by Troy Tuquero
The 2019 Midterm Elections in the Philippines proved to be a victory for President Rodrigo Duterte and his ruling coalition, PDP-Laban. Supporters of the President claimed victory over nine of the 12 Senate seats that were up for grabs, signaling the beginning of a newly emboldened presidency. The first half of the President’s term had been marked by opposition from a small group of Senators, who had successfully blocked certain portions of the President’s agenda. The midterm winners who will be replacing some of these opposition Senators are controversial figures. They include national police chief and proponent of Duterte’s drug war Ronald dela Rosa and Imee Marcos, daughter of the late Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos who embezzled billions of dollars during his rule. Critics of Duterte have condemned the President for supporting candidates with personal or family ties to corruption and for prioritizing personal loyalty over candidate qualifications.
The Liberal Party opposition had hoped to expand the size of their caucus with the intent of acting as a check on the President and conducting oversight of the “War on Drugs.” Since taking office in 2016, Duterte’s drug war has led to the extrajudicial killings of over 12,000 Filipinos, at least 2,555 of which were perpetrated by the Philippine National Police. Last year, the President admitted in a rambling speech that extrajudicial killings were occurring under his administration. He did not express much remorse, even challenging the police and military to remove him if they thought he was doing a bad job. “I told the military, what is my fault? Did I steal even one peso?” President Duterte said. “My only sin is the extrajudicial killings.”
President Duterte’s “War on Drugs” has drawn condemnation from human rights organizations and international and domestic figures. Vice President of the Philippines Leni Robredo and Cardinal Tagle of Manila have denounced the extrajudicial killings that have taken place. In August of last year, Duterte was issued a complaint by the International Criminal Court (ICC) that called for his indictment on charges of murder and crimes against humanity.
Despite these condemnations, Duterte’s authoritarian tendencies undermine fundamental Filipino institutions. The Duterte administration withdrew from the ICC in response to the two issued complaints and the Court’s preliminary inquiries. The President even threatened to arrest ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda if she entered the country. Opposition Senator Leila de Lima has been in jail since February of 2017, when the Department of Justice charged her for allegedly taking bribes from drug dealers during her time as Justice Secretary under President Benigno Aquino III. Duterte critic and CEO of the progressive Filipino news site, Rappler, Maria Ressa was arrested by the Philippines’ National Bureau of Investigations for “digital libel” in February of this year. In both cases, the charges have been based on flimsy evidence and testimony.
Duterte holds a renewed popular mandate and it is clear that attacks on deliberative democracy will persist, despite the insistence among members of these bodies that they will be able to retain their independence. Attacks on the press and legislative oversight will continue, and the reputational damage that will be inflicted upon these cornerstones of democracy will be immense and long-lasting. A War on Drugs shall likely be continued by an increasingly militarized national police system without any meaningful oversight. Constitutional reform towards a federal system could further skew resource distribution to Metropolitan Manila and allow for the further entrenchment of dynastic politics. The global trend towards a backslide of democracy would not be an exception in the Philippines.
The Filipino voter elected Duterte with the intent of challenging its elite establishment and decrying policies of economic incrementalism in a country with a poverty rate above 25%. Duterte continues to appeal to Filipinos as a warrior for the common man. As of April, Duterte’s approval was 66%–his highest rating. In the eyes of many Filipinos, he is the antidote to the nation’s problems and symbolizes a rejection of electoral apathy that prior administrations have created. The question now remains: how many more liberties and staples of democracy are Filipinos willing to give up to Duterte for the illusion of progress?