The war on the drug trade that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte kicked off when he took office this summer has killed more than 3,600 lives since June 30, the majority of them slain by unknown killers.
During that time, Duterte has achieved sky-high approval ratings.
After the first three months of his presidency, his +64 net approval rating is the second-highest at that point in any Philippine presidency since 1986, according to a late-September survey conducted Manila-based polling group Social Weather Stations.
Another survey conducted in October found that 84% of Filipinos supported his drug crackdown, even if most of them thought it was important to arrest suspects alive.
All of this comes despite the considerable criticism he has received from countries and organisations around the world for his blunt, often offensive talk, including swearing at US President Barack Obama and making a favourable comparison between his drug war and the Holocaust.
Duterte’s popularity has come a long way. Prior to the May presidential election, in which he won 39% of votes in the five-way race, he had one of the lowest trust ratings.
He has won over Filipinos for a number of reasons.
He surged to victory in the polls in May “as a tough-talking outsider who astutely tapped into the anti-establishment sentiment of the Philippine electorate,” Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science professor at De La Salle University in the Philippines, wrote late last month.
Filipinos have flocked to his blunt talk, name-and-shame drug campaign, and willingness to antagonize the country’s elites, and the abuses his policies have lead to “matter little so long as he continues to be seen publicly as the antidote to the country’s overwhelmed legal system, sclerotic public institutions and corrupt elites,” Stratfor argued in late August.
‘This is a huge disappointment’
But Duterte has encountered disapproval from some high-profile sectors.
Fidel Ramos, Philippine president from 1992 to 1998 and the only president to secure a higher rating in his first three months than Duterte, criticised the current Philippine leader in an op-ed published on October 8.
“In the overall assessment by this writer, we find our team Philippines losing in the first 100 days of DU30’s administration — and losing badly,” Ramos wrote, using Duterte’s nickname, DU30. “This is a huge disappointment and let-down to many of us.”
Duterte had failed to get results on issues like alleviating poverty, relief on rising living costs, improving quality of life, and enhancing public security in his first 100 days in office — which he could’ve addressed “if he had hit the ground running instead of being stuck in unending controversies about extra-judicial killings of drug suspects and in his ability at using cuss-words and insults instead of civilized language,” Ramos argued.
Duterte has also encountered pushback in the legislature. He has supermajority support in the congress but has encountered vocal opposition there, led by Senator Leila De Lima, one of his fiercest critics.
De Lima has presented evidence that Duterte was complicit in vigilante killings as mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippines. Soon after she did so, an “unprecedented” vote was held to oust her from her top spot on the Senate’s justice committee, and she says Duterte and his supporters have orchestrated a hate campaign against her, with Duterte himself alluding to an alleged sex tape involving De Lima and referring to her as an “X-rated actress.”
Earlier this week, the Senate adopted a motion to condemn “in the strongest possible terms” the “illegal” plan by the House of Representatives to show that alleged sex tape.
Duterte’s aggressive drug war has also exposed rifts within the Philippine Catholic Church, an influential institution in Asia’s largest Catholic nation. More than a dozen clergymen told Reuters that they were unsure and apprehensive about taking a stand against the bloodshed of Duterte’s drug war, considering the overwhelming popularity of the campaign.
Father Luciano Felloni, a priest in the northern part of Manila, said to Reuters that opposing Duterte’s campaign is “a dangerous job.”
“There is a lot of fear because the way people have been killed is vigilante-style so anyone could become a target,” Felloni said.
Others within the church are more ambivalent. “Are the means unnecessarily illegitimate?” asked Father Joel Tabora, a Jesuit priest in Duterte’s home turf of Davao. “People are dying, yes, but on the other hand, millions of people are being helped,” he went on.
Public backing for Duterte’s bloody campaign has also likely put a chill on members of the church, which has helped oust two Philippine presidents.
“The Church has to back off … We voted for our president because he promised to stop drugs,” Jenny Calma, a 34-year-old mother of two, told Reuters. “The Church will lose” if it confronts Duterte over the drug-related killings, she said.
‘We are at war’
Though Duterte appears unbowed by the backlash to his policies, recent developments suggest it might get harder politically for him to continue them.
His railing against foreign powers like the US and China, as well as his habit of naming Filipinos as criminals without offering evidence, has spooked investors and businesses. And his repudiations of the US and overtures to China may lead him to an awkward position where abandoning the alliance with the former or fully embracing the later raises public ire.
In the near term, those economic and geopolitical dynamics don’t appear to have dragged on Duterte, nor do they appear to have given pause to the officials enforcing his hardline stance against the drug trade.
“I have to encourage them to do our job,” Philippine police chief Ronald Dela Rosa told Reuters during a recent trip to a regional police headquarters on Luzon. “We are at war.”
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