On 30 June 2016, a new president was inaugurated in the Philippines. His name is Rodrigo Roa Duterte. Duterte is an educated man, with a law degree from San Beda College of Law in 1972. Duterte was the mayor of Davao City, serving 7 terms and 22 years. He won his bid for the presidency by a landslide, with 16,601,997 votes, 6.6 million more than his closest rival. He is obviously quite popular among Filipinos, and yet …
Duterte ran a campaign fanning the fires of fear, promising to rid the nation of its horrible crime and drug problems, and the people bought the rhetoric. The reality is that the Philippines does have a crime problem and a drug problem, but neither are anywhere near as bleak as the picture Duterte painted. He succeeded in convincing large numbers of his people that drug use constitutes such an emergency that the very existence of the nation is threatened, and that only his rule can save the Philippines. It’s the oldest autocratic trick in the book. Just as in other nations, people will hear what they want to hear, believe what they want to believe, and so Sr. Duterte became President Duterte.
What makes President Duterte unique is not that he promised to eradicate the problems in the country, but the means by which he is doing so. Seven weeks into his presidency, more than 1,900 people had died, more than half of them in vigilante killings, the rest in police operations. According to an article in the 30 September edition of The Guardian, that number is now at 3,500. Duterte has warned legislators not to interfere with his campaign, saying they could be killed if they blocked efforts aimed at ‘improving’ the country.
“All of you who are into drugs, you sons of bitches, I will really kill you,” he said before his election. A month later, when he was President-elect, Duterte offered medals and cash rewards for citizens that shot dealers dead.
“Do your duty, and if in the process you kill 1,000 persons because you were doing your duty, I will protect you. If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful. I don’t care about human rights, believe me.”
He cares neither for human rights, nor for the way he is viewed by the rest of the world. When President Obama expressed concern about the high number of deaths early in September, Duterte lashed out, calling Obama a “son of a whore”, leading President Obama to cancel a scheduled meeting between the two leaders. Duterte’s office later stated that the remark was not intended to be a personal affront. When the European Parliament issued a statement condemning the deaths, Duterte said, “F— you” — and gave them the finger for good measure. When a longtime Duterte critic, Senator Leila de Lima, opened a Senate investigation on extrajudicial killing, he publicly urged her to hang herself. “The innermost of your core as female [is] being serialized every day. You should resign.” When she presented a witness who claimed that he killed for Duterte in Davao, once feeding a man to a crocodile, she was ousted from her role as chair of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights.
Duterte threatened to pull his country out of the United Nations after a UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings said she may visit the country to look into the spike in murders. Duterte called the UN “stupid” for wanting to interfere in his country. The next day his foreign affairs secretary apologized, saying Duterte did not mean what he’d said, and that when he’d made the statement, he was “tired, disappointed, hungry.” So he, too, has minions whose job it is to go behind him, cleaning up his messes and making excuses. And frankly, saying that the president of the country behaved badly because he was “tired, disappointed, hungry” sounds exactly like the excuse a mother might make for her cranky two-year-old!
How on earth, you might ask, did a man so crass, a man who makes crude jokes about women and urges troops to “massacre” suspects, a man with such an ungoverned mind, rise to the highest office in his country? With domestic popularity ratings at 90%, the Philippine leader has won approval for his foul-mouthed press conferences from a public tired with years of well-spoken politicians. During much of Duterte’s tenure as mayor of Davao, suspected criminals were summarily executed by police or gunned down by plainclothes assassins riding on motorcycles. Few cases were investigated. And yet, the people love him. Several people here compared him to a strict parent — “a real disciplinarian,” one man said — and seemed to see him as their personal protector. Perhaps therein lies the answer. Perhaps in this age when so many concerns seem overwhelming at times, struggling economies, threats of terrorism, immigration crises, and corrupt governments, perhaps what people really want is a parent, somebody to take the reins and impose law and order, protect them, whatever the cost. One story from his days as mayor of Davao City:
“One time, when a tourist ignored no-smoking rules, our mayor stormed a restaurant with a revolver and forced him to eat the cigarette butt. Our mayor patrolled the streets on his motorcycle. Our mayor saved us from thugs.”
On Friday, Duterte gave a press conference in which he made, arguably, some of his worst statements yet:
“If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have…,” he said, pausing and pointing to himself. “Hitler massacred three million Jews … there’s three million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
Understandably, the German government was distressed by Duterte’s remarks. World Jewish Congress president, Ronald Lauder, said Duterte’s remarks were “revolting” and demanded that he retract them and apologize, saying “Drug abuse is a serious issue. But what President Duterte said is not only profoundly inhumane, but it demonstrates an appalling disrespect for human life that is truly heartbreaking for the democratically elected leader of a great country.” Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch, said it was baffling why anyone would want to compare themselves to “one of the largest mass murderers in human history. Does he want to be sent to the international criminal court? Because he’s working his way there.”
It seems these days that the wave of populist leaders and candidates for office is becoming increasingly bold, brash, and what would have, ten years or even two years ago, been considered unacceptable. A few questions I ask myself are: Is this, then, the wave of the future? Is populism so fragile that its leaders must rule through fear? Is one of these leaders or wanna-be’s likely to actually become the next Hitler? And the big one is, are people really so desperate for change that they are willing to elect leaders who have no humanity, no moral filters? I ask the questions, but I don’t know the answers. Or perhaps I simply do not want to know the answers.