for land, for rights to territories, etc. Here at FOCUS we have witnessed how communities dealt, for example, with harassment by corporations trying to grab their land, and you could really see how the government has eroded, not only the rights narrative or rights based policies, but also the actual rule of law.
In urban areas, people have access to social media, so they can at least report on the abuses, but in other communities, most of these stories are not given enough attention at the national level. People are being driven out of their homes, homes are getting demolished. There’s also legal harassment, where local courts are being paid off to put up bogus cases against movement leaders, so they can be sent to jail or even made disappear. And yet these issues have not been highlighted very much in the national narratives.
CETRI: Given this record, how can Duterte still be as popular as he is, at least if we are to trust the latest polls on the subject?
Bianca Martinez: Compared to when he was inaugurated as the president, his popularity has gone down, as it has always been the trend with previous administrations. But in the case of Duterte, at the end of last year he still had the approval of more than 50% of the population, which is very significant compared to the previous administrations.
One important factor that underpins this popularity is his use of rhetoric, and the narratives that he has propagated since the beginning of his administration. He was really able to tap into people’s frustration and fears regarding, for example, the economy, peace and security etc., in a way that would make them embrace the kind of authoritarian rule that he was offering.
There are really two key aspects to his rhetoric. One is the content, meaning what kind of narratives he propagates, and the second one is the manner in which he delivers those narratives. In terms of content, one central dimension is how he has been inciting a violent sense of othering that creates a demand for punitive justice. We’ve seen this across different key policies that the Duterte administration has implemented throughout the years, including of course the war on drugs but also the administration’s militaristic response to the covid-19 pandemic or it’s very authoritarian approach to environmental problems.
In all these cases, the Duterte administration’s narrative basically depicts a certain groups of people or certain communities as existential threats. So for example, drug users and drug peddlers, if we don’t put them under control, they’ll end up destroying the country, killing people in our communities, etc. During the pandemic, they have kept saying that it was the undisciplined citizens who kept on going out of their homes who were the reason why our cases kept on spiking. But these narratives deliberately fail to explain the factors that compel people, for example, to go out of their homes, which is mainly joblessness and loss of income. They don’t highlight the different conditions that push people to use and sell drugs. It’s really just saying that the root cause of the problem is these people and so we have to eliminate them.
So the government creates that kind of consensus for imposing brute force by exploiting and exacerbating people’s aversion to what they perceive or what they’re made to perceive as the intrusive and dangerous “other”.
Now, one important point to highlight here is that this popular embrace of authoritarian rule is not something new that Duterte has created. The seeds of this have been planted well before. Take the people’s support for the war on drugs. Before Duterte came to power, people were already experiencing this problem in their communities, but it’s never been addressed on a national level. It was always handled by the communities themselves. And at the same time, the mainstream media were always portraying drug users and peddlers as a threat to their community. So this has always been embedded in the collective psyche of the Filipino. So when Duterte made this promise of ending the drug problem and when he demonized drug users and pushers, it resonated with the people and they all saw Duterte as the presidential candidate who could end this problem.
It’s the same thing with human rights defenders. One of Duterte’s key narratives is to really marginalize the human rights defenders by saying that those who are calling out, for example, the war on drugs, they’re more concerned with the drug users, than with the millions of victims that these drug users commit. This narrative is really key to destroying the concept of human rights and democracy. But again, people’s acceptance of that kind of narrative is also rooted in decades of liberal democracy and human rights not making sense for a lot of people. Even after the Marcos administration and the transition towards liberal democracy, for a lot of people, that hasn’t really meant anything. Human rights and liberal democracy haven’t directly translated to what they’re experiencing on the ground.
For a lot of communities that have been caught in the middle of wars, of land grabbing, of development aggression, violence has always been a part of their everyday lives and the concept of human rights has been rendered meaningless for them. So when Duterte started mocking human rights, for them it was a breath of fresh air because it exposed the hypocrisy of liberal democracy.
So that’s one of the reasons why he remains popular.
Joseph Purugganan: Another reason is that Duterte seems to be insulated from all the issues that have been thrown against him. For example, on the issue of corruption. People are angry about corruption. But their anger doesn’t seem to reach Duterte. It’s directed against the Department of Health secretary, for example, or against this justice secretary who just wanted to “impress Duterte”. It’s like there was a line drawn. There is a recognition from the public that these problems still exists, with corruption or with the war on drugs not being solved, but there is that perception that it’s not Duterte’s fault.
And then there is also fear. These surveys are conducted in the context where Duterte established very quickly that he’s in charge and what are the consequences of being on the wrong side of him. So you cannot underestimate this climate of fear pervading in communities. If the surveyors have to coordinate with the Barangay Captain, for example, those who are responding to surveys are maybe responding or sharing their opinions based on the fear that there will be repercussions if they criticize the president.
CETRI: How do you see the future for Duterte? Is he still going to be an influential voice in the political scene?
