Death Squad President: Rodrigo Duterte and the Fear of Dictatorship in the Philippines

Rodrigo Duterte enjoys popular support, but it may not last forever. Filipinos have a history of overthrowing oppressive rulers. We have a responsibility to stop our government from supporting the state that suppresses them.

Sometimes it is difficult to remember that there are, in fact, world leaders that are even more frightening than Donald Trump. Imagine if before 2016, Trump had several decades of political experience and an untouchable murder squad, then after being elected he enjoyed a steady 70% approval rating. Unfortunately, this nightmare scenario is a live reality in the Philippines, where Rodrigo Duterte continues to rule through violence and fear with little in the way of opposition.

Upon his election in May 2016, Duterte unleashed a so-called “War on Drugs” which has so far killed 5,500 people. Some human rights groups fear the actual death toll could be as high as 30,000. Most of the violence has been carried out by vigilantes, most of whom are suspected of working under the direction of the police. Despite the bloody crackdown and the international condemnation against it, Duterte has remained very popular among Filipinos. For the first six months of his presidency he enjoyed a 90% approval rating, and even today it rarely dips lower than 70%.

The Making of “Duterte Harry”

Duterte was the son of a powerful local politician and began his political career by becoming a prosecutor. Through his father’s influence he became the mayor of Davao City, the third-largest city in the Philippines, in a reign that spanned 22 years. His mayoralty was briefly interrupted for a few years when he was elected to Congress.

The city is located in Mindanao, which is one of the most conflict-ridden islands of the Philippines. It has experienced ongoing insurgencies by militant Islamic groups as well as the Bagong Hukbong Bayan (New People’s Army, NPA), the armed wing of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (Communist Party of the Philippines, CPP).

During his tenure, Duterte ran the city with an iron fist by orchestrating the murder of hundreds of people through an outfit nicknamed the “Davao Death Squad” (or DDS). His supporters claim that the violence of the DDS was necessary to transform Davao City into the “safest city in Southeast Asia” despite still having an appalling rate of rape and murder. The squad would routinely hunt down drug dealers, petty criminals and street children. One report by the Coalition Against Summary Execution documented 814 death-squad killings in Davao City between 1998 and early 2009, the majority of the victims being the urban poor.

Duterte has never been charged with the murders. He flatly denies having anything to do with the DDS and its murderous activities. However, there have been numerous instances where he has claimed responsibility in offhand remarks, including on his TV talk show “From the Masses, For The Masses.” A former DDS hitman and a former Davao police officer have also testified that the death squads were being directed by Duterte. While he publicly distances himself from the death squad, he has made it clear that he supported vigilante violence against suspected criminals and drug users. As a result, he won the respect and praise of Davao’s political and business establishment. Most of the city’s residents see Duterte as the one that brought order to the city, and bestowed on him the notorious nickname “Duterte Harry,” a play on Clint Eastwood’s famously violent Dirty Harry film character.

Rise to the Presidency

How did someone as authoritarian and dangerous as Duterte win election and remain one of the most popular presidents in the history of the Philippines? To fully understand his success, it’s important to examine the current shape of Philippine capitalism, and how the liberal elite failed to meet the needs of the working class since the People Power Revolution of 1986.

The Spanish conquered the Philippines in 1565 and ruled it as a colony for over 300 years. A powerful class of landowners developed under Spanish rule as well as a Chinese merchant class. Both of these groups became privileged classes that accumulated land, wealth and power. The U.S. took over the role of imperial ruler after it defeated the Spanish in the Spanish-American War of 1898. The Americans institutionalized the power of the landed and merchant elites into a bicameral system of government, modeled on the U.S. Congress. At the same time it waged a violent war and occupation against the Filipino independence movement upwards of a million people, mostly from the peasantry and laboring classes, were killed while elites continued to bolster their fortunes.

While the occupation heavily favored U.S. interests, it also brought industrialization to the Philippines. This allowed an industrial bourgeoisie to rise alongside the traditional landowning families, a development that reshaped the power structure and resulted in what can be described as an “elite democracy.” The new ruling class then was a mix of the descendants of the landed aristocracy and the nouveaux riches from business and industry. To this day, this class dominates the country’s main political parties, which are almost identical in ideology and program. It often resorts to patronage and what was known as the three G’s: guns, goons, and gold. Today, a fourth “G” has been added to the mix: gigabytes. Duterte enjoys the support of thousands of online trolls who relentlessly harass political opponents on social media. The various factions of this elite use government office not to serve the people, but to extract as much wealth and privilege for themselves as they can.

Of course, peasants, agricultural workers, oppressed minorities, and a small but combative working class has long resisted this state of affairs. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, competition within the ruling-class put strains on society and in response workers, students, and peasants started to radicalize and mobilize. The most pronounced threat to the ruling class was probably the armed insurgency by the Maoist NPA, which formed to combat the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos declared martial law in 1972 in an attempt to stem the growth of both left- and right-wing radicalism in order to focus on economic development. It upset the decades long domination of the traditional elites by concentrating more power within the state, while relying on a loyal base of technocrats, loyal cronies and military officers. Instead of becoming a more developed economy, however, the Philippines became one of the most depressed while accruing a debt of over $10 billion. A good deal of this simply funded the Marcos family’s extravagant lifestyle, and is still being repaid to this day.

