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Duterte’s Legacy: the War on Drugs and Gloomy Presidential Election

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Right after winning the 2016 presidential election of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte announced his plans to launch a War on Drugs that the country hadn’t seen before. From allowing all citizens to kill anyone they suspect of drug usage to providing financial incentives to the police and local vigilantes for murdering — this war is truly something the world hadn’t experienced before. After 6 years of intense fighting, the Philippines are now ready for a new presidential election. But with a dictator’s son, Duterte’s allies, and a world-famous boxer on the candidate list does the country really have prospects for change?

Duterte’s Legacy: the War on Drugs and Gloomy Presidential Election

When Rodrigo Duterte won the presidential election in 2016 he made one thing very clear — no use of drugs would be tolerated under his supervision. But his persistence on this became even more serious when Duterte passed a law allowing all civilians to kill anyone that they suspected of drug usage or dealing, officially launching a full-scale War on Drugs. With thousands dead and abused by the corrupt police force, it seems like the country is taking one step forward and two steps back on its way to ‘sustainable’ long-term change. But after 6 years of fear imposed by Duterte’s office the new presidential election is about to take place. On May 9th millions of Filipinos will head to the voting booths to select the new leader of the country. However, even with the election only one week away, the Philippines’ chances to witness the light at the end of the tunnel remain questionable.

The War on Drugs: vigilante ‘justice’ and the corrupt police 

A strict perception against drugs is nothing new in the Philippines — this agenda which views drug addicts and dealers as the main evil of the society became widespread back in the 1970s and is still upheld to this day. For decades, the country has faced a rather great problem of drug consumption given that rates of methamphetamine hydrochloride (locally known as ‘shabu’) usage are skyrocketing.

According to official reports, the drug usage level has decreased drastically ever since the crackdown started — from 4 million users in 2016 to a more than halved 1.67 million in 2019. However, the initial number of addicts is often debated and the progress itself is questionable. The decreasing numbers of drug consumers and dealers expose the widespread corruption that’s poisoning the social system of the Philippines.

Although the value differs depending on the source, the number of killings over the past years is often estimated to be anywhere around 29,000 and potentially even more. But the issue lies in the corrupt police force and civilians that face financial incentives to kill. These individuals receive ‘bonuses’ for turning in dealers, regardless of whether they are alive or dead. For example, policemen are paid anywhere from 8000 to 15000 pesos (€124 to €270) ‘per head’. This has led to numerous cases of public servants planting drugs at innocent people’s homes and then either arresting or killing them, gaining cash bonuses in return. As brutal as this sounds, police have been reported to give orders to vigilantes in return for cash, allowing both sides to benefit financially from an innocent death.

This situation became even worse when the COVID-19 lockdown started — throughout this period, the number of deaths caused by the War on Drugs increased by more than 50%. Such escalation has resulted in approx. 39 people getting killed on a monthly basis compared to the previous 26 a month. The majority of the victims are members of impoverished communities who are exploited by money-hungry officers that often falsify evidence at the cost of people’s lives. But Duterte does not seem to care — in fact, during an official statement the President said that poverty is not an excuse for drug dealing and “if you die, I’m sorry.” Such an attitude is cruel and ignorant to say the least, but it sheds light on the structural issues of the Philippines’ system.

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Duterte’s policies and public lies that claim that those who surrender are not killed only further perpetuate the depiction of drug addicts as violent criminals that must be eliminated. While drug-based gangs do exist and are often aggressive, the level of rebel violence has drastically decreased since 2018, meaning that the majority of the victims are small-time drug pushers and casual drug users that are unwilling to put up a fight when authorities knock on their door. Combined with the amount of innocent victims whose identities were mistaken and those that had drugs planted in their homes, it becomes clear that Duterte’s War on Drugs is not the reform one should acclaim. 

The state’s authorities refuse to recognise the structural issues of the problem — those who are impoverished are often forced to turn to drug dealing in order to survive. Simultaneously, many of the shabu consumers are people working very long hours in jobs that require undivided attention and include no breaks. This points at huge structural problems that are widely ignored by the government and are left unaddressed — proper education, changes in the labor market and rehab centers are much better at sustaining long-term change. But Duterte doesn’t seem to think this way, bringing on the possibility of a very gloomy future. Although the presidential elections will be taking place on May 9th and Duterte himself is not running, plenty of people with similar views are. 

