Ruthless Philippine President’s High Popularity Is the Result of Failed Democracy

July 16, 2019

As the death toll in President Rodrigo Duterte's brutal war on drugs keeps climbing, so does his popularity. How can this be? Walden Bello says it is the result of a failed liberal democracy in the Philippines

The United Nations Human Rights Council voted last week to launch an investigation into human rights violations and the killing of thousands of people in the Philippines as part of the government's war on drugs under president Rodrigo Duterte, which has resulted in the extrajudicial killing of as many as tens of thousands of drug users. The Philippine government responded to the decision by threatening to pull out of the Human Rights Council: "We will not accept a politically partisan and one-sided resolution, so detached from the truth on the ground. It comes straight from the mouth of the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, 'First the judgment, then the proof,” said Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin.

The main objective of the Human Rights Council investigation is to determine how many people were actually killed by the Philippine police. Estimates vary widely. The Philippine government admits that about 5,300 people have been killed, but human rights organizations say that the number could be as high as 27,000.

“We're talking about thousands of people who have been subjected to extrajudicial execution by the police, but the government basically has said, 'No, all of those were because the people who were being targeted had fought back with arms.' And that's simply not credible to anybody at this point except to propagandists of the administration,” Walden Bello, a former Philippine congressman and a visiting professor of sociology at the State University of New York Binghampton told The Real News Network's Greg Wilpert.

This “propaganda blitz,” Bello explained, has been successful in convincing Filipinos that Duterte's particularly violent drug war is necessary—even to citizens who have some reservations or fears of how the drug war may affect their lives and the lives of their family members.

“There is a great deal of support when it is expressed in surveys for [Duterte's] anti-drug policy and for the war on drugs. But at the same time, when people are asked in the same survey if they are afraid that they or their relatives might be targeted by the administration, by the police, quite a number of them say that in fact they are also afraid that this might be the case,” Bello said. “I think the largest support for this is coming from the middle class in the country, as well as from the elite. They are the ones who are active in testifying why this war on drugs has to take place and why extrajudicial executions are something that is necessary.”

Among the poor, in communities where drugs are a problem, Bello explained, there is a “passive kind of support.” And overall, Duterte's popularity is so high that it is easy for these “repressive bloody policies” to be considered necessary by a significant part of the Philippine population wooed by Duterte's strongman approach to leading.

“A great deal of the fact of why Duterte is popular is there has been a great deal of disillusionment with the system of liberal democracy here in the Philippines. And basically it promised political empowerment, it promised an end to very great inequality and an end to poverty,” Bello said. “For 30 years there was such a big gap between the promise and the reality—the fact that basically politicians kept on articulating the same sort of promises and the same sort of end-to-poverty rhetoric—that people became very disillusioned. And finally, I think what happened is that they felt that, 'Oh, maybe what we need is a strongman.'”


Ruthless Philippine President's High Popularity Is the Result of Failed Democracy

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

The UN Human Rights Council voted last week to launch an investigation into human rights violations and the killing of thousands of people in the Philippines as part of the government’s War on Drugs. The Philippine government responded to the decision by threatening to pull out of the Human Rights Council, just as the United States did in response to criticism [by] the Council of human rights violations in Israel. Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin said that the decision to investigate the killings “comes straight from the mouth of the Queen in Alice in Wonderland.” In March of this year, the Philippines already withdrew from the International Criminal Court— also in order to avoid accountability for its war against drugs. The main objective of the Human Rights Council investigation is to determine how many people were actually killed by the Philippine police. Estimates vary widely. The Philippine government admits to about 5,300 deaths, but human rights organizations say that the number could be as high as 27,000. President Rodrigo Duterte seems to be committed to kill even more, as he stated himself back in 2016. Here’s an example of one of the things he said.

PHILIPPINE PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there’s three million, there’s three million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least, if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines—What? You know, my victims, I would like to be all criminals to finish the problem of my country, and save the next generation from perdition.

GREG WILPERT Joining us to discuss the UN Human Rights Council decision to investigate the Philippines is Walden Bello. He’s a former Philippine Congressman and a visiting Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York, Binghamton. His most recent book is Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right. He joins us today from Manila. Thanks for being here today, Walden.

WALDEN BELLO Oh. Thank you for inviting me.

GREG WILPERT So by rejecting the UN Human Rights Council investigation, the government of the Philippines is basically in effect hiding what is going on in the War on Drugs. What is your sense of what is happening in regard to this war, and just how serious is the situation?

