In the Philippines, an Unyielding President Finally Gives

6 MINS READFeb 2, 2017 | 09:16 GMT
In the Philippines, an Unyielding President Finally Gives a Little
Nearly 8,000 people have been killed since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared open season on drug pushers and users last summer. But he may now need to change course.
(DONDI TAWATAO/Getty Images)

Nearly 8,000 people have been killed in the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte declared open season on the country's drug pushers and users last summer. Until this week, Duterte appeared immune to pressure to rein in the extrajudicial killings unleashed by his policies. But two things have forced "the Punisher" to change tack: growing criticism from the Roman Catholic Church, a political force to be reckoned with in the Philippines, and fallout from counternarcotics officers' recent killing of South Korean businessman Jee Ickjoo inside national police headquarters.

Earlier this week, Duterte disbanded the anti-drug units of the Philippine National Police and launched a campaign to rid the force of corruption. He also handed management of the drug war to the country's main counternarcotics agency and pledged to give the military a bigger role in the fight. These moves will help Duterte regain a degree of control over the crackdown and shift the public's focus to his more popular drive against corruption. But the underlying dynamics of the drug war will prolong both the wave of killings and the political risk it poses to Duterte’s presidency.

Duterte rose to power on his pledge to ruthlessly tackle the Philippines' many social ills by whatever means necessary. During his 22-year stint as mayor of Davao City, located in the restive southern island of Mindanao, Duterte turned what was once known as the murder capital of the Philippines into one of its safest cities. He did so with guns blazing, allegedly giving vigilante groups free rein to assassinate suspected criminals. Duterte was able to micromanage the crackdown enough to keep the violence contained, for the most part, to the criminal elements of society. This — along with his talent for balancing local interests and for managing his image as a leader immune to corruption — helped him sustain widespread support for his methods and shielded him from prosecution.

To voters who have lost faith in the country's overwhelmed legal system, opaque public institutions, and perceived culture of corruption and impunity among elites, Duterte's pledge to apply his strong-arm tactics on a national scale was simply good politics. The drug war has also given him — an outsider who did not inherit an established party machinery in Manila — tools with which to silence critics, consolidate power in the capital and remove obstacles to ambitious peace initiatives in the country's far-flung regions.

Duterte presumably knew he would not be able to maintain the same degree of control over a nationwide drug war as he did over Davao City's. The massive lists of drug suspects that Duterte has made public, for example, were compiled with often-dubious intelligence provided largely by local police and politicians, effectively allowing corrupt security forces and organized crime groups to hijack the fight for their own ends. And by declaring his unequivocal support for police violence, Duterte created an impression that killings could be carried out with impunity so long as they are linked to the drug war, however tenuously.

Nonetheless, the war has prompted thousands of "drug personalities" to surrender, allowing Duterte to claim that his tactics are delivering results. Meanwhile, the president himself has silenced prominent critics by linking them to the drug trade. For the most part, victims of extrajudicial killings have been dismissed as criminals who deserved their fates, and no signs of a major backlash have emerged. Even so, recent developments have forced Duterte to consider changing course.

A Tipping Point?

Over the past few months, the powerful Roman Catholic Church has begun weighing in on the issue of extrajudicial killings. For example, the most prominent church in Manila held an exhibition over Christmas denouncing them, and a spokesman for the Conference of Catholic Bishops said the church had decided to lead the way in opposing the violence. As a whole, the church is reportedly divided on the problem; the bishops are not immune to public opinion. Nonetheless, the president is wary of the church's ability to mobilize mass resistance. After all, most of Duterte's predecessors took office with high approval ratings, as he did, before suffering precipitous declines in popularity over issues that often pulled the church into the country's politics.

Jee Ickjoo's death then revealed the limits of Duterte's control over how his drug war is being waged. In October 2016, counternarcotics officers kidnapped Jee from his home, strangled him to death inside the national police headquarters and extorted his family. The incident took place not long after counternarcotics police killed a small-town mayor in the same building.

Both high-profile incidents prompted major investigations that exposed the extent of lawlessness taking place under the auspices of the drug war. Evidence of complicity among the police force's highest ranks undercut Duterte's reputation as a leader tough on corruption, and the Jee fiasco reinforced in stark terms the perception among foreign firms that the Philippines is a risky place to do business — a problem for the president, considering the centrality of foreign investment to his economic agenda.

As a result, Duterte is trying to tighten his grip over the drug war. By sidelining the sprawling Philippine national police in favor of the much smaller Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, Duterte is attempting to streamline operations and ostensibly rein in their excesses. (Of more than 7,000 killings, around 2,500 occurred during official police operations.) Duterte is also reportedly planning to empower the military by granting it a greater role in counternarcotics operations — possibly by reviving a defunct military-led police force known as the Philippine Constabulary — and he has called on soldiers to take on corrupt police. The changes presage a shift away from the free-for-all targeting practices used previously, which have proved difficult to oversee and have generated high body counts.

Focusing the fight on corrupt police, even if only rhetorically, puts Duterte firmly on the side of the public, wide swaths of which see the police as perpetuating the country's social problems. In such societies, broad distrust of the state is often rooted in relatively minor but routine abuses by local authorities. In the long run, boosting the population's faith in Philippine institutions is critical to Manila's efforts to modernize the country and overcome its inherent geographic divides.

The Big Picture

These changes won't bring an immediate end to the abuses perpetrated in the name of the drug war. The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency has been responsible for much of how it has been fought, while the military is ill-trained for community policing and no less vulnerable to corruption. Progress against crime cannot be sustained for long without a police force the public trusts. But in the near term, that force — which is ultimately beholden to the president — will behave unpredictably. Moreover, widespread extrajudicial killings will likely continue so long as the president keeps signaling his support for those involved in them — and if the coming wave of corruption prosecutions does not extend to low-level incidents.

As the death toll continues to mount, so will the risk to Duterte's position. The president needs all the support he can get as he tries to advance certain aspects of his agenda, such as shifting the country to a federal system and pursuing peace deals with communist and Muslim Moro rebels, that will test the cohesion of his ruling coalition in Congress. Meanwhile, giving the army more civilian duties will fuel claims that he is verging on instating martial law.

For the time being, major blowback does not appear to be imminent, particularly if the tempo of killings declines. Polls continue to show broad support for the drug war, and signs of the type of uprising that would affirm the persistent coup rumors dogging the president have yet to emerge. Even international pressure to dial down the drug war has eased somewhat: Duterte's outreach to China has given Western powers pause about pressing him on domestic issues. (Last week, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines expressed tentative support for the drug war.) Nevertheless, the logic of Duterte's drug war still points toward entropy, complicating its new and precarious phase.

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