A turn toward electoral democracy came in 1983, after Marcos ordered the assassination of his main political opponent Ninoy Aquino. The outrage sparked a mass movement which coalesced behind Ninoy’s wife, Corazon (Cory) Aquino, who ran for president in 1986. Like the previous elections, this one was also marred by widespread voter fraud, tampering, and intimidation. However, this time the vast majority of the country knew that Cory won fair and square. When Marcos declared victory, Cory called for a mass movement and a general strike was planned at the end of February. Before the strike could occur, a group of military officers, organized under the Reform the Armed Forces Movement, occupied the military base in the capital and declared the Marcos administration to be illegitimate. To defend the officers from being slaughtered by loyalist forces, hundreds of thousands of people blocked the main road leading to the base. All over the country protests took over major cities and strikes shut down key industries. The mass mobilizations prevented troops loyal to Marcos from putting down the rebellion. After three days of struggle, Marcos was forced to leave the country, ending 14 years of dictatorship. Cory Aquino was sworn in as president, but capitalism remained very much intact. Despite some important reforms aimed at curbing government power and some attempts at land reform, the old ruling class retained its power. Today, some 70% of Philippines legislators are part of one political dynasty or another.

To be sure, resistance to landlord-capitalist rule continued. The most significant example was the movement to oust corrupt president Joseph Estrada in 2001, which was known as “People Power 2.” Unfortunately, the revolutionary left had not been able to make a major breakthrough during these upheavals and the traditional parties held their domination of the government.

Despite the expansion of the economy the fortunes of the Philippine working-class have not improved very much, with millions living in utter poverty and millions more facing a stagnant standard of living. It’s within this context that Duterte rose to power. He is widely seen as an effective leader that can get things done in a country where inept politicians enrich themselves and remain disconnected from the everyday struggles of working-class Filipinos. This right-wing populism is the key to Duterte’ electoral success and current popularity. As sociologist and political activist Walden Bello commented, it was Duterte’s “railing against corruption and poverty, his obvious disdain for the rich–the conos as he called them–and above all, his coming across as ‘one of you guys’ that acted as a magnet to workers, the urban poor, peasants, and the lower middle class.” People were looking for someone to shake things up, and many decided to give Duterte a shot.

As in the U.S., in the aftermath of his victory a false narrative casting the working class and the poor as politically hopeless dupes took hold. To begin with, Duterte did not win a majority of the vote. Duterte won 16 million votes, which is only about 29% of the entire electorate. As in the U.S., nearly half the country does not vote. Second, Duterte’s actual base is the middle class and the rich, though he also won votes from the lower classes. He was able to draw on these groups to get the financial resources he needed to win. The Duterte campaign raised $7.5 million dollars, and 90% of that came from just 13 individuals. Less than 1% of his campaign funds came small donations.

Duterte’s coalition consists of a coalition of prominent businessmen from Davao, traditional politicians that got snubbed by political dynasties, the new middle class (e.g. call center agents, overseas Filipino workers, and the national police). His election does not point to a revolt of the poor, but to a revolt of the new middle class who suffered from lack of public services, the horrendous air pollution and urban traffic, the breakdown of peace and order, and silently watched their tax dollars siphoned off by corruption despite decades of promises of improved governance.

This is not to diminish the swathes of support that Duterte continues to receive by, at a minimum, millions of workers, nor can none ignore the overwhelming and ongoing support that he continues to enjoy in public opinion. We should reject, however, the simplistic narrative that the Philippine masses as a whole were duped into voting for a violent strongman . Instead, we should understand that an important upper class bloc, unchallenged by a popular left-wing alternative, was able to take advantage of the genuine discontent of millions of people.

Ghosts of the Marcos Dictatorship

The overall political outlook in the Philippines is definitely not rosy. There is a debate within Philippine society as to whether democracy should be sacrificed in the interest of order and effective leadership. The “War on Drugs” continues to claim lives everyday, even when the purveyors of the war are caught in corruption scandals,as with the National Police orchestrating extra judicial killings or running drugs themselves, public support for the war remains high.

Polls have consistently shown that while most FIlipinos support the war,many fear that they or someone in their family will fall victim to its unending slaughter. A majority think that human rights abuses are definitely being carried out, but most think that war is effective in combating the drug trade. Support for Duterte’s policies is a cross between perceived effectiveness and deep-seated fear.

This combined perception of fear and effectiveness has been instrumental in tightening Duterte’s grip on power. Duterte has successfully defeated his biggest opponents within the ruling class, including the removal of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Maria Lourdes Sereno; the first woman to hold that position. Then he got his biggest political opponent, Senator Leila de Lima, charged with corruption after she gathered testimony from the hitman and police officer who identified Duterte as the coordinator of the DDS.

