Scathing Midterm Report on Philippines’ Duterte

The Carnegie Endowment for Peace has issued a blistering 13,000-word report on the government of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, saying it “has run roughshod over human rights, its political opponents, and the country’s democratic institutions. The combination of the Philippines’ powerful presidency and the malleability of most of its political institutions is resulting in significant democratic backsliding.”

The report, which can be found here, was written by David G. Timberman, a political analyst and development specialist with 30 years of experience addressing political and governance challenges in Southeast and South Asia. The Carnegie Endowment is a Washington, DC-based public policy thinktank.

As the country finishes the first half of his presidency, although much of the attention is focused on Duterte’s brutal drug war, which has taken the lives of 6,000 and 12,000 mostly poor urban-dwellers, according to the report, the picture of his administration’s broader policy agenda, its approach to politics and governance, and its broader impact on democratic institutions and norms is mixed at best. Corruption, Timberman says, is beginning to undermine his legitimacy, a major concern because his vow to clean government was one of his most important campaignpromises.

Liberal democracy, according to the report, has always struggled to become deeply rooted in the country. Cultural factors -- the power of familial and clientelistic ties -- Catholic fatalism; colonial legacies including US empowerment of a land-owning elite, persistent poverty and inequality and a presidential system with winner-take-all elections have all played a part.

Even the most positive views of democracy in the Philippines since the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 “see it as a flawed work in progress,” the report says. “Harsher critics see it as a sham and a failure. Commonly cited flaws include elections tainted by violence and vote buying, widespread rent-seeking and corruption, policies that have benefited elites and special interests at the expense of the poor majority, and a dysfunctional justice system.”

In a country that for decades has been dominated by an elite “that has thwarted the development of a strong state by limiting the government’s fiscal base and co-opting, corrupting, or intimidating the bureaucracy,” Duterte combined a “Dirty Harry persona with a track record as a successful mayor of Davao City, Mindanao’s largest city.” His overarching theme was that his strong leadership would produce rapid change. He heaped criticism on the Manila-based elite, vowed to undertake a nationwide assault on illegal drugs and criminality, and promised to change the government to a federal system.

His victory, in which 16.6 million Filipinos voted for him, “surprised many and shocked some. In the wake of his election, political analysts have grappled with what it says about contemporary Philippine politics.” As befits Philippine culture, he presents himself as the only leader strong and decisive enough to save the nation. He may be offending the norms of respectful communication, according to the report, “but he brings to the surface the collective frustration many feel. He may not offer the clearest policy, but he puts forward the sincerest discourse of sympathy. . . . Duterte’s gutter language establishes the urgency of saving the republic.”

The government has significantly increased spending on infrastructure, raised the salaries of government employees, expanded existing social development programs, revived the stalled peace process with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), entered into negotiations with the communist insurgents, and established a closer relationship with China.

He has largely continued the Aquino government’s economic policies although he has sought to accelerate economic growth and make it more inclusive, and to significantly increase spending on much-needed infrastructure. Key features of the government’s approach to the economy include running a larger deficit, adopting a more statist approach to infrastructure development through his “Build Build Build program.

He came into office advocating charter change through a federalist system, devolving government to the states but he engendered considerable suspicion that Cha-Cha, as it is known, would be a vehicle that would allow him to continue in office past his six-year term.

His principal priority, a highly punitive approach to illegal drug use, “is a sign that the Philippine government has abdicated its responsibility to protect human rights and respect the rule of law.” In addition to viewing drugs as a cancer on society, “there is an ugly political logic.” The drug war offers a “potent and useful political narrative in which Duterte alone possesses the moral authority to rescue the country from the dangers posed by drug pushers and other criminals.”

Most Filipinos, Timberman writes, believe Duterte’s war on alleged drug users and pushers is a draconian but necessary response to a serious social problem. Some 78 percent of Filipinos are satisfied although almost the same number fear they themselves could be victims of an extrajudicial killing.

But inducing police to engage in de facto shoot-to-kill policies “is enormously corrosive of law enforcement, not to mention the rule of law. There is a high chance that the policy will more than ever institutionalize top-level corruption, as only powerful drug traffickers will be able to bribe their way into upper-levels of the Philippine law enforcement system. Moreover, corrupt top-level cops and government officials tasked with such witch-hunts will have the perfect opportunity to direct law enforcement against their drug business rivals as well as political enemies, and themselves become the top drug capos.”

Unlike previous administrations, Duterte and his supporters routinely use lawsuits, incarceration, and social media trolling to intimidate opponents and critics, calling out opponents, denouncing them in the strongest possible terms, Timberman writes, saying his statements and actions “send the message that no one is safe from his attacks and that opposing him is a high-risk venture” and “weaponizing the legal system” to attack political opponents including opposition Senator Leila de Lima, who was imprisoned on nonbailable drug-related charges, and Antonio Trillanes IV, a vocal critic. Groups allied with Duterte have filed multiple lawsuits against former president Aquino and former budget secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad, a longtime leader of the Liberal Party.

He has threatened the media with lawsuits and nonrenewal of franchises including the Rufino-Prieto family, which owns the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and the Lopez family, which owns ABS-CBN, the country’s largest TV network, as well as the highly respected news site Rappler and its founder Maria Ressa for tax evasion and failure to file tax returns.

“A final potentially important issue is the uncertain extent to which members of the AFP agree with the Duterte administration’s approach to addressing the country’s national security challenges,” according to the report. “Some members of the military may likely object to his pivot to China, his willingness to negotiate with communist insurgents, and his fixation on the drug war. Other military officials may also feel that the AFP’s domestic role has become unacceptably overextended by the Marawi crisis in 2017, the administration of martial law across Mindanao, and the continuing threat of Islamist extremism.”

Although Duterte promised real change within a matter of months, “he is now well into the third year of his administration and there has been little or no change on many fronts. The economy continues to grow, but the benefits of growth have not been quickly or widely shared. Likewise, it will be years before the benefits of the government’s infrastructure program will be widely experienced…Scholar Nicole Curato suggests that support for Duterte is “conditional not fanatical.” According to her, “He may be able to get away with murders, but not with broken promises.”

There appears little prospect of change. In addition to his still-strong approval ratings, the opposition lacks a leader who can offer a compelling alternative to the president and his policies. “The government’s targeted assault on opposition leaders, including the arrests of de Lima and Trillanes, is partly to blame, but the opposition’s weakness also stems from its limited pool of potential leaders.