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Rodrigo Duterte

Philippine ‘strongman’ Duterte isn’t so tough when faced with economic or territorial battles

Steven Keithley says the Philippine president came to power on the promise of ‘real change’ but his bloody crackdown on drugs is just a smokescreen

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2016, 4:28pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2016, 7:49pm

In his inaugural speech, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte claimed it was the promise of “real change” which secured his victory. He wasn’t wrong. Filipinos flocked to Duterte’s forthright and aggressive tone, which cut a stark contrast with his soft-spoken predecessor. Voters saw in him a tough talker who would shake up the establishment in a way that would allow average people to benefit from record economic growth, and a fighter who could handle threats from drug traffickers and an encroaching China. The then-mayor of Davao City seemed like the perfect leader for these turbulent times. And, in just two months, the man nicknamed “Duterte Harry” has realised his tough rhetoric and delivered real change.

Except where it really counts. So far, Duterte’s tenure has been defined by his drug policy. Under Duterte, the Philippine police have killed at least 870 “suspects” (alleged dealers and addicts) and forced the surrender of 600,000 more. He has also made numerous speeches that seem to encourage citizens to take the law into their own hands, and, although Malacanang Palace denies any support for vigilantism, there have been over 1,300 murders of suspected dealers and addicts by “unidentified assailants”.

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Yet, despite potentially disastrous diplomatic consequences, including the cancellation of a key meeting between US President Barack Obama and Duterte over the latter’s “son of a whore” insult, ordinary Filipinos remain steadfastly behind their leader. However, what they don’t realise is that the “war on drugs” is a smokescreen, unrepresentative of Duterte’s true character. As a widely supported policy that he can unilaterally address with executive powers, this crackdown allows Duterte to play the “tough guy” role without actually making hard decisions. More importantly, it masks the fact that, on the more difficult issues where the president’s famous grit is needed most, the lion from Davao City is a lamb.

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In the month since the Permanent Court of Arbitration found China in violation of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, Duterte, who had pledged to ride a jet ski through the Scarborough Shoal, has been uncharacteristically quiet, saying the ruling should be addressed in private negotiations. This plays right into China’s hands. In bilateral talks, Beijing’s preferred method of diplomacy, Manila is certain to be strong-armed into accepting an unfavourable status quo.

On the more difficult issues where the president’s famous grit is needed most, the lion from Davao City is a lamb

If Duterte were as aggressive about enforcing the ruling as he is about pursuing drug traffickers, it could rally opposition to China’s maritime assertiveness from the likes of Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, and global powers with a strong interest in the rule of law like Japan, Australia and the US.

A united opposition comprised of China’s largest trade partners could generate leverage. Furthermore, in the longer term, such a stance could strengthen strategic alliances with several of Manila’s key trading partners, which would help Duterte maintain record growth rates.

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The economy is another area where Duterte has been silent. While campaigning, he promised to bring prosperity to ordinary Filipinos through the “Davao model”, slashing bureaucracy, building infrastructure and overhauling regulations governing taxation. Yet, national implementation of this model requires cooperation with Congress. While Duterte commands overwhelming support in the House of Representatives, there are recalcitrant factions in the Senate that could stall his agenda. Such defiance will only increase as the “war on drugs” continues. Thus, now would be the ideal time for Duterte to use the political capital generated by record-high public support to rally supporters and shame opponents in Congress into passing his economic agenda.

Yet, the man who built his career on being a tough guy is too timid. Fortunately for him, global attention is on his drug policy and, for the coming weeks and months, he can maintain the strongman façade. However, if Duterte does not change his tune, when his “war” ends, or when ordinary Filipinos realise that the economic and security benefits he promised will not materialise, “Duterte Harry” could be in store for a Clint Eastwood-style showdown.

Steven Keithley is the executive editor of the Virginia Journal of International Law