Philippines just elected their version of Trump
If the 2016 presidential election in the United States is seen as a circus, then other countries around the world must be ready to join it. Across the globe, political groups teetering on the extreme are gaining public support. Much like as in the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S., local populations are seemingly fed up with current governance.
The latest victim of this movement is the Philippines with its election of Rodrigo Duterte to its presidency. With just over 25 percent of its population living in poverty and a noticeable inequality gap, it is no wonder that resentment towards the ruling elite exists in the Philippines. However, electing a person with the pedigree of Duterte is a risky strategy that may very well end up causing more issues than the Philippine public is ready for.
To his credit, Duterte did turn one of the country’s most violent cities into arguably its safest while mayor of Davao City. As many international human rights groups have pointed out though, this is partly due to his allowance of brutal death squads. For instance, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has observed that the death squads claimed more than 1,000 lives during Duterte’s tenure as mayor of Davao City. Duterte, not one to keep his thoughts to himself had a vicious response to HRW. When the report was brought to Duterte’s attention, he responded “come to Davao City and do drugs in my city. I will execute you in public”.
This type of crackdown on crime is what has the Philippine public on Duterte’s side. He has somehow managed to convince the majority of the population that he will solve drugs, criminality, and corruption in three to six months, by using any means necessary. Unfortunately, just as HRW has reported, Duterte’s past and future proposals on crime leave much to be desired.
Recalling from his tenure as mayor of Davao City, Duterte actually announced the names of ‘criminals’ on local television and radio in 2002. Some of those that were named ended up being victims of the death squads. In 2009, Duterte told reporters “if you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination”.
While nobody wants to have crime rampant in their country, what people qualify as a crime can have very different definitions. Just last week Duterte was asked about how he would better protect journalists after one was murdered recently. He responded by saying “dishonest reporters deserved to die”. It appears that Philippine history backs that sentiment up too. At least 174 journalists have been killed over the last three decades.
Finally, in May Duterte said he will bring public capital punishment back in the form of hangings, so no bullets will be wasted by using a firing squad. He stated to reporters “Do not destroy my country because I will kill you. No middle ground…if you try to evade arrest, refuse arrest…and you put up a good fight or resist violently, I will say ‘Kill them’”.
However, what is most worrying about Duterte is not his rhetoric. It is that the fact that the citizens of the Philippines have been so disengaged from their previous governments, that they felt this is the answer. Making matters worse, this isn’t a problem unique to the Philippines. This phenomenon is happening throughout the democratic world. In the U.S. it is Donald Trump, in France it is Marine Le Pen, in the U.K. it is Nigel Farage, and the list goes on.
I’m not saying this movement is an existential threat to democracy, but it certainly could be a stumbling block. It becomes increasingly hard to promote democracy when the countries that support it elect suspect leaders such as Duterte. Furthermore, challenging authoritarian governments to uphold international law is nearly impossible when democratic leaders threaten to sidestep it themselves. Look at any new democracy and you will see that building a democracy is not an easy task. It is also far easier to damage a governmental system than repair it. Something the Philippines and potentially others, are likely to find out.