The presidential election: from a dictator’s son to Duterte’s puppets

The Philippines’ presidential election this year has one of the most bizarre candidate compositions ever. The main 4 candidates with the highest levels of support are Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., Leni Robredo, Isko Moreno Domagoso, Manny Pacquiao. The man holding the greatest level of support as of now is Marcos — the son of a previous dictator whose family is responsible for taking $10bn from the public fund and declaring martial law that lasted for years. Robredo is the current vice-president running on the grounds of starting the “pink revolution” — strengthening family values and the rule of law. Domagoso is the current mayor of Manilla who has also served in Duterte’s cabinet. Last but certainly not the least is Pacquiao — a world famous boxer mainly known by his nickname “Pacman” who has attracted a wide support base mainly due to his underdog story and a political campaign that rests on the idea of defeating corruption.

This presidential candidate line-up is not something you’d see very often but the backgrounds of these politicians are what makes this race so important. It is very unexpected that a country plagued with poverty is showing the majority of its support towards Marcos, whose family plundered the country’s wealth for years and established a dictatorship. Naturally, one would think that the nation, 23.7% of which is stuck below the poverty line, would cast its vote for a candidate like Pacquiao who experienced poverty first hand. However, the young voters of the Philippines, who account for 28% of the country’s population, have never experienced or do not remember the crimes committed by the Marcos family. Simultaneously, it turns out that many Filipinos consider the era of dictatorship as a period of prosperity and fail to see the harm made by the previous leader, allowing Marcos Jr. to maintain a good reputation and become the frontrunner of the race.

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Marcos’ campaign becomes even more dangerous when you consider the fact that Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte, is running as Bongbong’s vice president and this combination is not too promising for the future of the Philippines. The two have announced plans on making military conscription obligatory for all 18-year-olds and imposing the death penalty on criminals that fail to be rehabilitated. With such policy proposals and a strict outlook against drug consumption, we are likely to see the violent War on Drugs continue in case of their victory. Simultaneously, given Marcos’ past history, it seems like the fight against poverty might suffer too — the case of tax evasion on his record does not give too much hope when it comes to protecting public funds.

An alternative outcome to the election is the victory of Leni Robredo. Although the current vice-president of the Philippines holds 24% of public support, his support has been steadily increasing while Marcos’ has been slowly decreasing compared to previous months. Running as an independent candidate, Robredo bases her campaign on ensuring transparency, stable employment, protection of workers’ rights, and reestablishment of traditional family values. But while some of her goals may seem promising, it is doubtful that the current vice-president will be able to properly reform the socioeconomic system of the Philippines. Ironically, despite her affiliation with the Liberal Party, Robredo stands against abortions, divorce, and same sex marriage making it clear that in case of her victory, Filipinos are unlikely to witness socially progressive reforms. Simultaneously, her campaign has been criticized given the fact that the majority of her support base consists of social elites, celebrities, and rich families. This allows for the implication that, despite her economic reform proposals, we are unlikely to see socioeconomic progress that would target the country’s impoverished communities.

But not all hope is lost. Robredo is one of the strongest critics of Duterte’s War on Drugs, despite being his vice-president. She has claimed the campaign to be a failure given its focus on small-time dealers and the ineffective strategy. Alternatively, Robredo supports rehabilitation and views the drug problem as a health issue. Therefore, in the case of Robredo’s victory, we are likely to see the end of Duterte’s brutal War on Drugs and a change in perspective that would allow the Philippines to experience long-term sustainable change. However, given the current presidential polls, such an outcome is not very likely. Instead, it’s more probable that we will see Marcos and Duterte’s daughter continue the anti-drug campaign. The frontrunner has said that he would continue the campaign but would alter some of its aspects, such as placing a greater focus on education and preventative measures. Yet, it’s unclear to what extent these claims are true since back in 2016 Marcos was advocating for implementing the death penalty for drug traffickers. As a result, the drug policy in his political campaign remains very ambiguous and poses the risk of the Philippines experiencing yet another War on Drugs in the case of the dictator’s son’s victory.

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Duterte’s War on Drugs is one of the most violent political campaigns the world has ever witnessed, especially given the direct involvement of public authorities and the role that corruption has had in it. With the financial incentive driven police targeting impoverished communities and leaving thousands dead, one would expect Filipino voters to show their support for presidential candidates like “Pacman.” However, as the current polls predict, the Philippines are likely to elect Marcos Jr. as the president, leaving the lesser of two evils, Leni Robredo, behind. In light of this, the country’s future does not seem too bright — we might just see the War on Drugs continue to plague the Philippines for upcoming years.

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Student of International Politics and Government. Key interest areas: politics, international relations, history, and social movements. Incredibly passionate about debating tournaments, analysing global developments, and investigating a variety of topics through writing.

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