Where Duterte’s drug war is being fought

The global rise of populism has led to concerns about an increase in levels of state repression.

This was the case with the election of Rodrigo Duterte in May 2016. Since then, thousands of Filipinos, mostly coming from poor socio-economic backgrounds, have been killed through Extra-Judicial Killings (EJKs) obviating due process and the presumption of innocence.

Supporters label the war on drugs colloquially known as “OplanTokhang” as a necessary governmental program to address a prevalent social problem that may affect long-term prospects for economic growth and social stability. The Duterte administration also justifies the program as a necessity to prevent the country from becoming a narco-state.

Critics decry the use of police vigilantism as an indication of creeping authoritarianism that may ultimately render the Philippines as a failed state where vigilante justice will replace the rule of law. Domestic opposition mounts against the Philippine war on drugs, but the program remains active as it is endorsed by the public showing that close to 8 out of 10 Filipinos support the violent anti-narcotics campaign of Duterte.

Because of the everyday nature of violence visible in the Philippines today, international human rights organisations have condemned the Duterte administration for initiating a war against his own people short of genocide, compelling the International Criminal Court, in the Hague, to initiate preliminary investigations as to the atrocities committed by the Philippine government.

Under this backdrop, there is a wide degree of variation on the occurrence of EJKs at the sub-national level. An interesting dynamic is at play where some Philippine provinces encounter more killings, while other provinces remain spared from the lethal violence carried out by the Philippine National Police.

What accounts for this unexplained and interesting variation? According to the results of my study, two predominant theories help explain the political phenomenon.

One theory looks at how delegative democracies, a concept put forward by the political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell, has a propensity of electing into office presidents who assume the mantle of populism granted that horizontal accountability is relatively absent. With very weak institutions like a rubber stamping legislature and a cronyistic judicial branch that does not effectively practice judicial review, presidents of delegative democracies must rely on vertical accountability—that is, continued support from the masses—in order to remain politically salient, legitimate, and accountable.

Implicit in this type of democracy is how the president defines the “national ethos” or directs a “national program” to correct the mistakes of the past to create the illusion of being a saviour of the nation from an elitist political system that failed in ushering in economic prosperity and social cohesion. Delegative democrats, like Duterte, are therefore keen on maintaining legitimacy by running on a law and order platform of governance.

Such presidents are compelled to sell this national message even after elections are over by visiting regions of the country where the candidate won in large numbers to sustain their mandate and legitimacy to govern. Post-electoral campaign visits and speeches in areas where the president received a larger share of votes are necessary to maintain the core base of support in order to circumvent the rise of the political opposition and retain the prerogative to rule by decree (with very limited opposition). Such a political strategy allows the delegative leader to continue to define the “national” mandate without effective contestation from political opponents, an open media, and civil society.

Thus, in the context of the empirical evidence, there is a high correlation between provinces where Duterte’s vote share is highest and the frequency and intensity of police killings. Likewise, my study also finds that provinces that have been visited by Duterte post-election are also prone to higher levels of police vigilantism through Extra-Judicial Killings.

Such delegative democracies, however, are prone to instability. As O’Donnell stipulates, “one day they are acclaimed as providential saviours, and the next they are cursed as only fallen gods can be.” Thus, the programs initiated by delegative democrats are risky—there must be a high degree of efficacy associated with their programs or plans of action or they may risk political expulsion when vertical accountability from the masses is lost. This phenomenon is largely validated in the Philippines, where my study finds that provinces that have high drug affectation rates in terms of Methamphetamine addiction (per barangay or local government units) are those that also experience a higher prevalence of EJKs.

Lastly, theories on penal populism also support the high degree of variation of EJKs among Philippine provinces.

Duterte’s enduring popularity is not just a political choice—it is also religious

Jayeel Cornelio and Erron Media explore how religious perceptions feeds into Duterte's popularity.

Duterte’s use of rhetoric attributing the war on drugs along the lines of “either you’re with us or against us,” is a useful tool populist demagogues utilise to sell the national directive because it evokes a simple message that appears to be sincere. This demarcation of attributing moral categorisations to citizens based on involving oneself with vices or living a moral, virtuous existence has been effective in exploiting the primordial fears and anxieties of the Filipinos in rural areas, especially in the provinces. Considering that the Filipino middle class has also increased and experienced modest improvements in their quality of life, it then becomes inevitable that Filipinos become vulnerable to a virulent and pernicious populist ideology where their very sense of existential security is on the line.

So long as the political narrative of how any drug pusher or drug user must be purged even if it obviates the rule of law is inculcated in the minds of Filipino voters through fiery and combative speeches made by Duterte, the bloody war on drugs will continue unabated because of popular support. However, when such programs carried out by populists lose its efficacy, as what occurred in Thailand and Colombia, delegative leaders lose their mass appeal and become vulnerable to political replacement through military coups or extra-legal means and measures.

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