Reformers Seek to Block Duterte’s Dynasty Aims

But Philippine president remains phenomenally popular

With a little more than 13 months to go before May 2022 presidential elections, the first independent challenge to President Rodrigo Duterte’s political machine has fluttered into life in Manila with an organization called 1Sambayan (1 People) headed by two former Supreme Court justices, hoping to form a unified opposition slate.

It is a seeming long shot, raising questions why the 108 million Filipinos who have endured severe hardships continue to support Duterte’s leadership. It is headed by highly-respected former Justices Antonio Carpio and Conchita Carpio Morales, who also served as the country’s ombudsman, and former Ambassador Alberto del Rosario, with attorney Howard Calleja the motive force behind it. Its two most viable presidential candidates, current Vice President Leni Robredo and Senator Grace Poe, are running far behind Duterte’s most popular surrogates.

But having endured five years of murders, mayhem, a misguided war against drug users and another against the press and critics and a campaign against the Covid-19 coronavirus that appears to have consisted almost entirely of a draconian lockdown and little else, Filipinos might be expected to be sick of Duterte, now 75 and visibly ailing.

After all, he came into office vowing to fill Manila Bay with the bodies of drug users and, while he hasn’t quite laid enough to walk to cross the bay, he has made what critics say is a pretty impressive if ghastly effort. Officially 6,069 have been killed in anti-drug operations although news organizations and rights groups say the total is more than 12,000 with upper estimates far more, almost all of them the poor and powerless filling the morgues across the country. That has made very little dent in the 1.5 million-odd drug users – mostly of methamphetamines – in the country. Drug seizures amount to only a fraction of what pours into the country from China.

Plenty of candidates

There are 16 candidates of varying credibility and capability vying for Duterte’s job. Given the caveat that Philippine elections inevitably contain surprises that derail front runners, it would be unwise to handicap them. As a spokesman for the respected Pulse Asia polling firm noted, the polls are only a snapshot in time.

Nonetheless, none of the opposition are among those currently given the best shot. The front runners in public opinion polls include Duterte’s hardline daughter Sara, who succeeded him as mayor of Davao City; Christopher Lawrence "Bong" Tesoro Go, his longtime Sancho Panza; and welterweight boxer Manny Pacquiao, now a national senator who has aligned himself closely with Duterte, supporting capital punishment. It is uncertain how enthusiastically any or all of them would follow Duterte in walking across the bay on the bodies.

According to data released on March 10 by Pulse Asia, Bong Go, who has been Duterte’s most trusted associate since his days as Davao mayor, is the pick of 32 percent of voters, by far the highest among the throng of candidates, with Duterte himself as Go’s vice presidential running mate provided, cynics say, that the visibly ailing president lives that long.

Claque of trolls and propagandists

Duterte himself, aided by a huge claque of internet trolls and other propagandists, continues to amass astonishing voter esteem, with 91 percent of Filipinos reported approving his job performance despite the fact that his pre-election promises in 2016 have largely failed. He continues to say his murderous drug war when he was Davao City mayor cleaned up the city, when statistics show it’s about as crime-ridden as everywhere else.

The government has been hounded by serious allegations of corruption and ineptitude in handling the Covid-19 crisis. Unemployment is at a record high 8.7 percent, with 4 million reported jobless, and seven million families reported experiencing hunger during the pandemic, which has so far affected 693,000 and killed 13,000, both figures the second-highest in Southeast Asia after Indonesia. A record 8,770 cases were reported on March 25 despite the swingeing lockdown.

“Duterte plays a good game of deception,” said a longtime local observer who asked not to be named. “He doesn’t hold himself accountable and makes it appear that he is separate from government when it is convenient for him to do so, and people who don’t know any better will believe him. That’s about it in a nutshell.”

Thus his personal popularity far outruns his programs in the public eye. His drug war hasn’t appreciably cut drug use despite his professions of brutality. His plan to redo the Constitution to implement a federal form of government devolving power to the states is stalled. Cronyism is rising to pre-Marcos levels with people like his Davao-era chum Dennis Uy snapping up franchises.

The failing coronavirus crusade means the schools remain closed, depriving the country’s 28 million-odd children and million-plus college students a year of education. He has rolled over to the Chinese and allowed them to scratch his stomach on the issue of sovereignty over the South China Sea. His most visible – if dubious – dividend is a promise by Beijing to deliver millions of Sinovac injections for the coronavirus that is running far behind schedule and behind the rest of Southeast Asia.

Tough talk

The president’s clout thus seems to depend mostly on tough talk to thrill the hardliners in the barangays, much as Donald Trump did in the US. He has at varying times vowed to have those breaking the Covid curfew shot. After former Presidential rival candidate Mar Roxas called him a threat to democracy in early March, Duterte threatened to shoot him “for free.” He has called Leni Robredo, the opposition’s most viable candidate, “stupid” and “weak.” He has threatened to kidnap and torture members of the Commission on Audit, which monitors the government’s spending of public funds.

According to Human Rights Watch, more lawyers have been killed in the five years since Duterte took office than under any other government in Philippine history, with 61 of the 110 felled since 1972 dying since 2016. Most of the represented victims of the war on drugs or human rights violations. Many of the high-profile attacks were on members of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, which represents leftist activists as well as victims of human rights violations.

Human rights activists have been an equal opportunity target, with Philippine security force raids killing nine on March 7, claiming they had weapons, a claim met with deep suspicion. Nine members of an Indigenous people’s group were also killed just three months ago, in December. In all, according to rights groups, the war on leftists harkens back to the bad old days when former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo unleashed troops and law enforcement officials in a scorched-earth campaign that took scores of lives.

Duterte’s war on the press has been well-catalogued, with the country’s biggest broadcasting network ABS-CBN controlled by the Lopez family temporarily or permanently denied a franchise. Maria Ressa, the head of the respected news portal Rappler, faces a plethora of lawsuits designed to shut off one of the few vehicles of dissent. Other news organizations have been cowed. Former Justice Secretary Leila de Lima remains behind bars on what critics say are fabricated charges.

According to the polling firm Social Weather Stations in November 2020, 65 percent of adult Filipinos agree with varying levels of vehemence that “It is dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical of the administration, even if it is the truth,” up by 28 points from the moderate +21 (51 percent agree, 30 percent disagree) in July 2020.

That in the long run is a chilling statement on the political climate.

Photo credit: Philippine Star

This article is among the stories we choose to make widely available. If you wish to get the full Asia Sentinel experience and access more exclusive content, please do subscribe to us.