June 30, 2016 saw the inauguration of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines. The next day Ronald Dela Rosa became the new Director General of the Philippine National Police. With the two came their longstanding strategy for dealing with crime from Davao City to the Philippine nation: tolerate or actively endorse the killing of suspects. One year later, several thousand people have died at the hands of on-duty policemen and vigilantes in a ferocious campaign that aims at eradicating a problem through “social cleansing”. Although public support for Duterte continues, the Philippines staggers towards an increasingly authoritarian state.
Duterte and Dela Rosa have known each other since 1986, when the Davao city prosecutor Rodrigo Duterte was appointed vice-mayor of Davao City and stood as principal sponsor at Dela Rosa’s wedding. The following years, Dela Rosa worked in various police functions under Duterte during a time, when Davao City was considered the murder capital of the Philippines. Davao earned this title not because of the rampant violence associated with crime. In the late 1980s it was one of the hotspots of the relentless fight between the re-democratized Philippine state and the dominant politico-oligarchic families on the one hand and the Philippine Communist Party on the other. Whereas the former sought to regain complete control over the cities and countryside, the latter – with their armed wing, the New People’s Army – advanced the revolutionary fight for a communist Philippines. In this environment, where Communist assassination squads where countered not only by the military and the police, but by a huge number of private vigilante groups and millenarian movements, the killing of real and imagined enemies became indiscriminate.
It was through this time that the Davao Death Squad (DDS) was established as a means to fight Communist hitmen. After the political violence had subsided in the early 1990s the DDS was not disbanded, but only switched the rationale for its existence. From the mid-1990s to the present onwards, Davao City – almost continuously under Rodrigo Duterte as mayor – became notorious for death squad killings of suspected criminals, mostly suspected drug pushers and users. The mayor made clear that anybody engaged in illegal activities in his city was a “legitimate target of assassination.” Dela Rosa in turn became one of the most important executioners of the mayor’s policy. Throughout he signaled devout loyalty to Duterte, the “greatest leader on Earth.”
The admired strongman-mayor
In the eyes of his admirers and his own, Duterte was doing the right thing in the right way in Davao. He followed the role-model of “Dirty Harry,” overstepping the law in order to enforce it when he deemed it necessary. By his friends and admirers he was perceived as staking “everything, including his life, to turn Davao City into what it is now. […] Duterte is just being himself. He fights for and is willing to die for what he believes is right.”
Despite the death squad killings people’s support for Duterte as mayor of Davao has throughout been overwhelming with him and his daughter winning vast majorities. When her father was elected President of the Philippines, his daughter Indaysara garnered 99.6 percent of the votes for Mayor of Davao City. When the two for the first time ran as a team for mayor and vice-mayor in 2007, the father took more than 99 percent of the vote, while his still fairly unknown daughter won with 85 percent support.
“The boss” as a role-model of leadership
Duterte is an ideal-typical embodiment of the most important traditional type of leadership that still commands a vast approval rate in the Philippine population: the patron and boss. He holds all the paraphernalia of a strongman, including the willingness to kill in order to accomplish his aims. With Duterte, a leadership-type has seized the pinnacle of power that has in different variations been part of the Philippine establishment to the present: in the form of provincial overlords like Luis “Chavit” Singson, short term presidents and mayors like Joseph “Erap” Estrada, military coup leaders and subsequent senators of the Philippines like Antonio Trillanes and Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan or mayors, like Tomas Osmeña, who explicitly called for the killing of criminals in his city of Cebu. Yet, whereas all others have masked themselves with refinement when in Manila, Duterte remains true to the unpolished variant of strongman-rule. He is not going to compromise from his stance of doing what he perceives as being right – neither in form nor in substance.
Public Support for the President
Small wonder then that the state sanctioned and perpetrated killing of thousands of suspected drug pushers and users elicited hardly any resistance at all. While Duterte’s party, the PDP-Laban, only garnered a few seats at the 2016 Congressional elections, it swelled to more than 120 seats after mass defection from other parties in the wake of Duterte’s election. In addition a host of other parties joined the majority coalition after the elections, providing the president with a comfortable majority of 70 percent. Fearing for their perks, hardly any of the 292 congressmen and -women ever spoke out against the President’s policy. Leila de Lima, the most prominent of the few, has been imprisoned and faces criminal charges for the proliferation of drugs in prison during her time as Secretary of Justice.
Public opinion surveys show an overwhelming support for the president, both for his overall performance as well as for his iron fist policy with respect to drug-crime and usage. While numbers dropped a bit, he still scores a close to 80 percent “satisfaction rate” in this respect. However, more than 70 percent of respondents worry that someone from their own family may become a victim of extrajudicial killing and more than 90 percent find it at least somewhat important to keep illegal drug trade suspects alive. Despite overwhelming evidence to the opposite more than 70 percent of respondents feel that the government is very or somewhat serious about solving the extra-judicial killings.
The high public approval rates of President Duterte and his policy of social cleansing reflect a longstanding if somewhat contradictory penchant of Filipinos for having “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections.” This option was perceived as good or fairly good for the country by close to 70 percent of the respondents in the most recent World Values Survey. The same survey, however, found that a majority of 75 percent thought “having a democratic political system” to be good, while only 42 percent thought that the choice of leaders in free elections was an essential characteristic of democracy. Yet, continued support for Duterte is no rebellion of the poor and disadvantaged majority that pushed through their favorite against the candiates of the elites of “imperial” Manila. While the president can count on all social classes, support has been especially strong in the upper and middle classes.
Why the cutting of a Gordian knot is no solution
Obviously, to the vast majority of the population rule of law and democratic principles are less important than the imagined superior agency of a leader who “gets things done” and typically resorts to the strategy of Alexander the Great, solving an intractable problem as the Gordian knot, by cutting it in one stroke.
Dutertes’ strategy of cutting the Guardian knot of the Philippine drug-problem comes with great risks. Cutting the fibres that hold society together instead of entangling them and stabilizing the necessary links will fragment direly needed social solidarity and any remaining semblance of democratic rule of law. The informal “death penalty” currently employed against one group of “trouble-makers,” may easily be used to get rid of political or economic opponents by labeling them as drug-pushers. Extralegal killings may also be expanded to members of other groups. At the latest when utilized not only against socially marginal groups of outcasts in the form of social cleansing, but against those who disagree politically, repressive violence will most likely produce its antidote rebellion and an at least partial return of a past hoped to have been overcome in the 1986 People Power Revolution.
During the past year the Philippines have been transformed into the personal fiefdom of an old-fashioned strongman, who accredits to himself the authority to decide on the life and death of his countrymen. Hopes for reaping the fruit of benevolent dictatorship have been dashed in the past in the Philippines as anywhere else, so they will in the future.