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Despite international disapproval of his bloody war on drugs, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte is popular at home as a leader from outside the normal corruption of politics. By Hamish McDonald.

What makes the Philippines’ Duterte popular

Two weeks ago, having verbally insulted just about everybody else – including Barack Obama and Pope Francis – Rodrigo Duterte turned his attention to God.

In a speech shown nationally on television, the Philippine president raised the question of why, according to the Bible, the Almighty had created the Garden of Eden only to introduce the serpent and apple of sin to tempt Adam and Eve.

“Who is this stupid God? This son of a bitch is then really stupid,” Duterte said, adding that everyone was now stained. “You were not involved but now you’re stained with an original sins … What kind of a religion is that? That’s what I can’t accept – very stupid proposition.”

Two years into his presidency, this may seem a risky move for the leader of a country where 86 per cent of the population identifies as Catholic, and another 6 per cent subscribe to various other Christian sects. In many ways, the Philippines’ 103 million citizens are remarkably tolerant, according to surveys – most don’t object to neighbours with different language, religion or nationality, or homosexuals, or those living as unmarried couples. However, they are up there with Malaysian Muslims in agreeing, by a large margin, that “the only acceptable religion is my religion”.

Chances are that “Rody” – as the president is called – will get away with it though, just as he has so far with his bloody war on illegal drug users and traffickers. Since Duterte took office, police say they have killed 4279 people in anti-drug operations. In addition, they list 23,000 other unexplained homicides. As homicides were running at about 9000 a year previously, this suggests about another 5000 extrajudicial executions.

Despite the carnage, opinion polls show Duterte’s support remains high, about 70 per cent. His long broadcast monologues – which jump from English to Tagalog, from subject to subject – are mesmerising, like a shock jock’s diatribe. Outwardly, the more refined in Philippine society tut-tut at the profane language but, secretly, most enjoy it. “Filipinos start laughing and clapping when he curses,” says Steven Rood, an American political scientist and long-term resident who works on public opinion surveys at Manila’s Social Weather Stations.

Duterte has many high-profile supporters in the expat community as well, including Australian businessman Peter Wallace. Living in the Philippines for the past 42 years, Wallace has established himself as a well-known business consultant and now sits on a panel advising Duterte and his finance minister, Carlos Dominguez.

When we meet in a Starbucks in Makati – the part of Manila where you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Singapore – Wallace points out Duterte’s Trump-like appeal to the working class. Although he’s from a well-off political family and has a law degree from one of the country’s top universities, the president is still seen as one of the masses, says Wallace. He is not a normal politician promising a lot and achieving little. “That’s been his appeal, and the reason for his continuing popularity is that he is genuinely from them, and they know that,” Wallace says. “So he won’t wear socks, for example, he rolls up his sleeves, doesn’t know how to tie up a tie.”

Wallace disagrees with Duterte’s campaign against drugs, to a degree. “Worldwide it’s been shown this way to do it will never work,” he says. “The mass killings – no one knows the real number. Is he responsible for them? Indirectly. Directly, no. Although the way he speaks does leave a feeling of impunity. People don’t care.”

Feeding this tacit acceptance may be the fact that the drug war killings happen largely out of sight of the majority – in the dead of night in the slums, where people take tiny sachets of amphetamine to work gruelling hours, quell hunger pangs and lift feelings of hopelessness. Often the slayings are staged as fake shootouts, with pistols and illicit substances planted on the bodies, or they are carried out by pillion riders on motorcycles.

Surveys show most Filipinos actually feel safer under Duterte, whereas there had been a perception of rising crime under his predecessor Benigno Aquino.

It’s no use talking about the rule of law in the Philippines anyway, Wallace says. “This is the Wild West … As far as I can tell there is not a rich Filipino in jail, except for political cases. But for crime, no.” According to Wallace, there are about 196,000 poor Filipinos in jail, crammed into a system designed for no more than 40,000.

“We have a court system that doesn’t work. We’ve got people in jail on bailable offences who couldn’t afford the bail, there longer than if they’d been found guilty, and they haven’t even got to court yet,” he says. “So, no one minds if there is summary justice, because they know there isn’t real justice here.”

