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When a Populist Demagogue Takes Power

'State-condoned extrajudicial killings have soared since Duterte took office.'
'State-condoned extrajudicial killings have soared since Duterte took office.'
Since Rodrigo Duterte was elected President of the Philippines, in May, more than three thousand people have been killed in a vicious drug war.

Duterte does not, as he has put it, “give a shit” about human rights, which he sees as a Western obsession that keeps the Philippines from taking the action necessary to clean up the country. He is also hypersensitive to criticism. “Duterte’s weakness is, really, he’s a tough guy,” Greco Belgica, a Filipino politician and an ally of Duterte’s, said. “You do not talk down to a tough guy. He’ll snap.”

Duterte’s war on drugs has resulted in the deaths of more than three thousand people, drawing condemnation from human-rights groups and Western governments. In early September, before the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in Laos, a journalist asked Duterte what he would say if President Barack Obama raised the issue of human rights. “You know, the Philippines is not a vassal state,” he replied. “We have long ceased to be a colony of the United States.” Alternating between English and Tagalog, and pounding on the lectern, Duterte, it was widely reported, said of Obama, “Son of a whore, I’ll curse you at that forum.”

Since the overthrow of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, in 1986, the Philippines has been a democracy, if an often dysfunctional one. Duterte’s actions challenge the liberal Western values that are enshrined in the Philippine constitution. Although he styles himself a revolutionary, Duterte seems uncertain about what kind of order will replace the one he aims to overthrow, or whether he will be around to see it. He often intimates that he may not live to finish his term, whether because of overwork and age—he is seventy-one—or something more sinister. “Will I survive the six years?” he asked recently. “I’d make a prediction: maybe not.”

In November, 2015, shortly before the start of the Presidential campaign, at a birthday party for a law-school classmate, Duterte announced that he was running. He became a replacement candidate for P.D.P.-Laban, a nearly moribund party that was founded in the nineteen-eighties to oppose Marcos. Duterte had neither the family name nor the party machinery that is typically needed to compete in a Presidential election.

Duterte focussed on illegal drugs, an issue that has never registered among voters’ major concerns. “The usual top three problems would be health, education, housing,” Cayetano told me. But the Philippines’ close proximity to China has made it a lucrative market for drug smugglers. Methamphetamine, known as shabu, is widely abused, especially in the slums, where pedicab drivers and day laborers use the drug in order to work longer hours. Cayetano said, “He was bullheaded in telling people our problem is drugs. We’re nearly a narco-state, and our police are afraid. Our judges, fiscals”—prosecutors—“are either afraid or on the take. Congressmen are in it, mayors are in it.” The idea that drug traffickers have penetrated the government did not seem outlandish to many Filipinos, who have seen two Presidents in the past fifteen years enmeshed in racketeering scandals involving illegal gambling syndicates.

Rodrigo Duterte
Rodrigo Duterte
Duterte speaks of drug use as an existential threat, a “contamination” that will destroy the country unless radical action is taken. “They are the living walking dead,” he said of shabu users. “They are of no use to society anymore.” Duterte sees drug use as a symptom of a government’s ineffectiveness, but his animus suggests a personal vendetta. Duterte, who has four children by two women, was asked at a Presidential debate what he would do if he caught his children using drugs. “None of my children are into illegal drugs,” he responded. “But my order is, even if it is a member of my family, kill him.” The WikiLeaks cable reported that the regional director of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights had claimed that one of Duterte’s sons had a history of drug abuse. “The Mayor channeled his anger over his son’s drug use not just against drug pushers, but also drug users, eventually leading him to embrace vigilante killings as a means to reduce crime,” the report read. After one of Duterte’s political opponents raised the allegation of drug abuse, Duterte’s eldest son, Paolo, took a drug test and publicized his clean result.

Duterte’s campaign had a rocky start. In a speech announcing his candidacy, he rambled on for more than an hour, offering an account of personally killing kidnappers and setting their car on fire, pledging to kill “up to a hundred thousand criminals” when elected, and boasting of his womanizing. “If I can love a hundred million and one, I can love four women at the same time,” he said.

Duterte’s language confirmed his image as a political outsider. “It was something people could relate to,” Pia Ranada, a reporter at the news Web site Rappler, told me. She said that Duterte came across as “the father who would protect you but also the masa leader, the populist leader who will look after your interests, who cares for you because he’s one of you.”

Click here to read the full article

Source: The New Yorker, Adrian Chen, Nov. 21, 2016 Issue

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