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Strongman Duterte can do no wrong

Surveys show kowtowing to China and drug war killings have not dented the Philippine president's popularity
Strongman Duterte can do no wrong

Protesters in front of China's consular office in Philippine capital Manila on April 9 amid tensions over the Asian superpower's presence in the disputed South China Sea. (Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP)

Published: July 18, 2019 03:00 AM GMT
Updated: July 18, 2019 03:02 AM GMT

While Philippine citizens disagree with the Duterte administration’s head-in-the-sand response to Chinese aggression in the disputed South China Sea, a substantial number still support his so-called drug war that has claimed thousands of lives.

But there are serious public misgivings about the industrial-scale extrajudicial killings that could yet result in President Rodrigo Duterte being charged by international prosecutors.

Last week several hundred protesters marked the third anniversary of a landmark international tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines and against aspects of China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea.

Coincidentally, a survey by local polling outfit Social Weather Stations showed 87 percent backing for the proposition that the Philippines "should assert its right to the islands in the West Philippine Sea (the local name for the South China Sea) as stipulated in the 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA).

But President Duterte, who marked three years in office on June 30, has several times referred to an apparent threat by China to go to war should the Philippines assert its claims to the sea based on the court's ruling, which China refused to recognize.

Last week's protest was the second such gathering in Manila in recent weeks. A small group of protesters last month criticized Duterte for his "weak" response to the June 9 ramming of a Filipino trawler by a Chinese boat at Reed (also known as Recto) Bank, which, according to the 2016 tribunal decision, is part of the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone.

Duterte downplayed the alleged ramming — in which 22 stranded fishermen were in the end rescued by Vietnamese counterparts — as "just a collision" and implored Filipinos not to make it worse by criticizing China.

Duterte has talked up prospects for joint exploration with China for oil and gas in the disputed sea and made clear during his successful 2016 election campaign that he would prioritize seeking Chinese investment in roads and railways over territorial wrangles.

Duterte's reticence when it comes to China is in contrast to his combative and sometimes bizarre rants about European and North American governments, which are typically triggered by criticism of his drug war.

The International Criminal Court last year said it would open a preliminary examination of the drug war, an announcement that prompted the Philippines to withdraw from the world body. And the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted on July 11 to set up an investigation into killings.

Earlier in the month, Duterte dismissed countries indicating support for the move as "idiots."

The U.N. rights' body includes Egypt, Eritrea, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — as well as China, which voted against what it branded as a "politicized" proposal.

Most of the supporters were European countries, and Iceland, which tabled the proposal, was scoffed at by Duterte as a place where "there is no clear day and night" and where "they just go about eating ice." Senate president Vicente Sotto added fuel to the fire on July 15 when he told a TV station that Iceland "has more unborn babies that they have aborted or killed. There are more killings in abortion than the drug pushers who are fighting the police."

Sky-high approval ratings

Neither Duterte’s eccentric tirades nor the appearance of kowtowing to China are denting his popularity. Pro-Duterte candidates won nine out of 12 senate seats up for grabs in mid-term elections two months ago, while recent surveys show around 80 percent approval for the president.

Support for Durterte has likely been buoyed by what Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Locsin labelled as his "pioneering" of a regional pushback against wealthier countries sending millions of tonnes of rubbish to Southeast Asia for recycling.

Indonesia and Malaysia emulated the Philippines by sending trash back to countries such as Australia, Canada, South Korea and Spain.

Those sky-high approval ratings come despite unease about relations with China, the Philippines' biggest trading partner, and ambivalence about aspects of the drug war.

Another recent SWS survey showed that 68 percent of people believed that the police are themselves involved in the illegal drug trade, with 66 percent of the view that the police carry out extrajudicial killings. Nearly as many again believe that the police plant evidence on alleged suspects.

Another survey showed 95 percent of people think suspects should be taken alive by police.

The drug war has been peppered with allegations of score-settling, turf wars and unaccountable death squads backed by or manned by police.

Police say 6,600 suspected dealers have been killed in the course of the campaign but the national Human Rights Commission estimated last December that the real death toll could be as high as 27,000.

Innocent victims have been caught up in the death mill, including a 3-year-old girl killed by police during a June 29 shootout.

Former police chief Ronald de la Rosa, a key drug war architect who was among those elected to the senate in May on a pro-Duterte ticket, said that such deaths were collateral damage. "Shit happens,” de la Rosa told local media on July 4 when asked about the child's death.

High-profile critics of the drugs war such as Senator Leila de Lima are in jail, while last year Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Serrano saw herself impeached after criticizing Duterte.

Other opposition politicians face what ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization made up of mostly opposition MPs from across Southeast Asia, described earlier this month as politically motivated criminal charges that show how democratic institutions are being eroded under President Duterte.

It is perhaps little wonder then that despite seemingly otherwise supporting Duterte's drugs war, 78 percent of Filipinos nonetheless worry about getting caught up in extrajudicial killings, going by SWS findings from late 2018.

The apparent contradiction between support for Duterte and opposition to his China policies as well as misgivings about aspects of the drug war is but one of the many conundrums of Duterte’s appeal.

Anna Marie A. Karaos, associate director of the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues at Ateneo de Manila University, said that as well as compartmentalizing, people combined seemingly disparate elements into a distinct mindset and culture. "Many Filipinos are comfortable combining the exercise of democratic rights with autocratic rule," she said.

The Philippines is home to the third highest number of Catholics of any country and is renowned for its vivid outpourings of public devotion, from the colossal crowds that pack Manila during the annual Black Nazarene procession to visceral re-enactments of the Crucifixion carried out every Good Friday in a village north of the capital.

Duterte has remained popular despite incessantly berating church leaders who criticize his drug war, not to mention his recent description of God as "stupid" and his eye-popping dismissal of Pope Francis as a "son of a whore" during the Holy Father's visit to Manila in 2015.

Mon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said the Church only becomes an influential force when it supports a popular political position, such as campaigning against the decades-long dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.

The Church was shown to have minimal influence when it has run counter to popular sentiment such as with its anti-Erap Estrada presidential election campaign in 1998, Casiple said.

Duterte's cussed rebuttals of condescending foreigners — such as lampooning Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s persona while hosting a major international summit in 2017 — as well as his rakish claims about his sexual exploits, all typically send ripples of laughter through his audiences and add to his appeal, it seems.

Karaos, from Ateneo de Manila University, said: "The president's profanities seem to have had a diminishing effect on Filipinos' sensibilities. Perhaps this is because they regard this part of him as a mark of authenticity or being like the ordinary man on the street, which probably even endears him more to them."

Also running in Duterte's favor is an economy growing at over 6 percent a year since before he took office — exceeding the averages even for so-called emerging Asia and a turnaround for what was something of a laggard compared with more prosperous neighbors such as Malaysia and Thailand.

And though some economists believe that foreign investment is not as high as it could be, possibly due to concerns about Duterte's erratic and increasingly authoritarian style, the incumbent can bank on projections of 6 percent-plus annual expansion over the next two years, according to the World Bank, or up to 7.5 percent going by the government's own forecasts.

That growth, particularly if it leads to more jobs and rising incomes for the lower and middle classes, could tide Duterte over for the remaining three years of his six-year term and potentially pave the way for his daughter Sara, who figured prominently in the recent mid-term campaigning, to run for president.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.

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