WALDEN BELLO Well, the situation is extremely serious. We definitely have a situation where the upper estimates on how many people have been killed or subjected to extrajudicial execution is much more credible. And we’re talking about, you know, figures that could go as far as around 27,000 people. And that’s much more credible than the government’s acknowledging that only about 5,000 people have been killed. Every day, every night here in the Philippines on the television news, almost about a third of the coverage is on encounters between the police and drug users, and much of the coverage shows extrajudicial executions that have taken place. So it is an extremely serious situation at this point in time. I mean, we’re talking about thousands of people who have been subjected to extrajudicial execution by the police. But the government basically has said no, all of those were because the people who were being targeted had fought back with arms. And that’s simply not credible to anybody at this point, except to be propagandists of the administration.

GREG WILPERT So why are so many people, especially people living in poverty in urban areas, being killed by the police? I mean, what is the government actually trying to achieve with this policy?

WALDEN BELLO Well, the government claims, and Duterte himself claims, you know, that the drug situation in the Philippines has run out of control. And he has made the claim that there have been about, there are about four million drug users in the Philippines. And the person who used to head the Drug Control Board, you know, gave a much lower estimate for that— something like around 1.5 million— and for contradicting Duterte, he was fired. Duterte fired him. So basically, I think the administration has made this a push to convince the Filipino people that the drug problem is the number one problem in the Philippines, drugs are the main source of crime, and he has been able to convince a large part of the population that that is the central problem that is being faced by the country at this point in time. So it is, you know, a propaganda blitz to convince people that this drug war is necessary.

GREG WILPERT And how is this policy being received by ordinary Filipinos? And also, how is Duterte more generally being received among the population? In other words, are they supporting his extremist stance? And if so, why?

WALDEN BELLO Well, this is in fact a big problem at this point. You know, there is a great deal of support when it is expressed in surveys for his anti-drug policy and for the War on Drugs. But at the same time, when people are asked in the same survey if they are afraid, you know, that they or their relatives might be targeted by the administration and by the police, quite a number of them say that in fact they are also afraid that this might be the case. So basically, I think the largest support for this is coming from the middle-class in the country, as well as from the elite. You know, they are the ones who basically are the ones that are active in testifying why this War on Drugs has to take place, and why extrajudicial executions are something that is necessary. I think for poor people in the communities, you know, where there are in fact communities where drugs are a problem, I think the support is not so much active, but more of a passive kind of support. But there is also some support there, and one cannot deny that at this point in time.

And the other thing though, Greg, that I must say is that a great deal of the fact of why Duterte is popular is there has been a great deal of disillusionment with the system of liberal democracy here in the Philippines. You know, basically that it promised political empowerment, it promised basically an end to very great inequality, and an end to poverty. And for 30 years, there was such a big gap between the promise and the reality. The fact that basically politicians kept on articulating the same sort of promises, and the same sort of end to poverty rhetoric, that people became very disillusioned. And finally, I think, what happened is that they felt that maybe what we need is a strong man, and Duterte responded to that disillusionment.

So, you know, there is a real threat to democratic institutions and to the survival of democracy here. But the solution that many of us feel is not to defend the sort of elite democracy that we have right now that mainly serves the interests of the elites. But we really need to push to go forward, to really have a democracy that is really substantive, that in fact meets the needs of people. Whether you call that socialism, whether you call that social democracy, but the elimination of inequality must be front and center just like it is, for instance, in other countries and even in the United States at this point in time. So, you know, we have a political struggle and we have an ideological struggle. And we must confront the fact that it’s an uphill struggle for people who really are pushing for real, substantive democracy.

GREG WILPERT Just very briefly before we conclude, is there any sector that is of organized society in the Philippines that is pushing against Duterte’s policies? Such as, from other political parties, from unions. And do they have any prospects of questioning and undermining this policy?

WALDEN BELLO Well, you know, there is a strong civil society sector here in the Philippines that does include unions, that does include the church, that does include progressive organizations and parties. And we have been basically on the front lines. And they have been on the front lines. We have a major demonstration that will be coming up on Monday when the president addresses the nation, where we expect thousands to come. And so, there is a large organized force that’s able to bring people out into the streets in protest, after protest, after protest. The Duterte administration cannot match those organized forces in the street. However, there is, however, a large electoral support for him. And, you know, that is one thing that we do need to confront.

GREG WILPERT Okay. Well, we’re going to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Walden Bello, visiting Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York, Binghamton. Thanks again, Walden, for having joined us today.

WALDEN BELLO Thank you very much.

GREG WILPERT And thank you for joining The Real News Network.