For many, this has raised fears that Duterte is a twenty-first century Marcos and that martial law and dictatorship will return. Duterte is a proud admirer of Marcos, which is illustrated not just in his kind words for the dictator but his actions. In November 2016, Duterte had Marcos buried in the national heroes’ cemetery, the place of rest for Philippine war heroes and past leaders. Duterte has also snubbed the annual People Power Revolution commemorations that the whole nation celebrates. It is expected that the political establishment will at least pay lip service to the revolution by attending the massive celebratory marches and rallies. For Duterte, it’s not just a petty refusal to participate but an active struggle against the people’s memory of the defeat of Marcos, the president’s political hero.

Following in Marcos’s footsteps, Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao. Between May and October of 2017, Islamic militants that aligned themselves with ISIS took over the town of Marawi. The fighting left the town in ruins, and killed over a thousand people, most of whom were insurgents, though some were Philippine government soldiers and civilians. Throughout the conflict, Duterte gave the military his full support and diverted funds from other government projects, including the Philippine Olympic committee, to support the campaign. During press conferences he shielded the military from public accusations of human rights abuses during the fighting. The battle for Marawi also allowed Duterte to declare martial law on the entire island of Mindanao and even got it extended three times. It was finally lifted at the end of last year.

Even without declaring a permanent nationwide martial law, Duterte has been effective in suppressing opposition from below. The Philippines is now one of the most dangerous places for activists anywhere in the world. As the academic and activist Amee Chew points out:

Twelve journalists were killed in the first two years under Duterte…[A]t least 34 lawyers have been assassinated. 48 environmental campaigners were murdered in 2017 alone, making the Philippines the second most dangerous country for environmentalists, after Brazil. By 2018, 14 massacres, killings mostly of farmers who were fighting for land reform, were perpetrated by police, military, or paramilitaries. Labor leaders are being slaughtered using tactics similar to those in the drug war…Police brutally beat peacefully picketing NutriAsia workers on strike and their supporters, wounding scores; then they charged the picketers with assault, planted weapons, and attempted to suppress journalists’ coverage of the dispersal.

Not even American citizens are safe from crackdowns. Brandon Lee, an Asian-American activist from the San Francisco Bay Area was shot in the head for defending indigenous communities; luckily he managed to survive.

Despite all this, Duterte’s power has continued to grow. The mid-term elections in May 2019 was a sweeping victory for him, as all 12 Senate seats that were up for election went to Duterte supporters. This increases Duterte’s ability to ram through sweeping legislation, which may include lowering the minimum age of criminal liability to 12, reinstatement of the death penalty, or a shift to federalism that would further empower the landowning political dynasties in the countryside.

Cutting off Aid

U.S. socialists could play an important role in stopping the slaughter in the Philippines and putting a check on Duterte’s dictatorial ambitions. To do so will require joining the movement to stop all U.S. military aid to the government of the Philippines.

The Philippines has played an important role in maintaining the U.S. empire’s foothold in Asia from the Spanish-American War through the present. As long as the Philippine elite supports American interests, the U.S. government has been more than happy to supply military hardware and training. Throughout all the excesses of the Marcos dictatorship, the U.S. supported his regime materially and politically while maintaining several military bases on the island. It took several days of the People Power Revolution in 1986 before the U.S. withdrew its political support for Marcos, but the military presence remained and the aid kept flowing.

At this point, there is no reason to believe that it will be any different under Duterte. Despite Duterte’s repeated threats to kick out U.S. troops and make an alliance with Russia and China, such actions have yet to materialize. The Philippine military has been closely tied to the Pentagon for decades and shows no sign of breaking away. And Duterte needs the military and the police, not just to retain his presidency, but to continue his “War on Drugs.” As the past three decades have shown, any president that has a falling out with the military will lose their power. Moreover, the Philippine military still relies on the Pentagon to help wage the ongoing war against Islamic and Communist insurgents.

During the siege of Marawi, Duterte did not hesitate to accept the assistance of U.S. intelligence and military advisors to crush the rebellion. After the victory in Marawi, Duterte then increased hostilities with the Communist NPA and welcomed more U.S. military aid. In August 2018, the US Embassy in Manila said the Philippines was the largest recipient of American military assistance in Southeast Asia, valued at over 294 million dollars for the past three years. This year, Trump authorized $1.5 billion annually for the Asia-Pacific region, which includes the Philippines, from 2019 to 2023. The U.S. State Department announced plans to deliver $5.3 million this year to the Philippine police for anti-narcotics activities.

Every tax dollar spent on military aid in the Philippines helps continue Duterte’s bloody crackdown on drugs which in turn supports his authoritarian rule. Even if Duterte decides to step down after his term is over, the military and National Police will still be using U.S. hardware to suppress opponents of elite rule.

Though Duterte enjoys popular support, it may not last forever. Filipinos have overthrown two presidents since 1986 because the ruling class enriched themselves while millions went hungry. The Philippine working class continues to suffer and our comrades there continue to fight for freedom and justice. We have a responsibility to stop our government from giving weapons to the state that suppresses them. As the left-wing slogan says, “Not another Nickel. Not another dime. No more money for Duterte’s crimes.”