MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has reached the half-way point of his mandate with his popularity sky-high and his opposition weakened – in some cases even repressed or annihilated.
Three years after the controversial figure came to power, Duterte still enjoys a public approval rating of about 80 percent – the highest rating of any democratically-elected Filipino leader – thanks, in part, to an economy boost, a hike in the employment rate and a considerable reduction of poverty, which fell from 27.7 percent of the population to 21 percent over 2015-18.
During this time, the president has managed pursue his bloody war on drugs and his campaign of harassment of activists, which have generated strong condemnation from the international community.
Duterte strengthened his hand in the May legislative elections when his allies won a majority in the senate, the most influential of the two parliamentary chambers in the Philippines.
Former National Police chief and architect of the war on drugs, Ronald dela Rosa; the president’s trusted friend, Bong Go; and the daughter of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Imee Marcos, all became senators and have pledged to push Duterte’s agenda.
With a sympathetic senate at his disposal, Duterte can now focus on pushing for two pieces of legislation that have been bogged down in the chamber – one would reinstate the death penalty, the other would reduce the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 12.
His critics fear he could propose a bill to scrap presidential term limits, which would allow him to stay in power beyond 2022, although Duterte recently said he was losing the motivation to stay in office.
“I lost my enthusiasm to work. Actually, I deeply regretted it. I regretted my decision to run for president,” he said two weeks ago, and even discouraged his daughter Sara, his likely successor, from following in his footsteps.
Few took his comments seriously. The president is known for his ill-considered speeches, and his detractors, activists and human rights advocates have all warned of the danger that a Duterte dynasty will settle into power.
As well as flunking the recent elections with a manifesto that failed to stir voters, the opposition is subject to an “unprecedented crackdown,” according a report from the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights this week.
At least eight lawmakers have faced allegedly politically-motivated charges since Duterte came to power in June 2016.
“The efforts by the Philippine government to harass, sideline and even imprison lawmakers are extremely troubling. These attempts to silence political opponents mark just one example of how democratic institutions are being eroded under President Duterte,” APHR chairperson and Malaysian MP Charles Santiago said.
One of the most notable cases is that of Senator Leila de Lima. A ferocious critic of Duterte, she has been detained in jail for what APHR said is a “fabricated conspiracy to drug trafficking charges” since Feb. 2017.
Her arrest came shortly after she opened a senate inquiry into human rights violations in Duterte’s war on drugs.
Activism has also suffered under the president, who has unleashed smear campaigns against human rights defenders, trade unionists and leftists, who he has branded as “legal fronts” for the outlawed Communist Party and its armed wing, the New People’s Army.
In the three years of the Duterte administration, some 250 activists have been killed and attempts have been made on the lives of another 400, while 540 have been imprisoned and some 87,500 have been harassed or intimidated, according to data provided to EFE by Karapatan, a national alliance of human rights defenders.
This month, between June 15-17, four activists linked to left-wing groups were assassinated in different parts of the Philippines.
In addition, the murders of five judges, 38 lawyers, 12 journalists and five priests have been documented during these past three years. In 2018 alone, 38 politicians were killed – twice as many as the previous year.
Currently, the homicide rate in the Philippines stands at 22 for every 100,000 inhabitants, three times more than before Duterte’s election, and five times more than the Southeast Asian average, according to UN data.
Earlier this week, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet referred to the issues of violence and persecution, warning that it “undermines rule of law, as well as the right to freedom of expression.”
Bachelet also spoke of the war on drugs, which according to the UN has claimed more than 27,000 lives in three years of the campaign, and marked by bloodshed and impunity; although the police in its latest records only admitted to having killed 6,600 suspects.
“The extraordinarily high number of deaths – and persistent reports of extrajudicial killings – in the context of campaigns against drug use continue,” she said, adding that even the officially-confirmed number of deaths “would be a matter of most serious concern for any country.”
Duterte, on the other hand, has promised that his war on drugs will continue until the end of his term in 2022, as tough and bloody as the first day.