There’s an aura of fear around Duterte in the Philippines, associated largely with his ruthless effectiveness in government. “There’s no way you can separate the killings from the politics,” says Carlos Conde, a Manila-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The reason he won was his promise of the killings. People saw what he had done allegedly in Davao. If you take away the killings, he’s a two-bit provincial politician.”

Voters elected Duterte in 2016 with full knowledge of the death squads operating in his home city of Davao, on southern Mindanao island, which he ran as mayor or through proxies for the previous 28 years. Davao was a city where you didn’t dare exceed the speed limit, hold up permits for bribes or smoke in public. Some businessmen say the bureaucracy has speeded up since he arrived in Manila. “He’s using the killings like a lever,” says Conde.

Another factor in Duterte’s popularity is that he is not venal. A night owl who gets around in jeans and leather, he’s a self-confessed womaniser and likes fast cars, but, by all accounts, is not someone who cares about making money.

This stands in sharp contrast to his predecessors – corruption is a theme of presidential downfalls in the Philippines, from Ferdinand Marcos to Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo. Although it must be said the Philippine public is very forgiving. Estrada is now mayor of Manila, Arroyo sits in the congress. Marcos’s son “Bongbong” came close to getting elected vice-president in 2016 and intends to run in 2022 when Duterte must step down after a single six-year term. Marcos’s daughter governs a province, and a search for her father’s reputed $US5 billion in loot has simply been abandoned.

Wallace said Duterte’s delegation of economic management to finance minister Dominguez – himself a businessman and former chief of Philippine Airlines – was a refreshing change to previous governments, with presidents who felt they had to control everything. The economic team is now putting together the second stage of an ambitious tax and regulatory reform designed to set off a much-needed investment wave, especially in infrastructure. Duterte also wants a devolution of economic powers to governors and mayors such as he used to be.

Though many congress members have jumped ship to Duterte’s side, the changes have been greatly watered down so far. Whether they have the desired effect remains to be seen. Business is hanging back, evaluating alternative locations such as Vietnam. Periodically, Duterte shows his frustration by way of blasts at the big family conglomerates, founded by Spanish planters and Chinese traders, that dominate the Philippine economy, accusing them of blocking reform and evading taxes.

So far though, critics of Duterte’s abandonment of the rule of law find little cohesive support. A majority of the Supreme Court bench carried out the probably unconstitutional disbarment of chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno last month, after she raised Duterte’s ire. Former justice secretary Leila de Lima has been locked up at police headquarters for a year, without charge, and few of her senate colleagues are objecting. Australian nun Patricia Fox, a missionary in the Philippines for 28 years, is still fighting the deportation ordered by Duterte after she joined a fact-finding team in his home region on Mindanao.

As well as trying to expose the extrajudicial killings, there are critics such as the Free Legal Assistance Group, which is mounting lawsuits that have so far blocked Duterte’s attempts to bring back the death penalty and withdraw the Philippines from the International Criminal Court. “There are people ready to go up against him,” says Steven Rood. “It’s just that the enabling environment isn’t there.”

One big institution keeping its distance from Duterte is the military. As well as privately objecting to Duterte’s placatory attitude to Chinese territorial encroachments in the South China Sea, and uneasy about his past friendliness with the communists, commanders also appear concerned about being drawn back into domestic repression.

When Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao last year after Islamists seized Marawi, military commanders reminded troops they were still bound by the constitution. Early in 2017, after police killed a Korean businessman, Duterte asked the armed forces to join the anti-drug campaign. The generals asked for written orders, and that was the end of the request.

However Duterte has worked hard to win over the rank-and-file soldiers, doubling their pay, and he frequently speaks at bases, telling ribald jokes. When caskets come back from fighting in Mindanao, Duterte is always there to console the families. “Marcos took care of the generals,” says Conde. “[Duterte]’s taking care of the troops.” Whether and how the soldiers would obey a nationwide declaration of martial law remains to be seen.

So far, no leader has emerged to focus opposition. The point at which Duterte might push things too far is obscure, too. It may be his new police campaign against tambay (loiterers), which has led to the arrest of 7000 mostly poor people for offences as minor as not wearing a shirt or drinking alcohol while sitting on the pavement outside their tiny shanties. It may be the anti-drug campaign moving into middle-class locales. It may be the expat Filipinos concluding Duterte isn’t solving the mess that made them leave their families to earn money. Or it may be taking on God.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 7, 2018 as "Duterte deeds". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.