Raphael Baladad: It’s really interesting because Duterte has not yet endorse anyone, and he even announced that he will not be giving his blessing to the tandem of Marcos and his own daughter Sara Duterte. As for the future, the ICC investigation is in the pipeline, and several media outfits now have been exposing some of the controversies that were not really covered in the past years, especially during the pandemic. For example, the controversy around the corruption in the distribution of support for communities during covid or what Joseph has been mentioning about the human rights issues with the war on drugs and with the Leila de Lima case. These are but a few of some of the top stories right now.
But in terms of Duterte actually being held accountable for the crimes he committed during his presidency, I don’t think it will materialize anytime soon. It really depends on the political will of the next administration. As far as he is concerned, Duterte has been saying that he was ready to see everyone in hell, that he will slap Satan in the face, that he will slap ICC magistrates in the face, etc. So it will be a tough nut to crack, precisely because of the points made earlier about him, and how he’s being insulated from criticism for example. Unless there’s a strong push from human rights groups here and from the international community as well, I don’t see it happening. But again, everything is dependent on the political will of the next administration. We can’t say for sure what kinds of alliances he’s building with the Marcoses, or even with the camp of other political candidates. We can’t say for sure at this point, but we need a strong push for us to see justice.
CETRI: Would it be possible for him to try and come back in the next election six years from now, or is that impossible?
Joseph Purugganan: As a president it would be unconstitutional, and anyway he is already 77 years old. It’s actually already a bit of a surprise that he is still alive. Throughout his presidency we were constantly hearing rumors about his health deteriorating, such that many in his own camp were worried he would not be able to finish his term. But of course he also likes the drama of it all. It’s the same with the fact that he hasn’t endorsed anyone yet. This is part of his play of trying to still remain relevant for this election. People were constantly wondering who he was going to endorse, even some of the candidates were waiting for it. It shows he still has some clout, and that he still has a lot of supporters.
Even if you look at Marcos’ numbers in the polls, they are so high because it’s a combination of two factors as explained recently by analyst Tony Laviña in a recent TV interview. One is the base of Marcos himself, the loyal forces, that the family has maintained over the years and the one that he’s developed since at least 2016 after he lost the vice-presidential race. From that point, his main target has been to push for his candidacy in 2022 with a lot of efforts spent in misinformation and propaganda. So he has that base, but it’s also compounded by Duterte’s base. And he was really able to gain a big advantage when he was able to convince Sara Duterte to run as vice president. She brings a new level of support to the Marcos presidency.
Now there was already a relationship between Duterte the father and the Marcos family. You may recall that it was under Duterte that a hero’s burial was given to the late dictator against the opposition of many. But Duterte pushed for it, and many felt that it was kind of a quid pro quo. That there was a relationship forged perhaps in the lead up to 2016. Marcos ended up running as a vice presidential candidate on a separate ticket, but there were rumors that it was really a Duterte-Marcos tandem that was advanced in some areas. There was also the supposed deal between Duterte and the Marcos family over the return of the Marcos ill-gotten wealth.
So there was already a relationship between the two camps, even though what Duterte really wanted in the first place was for his daughter to succeed him. But those plans fizzled out. So I agree with Raphael, his political future will largely depend on who’s going to win in the upcoming election. If it’s a Marcos-Duterte administration, then he will probably be able to ward off the cases against him, and be able to finally seal that deal over the return of the wealth.
Galileo de Guzman Castillo: I wouldn’t be so definitive about a potential come-back from Duterte. Sure, our present Constitution only allows for a one term presidency, but one thing that’s very striking to me about Duterte is how he has bastardized our Constitution and how he has corrupted all facets of our fragile democracy. His administration really exposed the vulnerabilities and tested the limits of our Constitution in many instances, like with the burial of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Heroes’ Cemetery in 2016, even though we have a law (Republic Act 10368 or the Human Rights Victims Reparations Act) recognizing the atrocities committed during his time in power. Another instance of testing the Constitution is how Duterte was able to aggressively reshape the Supreme Court by orchestrating the ouster of then Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno via an unprecedented quo warranto in 2018 and filling it with Supreme Court Justices that are closely aligned with him (when Duterte steps down in June, 13 of the 15 Justices of the Supreme Court shall be his appointees).
So there are many uncertainties because future authoritarian strongman rulers could take advantage of this. And it’s the same with the composition of the legislature, of our Congress. Duterte really enjoyed a rubber stamp Congress with a majority support from both chambers, which made it easier for him to govern the way he did: neoliberal and authoritarian.
So coming back to the question of a potential return to power of Duterte, perhaps one question would be: To what point could our Constitution be bastardized further that it would allow for such a come-back by removing the term limits? It’s a hot issue right now in other countries like Indonesia for example, so it could certainly happen here with the next administration and a Congress pushing for charter change and the removal of term limits. Now this wouldn’t necessarily lead to Duterte himself coming back to power, but maybe to a person espousing the same characteristics of his regime and his economic policies, one that would embody Dutertismo.
 A long time critic of Duterte, Senator Leila de Lima has been jailed in 2017 for allegedly receiving money from drug lords while serving as justice secretary. She has always denied the charges, accusing the Duterte administration of trying to silence her. For more details : https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/05/04/philippines-witnesses-retract-testimony-against-duterte-critic.
 For more details : https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/10/04/duterte-worried-about-icc-he-should-be.