Christian Caryl

President Duterte’s Crazy Drug War Is Just the Beginning

The Philippines’ new strongman is eating away at the foundations of democracy. Can anyone stop him?


In a better world, Leila de Lima would be enjoying the triumphant culmination of a long career in public service. Instead the 57-year-old member of the Senate of the Philippines is enduring an all-out campaign to smear her reputation and discredit her work.

The man behind it is none other than her country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte. “I’m the subject of a massive demolition job,” De Lima told me when I met her recently in Manila. “The president is using practically the entire apparatus of the state to destroy me. He’s said that he wants me finished. Even before he took office, he said, ‘De Lima, don’t pick a fight with me, you’ll surely lose.’”

Duterte began his term a little over four months ago, and yet, as the campaign against De Lima shows, his presidency is already casting a dark shadow on his country’s hard-won freedoms. His signature policy is his bloody campaign against the drug trade, in which Duterte has declared open season on dealers. In a recent speech, he questioned whether drug users are even human beings, urging law enforcement and indignant citizens to take matters into their own hands. Since Duterte took office this summer, more than 4,700 people have been killed by police officers and vigilantes — without even a hint of due process.

It’s an extraordinary departure for a country that, until recently, was offering the world a remarkable demonstration of the virtues of democracy. In 1986, millions of Filipinos took to the streets to overthrow long-reigning dictator Ferdinand Marcos, ushering in an era of free elections and open media. It took a while for the People Power Revolution to bring economic results, but over the past decade the Philippines, population 100 million, has experienced growth that has made it one of the most dynamic performers in Asia — even outpacing China at times. In the second quarter of this year it was Asia’s fastest-growing economy.

So why in the world would Filipinos elect a man like Rodrigo Duterte? His contempt for the constraints of the law were already apparent during his long stint as the mayor of Davao, the southern city where he oversaw the extrajudicial killing of those he deemed worthless to society. His habit of flinging obscenities at other world leaders (including President Obama and Pope Francis) has diminished the stature of his office and cast a shadow on the Philippines’ international reputation. And his dramatic foreign-policy pivot to China runs contrary to popular opinion in what is probably the most pro-American country in the world.

Chito Gascon, head of the Philippines Commission on Human Rights, doesn’t mince words: “This is probably the biggest challenge to democracy since the dictatorship,” he says. “With the election of Mr. Duterte we’re moving away from the post-authoritarian democratic consensus to a period of illiberal democracy.” The Philippines, he says, is now aligning itself with the global trend towards “popularly elected despots,” who use their voter mandates to undermine institutions and consolidate their personal power.

Like so many other places where democracy is in peril, the Philippines has become something of a victim of its own success. The fruits of growth have been unevenly spread, deepening the frustration of marginalized regions and social classes. Corruption has exploded.

Meanwhile, the justice system is deeply dysfunctional, often trapping the accused in overcrowded prisons for years pending trial. An entrenched elite maintains a tight grip on the commanding heights of the economy and the political system. By one account, just 20 families own most of the 267 companies trading on the Philippines stock exchange.

Duterte, a self-declared “outsider” (though he’s clearly a member of the elite) has vowed to tackle all these ills head on — even if it means bypassing the system of checks and balances that the Philippines has so laboriously built up over the past few decades. His tough talk and no-nonsense attitude appeal to those who yearn for dramatic change.

The consequences for democracy are already manifest. The anti-drug campaign is making a mockery of the most fundamental principles of the rule of law. “We’re essentially setting loose the police from whatever constraints we’ve tried to establish over the past 30 years,” says Gascon. A few weeks ago, he notes, a civil society leader was shot by masked men who turned out to be police officers. Meanwhile, on Oct. 28, security forces gunned down a mayor on the southern island of Mindanao after Duterte accused him of complicity with the drug trade. We’ll never know if the allegations were justified, since the mayor — who protested his innocence — never had a chance to present evidence to the contrary.

Even so, the campaign appears to be highly popular with many Filipinos, who have rewarded the president’s perverse version of “law and order” with sky-high approval ratings. And since Duterte’s camp commands a solid majority in the lower house of parliament, criticism from the opposition presents little threat.

It is Senator De Lima who has been trying to fill the gap. She and Duterte have a long history. A few years ago, as head of the influential Commission on Human Rights (the same position held by Gascon today), she used her position to throw light on the killings in Davao. By all accounts, Duterte never forgave her — and as soon as she tried to launch a Senate hearing into the latest murders, she found herself under fire.

The administration trotted out a series of dubious witnesses — many of them serving life sentences in prison — who proceeded to incriminate De Lima herself in the drug trade (through credible evidence was conspicuously lacking). During testimony one of the men revealed De Lima’s personal phone number and address, prompting her to move out of her home for a while.

Meanwhile, Duterte supporters unleashed a tsunami of social media vitriol against the senator. The president and his minions accused her of an illicit sexual liaison with her former driver — and alleged the existence of a “sex tape” to prove it. Pro-government politicians who claim to have seen the tape are outdoing each other with crude commentaries that make Donald Trump’s notorious hot mic episode look tame. (Duterte himself set the tone with a gruesome “joke” about rape he made during his election campaign.)

Aside from casting light on a venomous culture of misogyny, the episode raises worrisome questions about the durability of the Philippines’ democratic institutions. De Lima says that she’s received little support from her allies because the president, who has declared that certain journalists should not “be exempted from assassination,” is cowing the media into silence. The withered political opposition has been notably reluctant to speak up in her defense. Backed by his legions on social media, Duterte has pressured other potential critics — from the Supreme Court to the Roman Catholic Church — to stay out of his way.

Gascon, of the Human Rights Commission, hopes that those who remain committed to democracy will soon find the strength to push back. But he worries that it may not happen soon enough. “We’re living in dangerous times,” he says. “I don’t know if [De Lima] will survive this. I don’t know if I will survive this. The president said in his campaign that ‘change is coming,’ and probably change is here. But to us it actually feels more like winter is coming.”

Photo credit: NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

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