President Rodrigo Duterte’s candidacy when he was campaigning for office was, euphemistically speaking, colourful. Not one to shy from controversy – indeed, he seemed to thrive on generating them – Duterte as presidential candidate likely riled as many voters as he won over. The final election tally showed 16.6 million votes for Duterte, more than 6.5 million higher than the next candidate, Mar Roxas; however, that constitutes only 39 percent of the votes cast. Perhaps as an olive branch to the other 61 percent of the voters, Duterte promised that he would be “presidential” once he takes office, and temper his language, delivery, and modus operandi. That change remains pending, as the recent kerfuffle from President Duterte’s impudent reference to President Obama reveals. Meanwhile, however, the Duterte presidency is on track to deliver on some of the more controversial, and concerning, promises.
Top on that list of the President’s promises are the war on drugs and law-and-order, particularly organized crime. The President pledged in his first State-of-the-Nation address that “we will not stop until the last drug lord, the last financier and the last pusher have surrendered or been put behind bars or are below the ground if they so wish.” As if to make good on that pledge, on August 8, 2016, the President named 159 “narco-officials” – mayors, judges, congress representatives, and police involved in the drug trade – and gave them 24 hours to surrender or be tracked down by security forces; on that cue, police and the military disarmed and relieved those in armed services on that list, and pulled out security escorts for those in government.
Indeed, backed by rewards and the President’s assurance of protection, almost 3000 killings have occurred since the President took office, with about half attributable to vigilantes, the Philippine National Police reported on September 10, 2016. The peril of being gunned down has led an estimated 700,000 to surrender, far exceeding the government’s capacity to rehabilitate or support. Notwithstanding, the President has refused to back away from sanctioning extrajudicial killings; instead, while expressing “cause for concern” regarding the vigilante murders, the Presidential Office has declared the war on drugs a success. And, President Duterte has hit back at the senate inquiry into extrajudicial killings with accusations that the chair, Senator Leila de Lima, is linked to drug syndicates.
On other fronts, President Duterte has also made good on his promise to address corruption in the country, by declaring all appointive offices vacant on August 22, 2016, so that the positions may be staffed with appointments made by the Presidential Management Staff. The move affected thousands, and left in office only those appointed after June 30. The President also followed up on his pledge to work for former President Arroyo’s release from prison: on July 30, the Supreme Court ordered her release on the grounds of insufficient evidence against her. And, President Duterte has approved former President Marcos’ burial at Libingan ng mga Bayani, or “heroes cemetery,” despite protests against that decision. That decision has been put on hold by the Supreme Court, which is hearing arguments on that decision.
The President is largely unfettered: he enjoys the support of a super-majority in the legislature, and has a 91 percent trust rating (by way of contrast, Vice President Leni Robredo has 62 percent). His proposed constitutional change into federalism for the Philippines is unlikely to hit obstacles: to that end, the President has moved towards a constitutional assembly, rather than a constitutional convention, so that lawmakers will draft and approve the changes. The use of a constitutional assembly has ignited concerns that legislators may carve a constitution that will save their jobs rather than the country, but the President has assured the public that there is nothing to worry: he will treat self-serving lawmakers “like drug addicts.” A threat that few have difficulty envisioning, it seems.