DATELINE SEATTLE: He can do anything he wants for now
The peak of Rody Duterte’s presidency perhaps happened before he even became a president. It was his campaign promise to eradicate corruption, drugs and criminality, among others, that made him popular among the people. Not even his proclivity to use foul language was enough to pull his strange popularity down. But nothing has gone as well for him since. Was his promise an empty one? Of course not. Duterte launched “Oplan Tokhang,” which is a “knock and beseech” police operation targeting drug users and pushers. According to reports, “Oplan Tokhang” has resulted in the surrender of more than a million suspected drug users and pushers. At first, the people supported the war on drugs. Who wouldn’t? But ‘Oplan Tokhang’ has gradually become unpopular because of the abuses surrounding its implementation. Seven months into his anti-drug campaign, 7,000 plus killings of mostly poor people have already been reported, while Peter Lim, suspected of being one of the top three drug lords in the country, was able to mysteriously leave the Philippines. Extrajudicial killings of suspected drug users and pushers have risen, shocking leaders of the influential Catholic Church and international human rights organizations. In what appears to be a response to criticisms coming from different groups and the fact that several policemen were exposed as perpetrators of kidnapping for ransom and murder, Duterte suspended the war on drugs for a couple of weeks, but only to lift the suspension on the pretext that the proliferation of drug use is getting out of control again. But what is concerning about Duterte is his avowal to dehumanize drug users and, therefore, implicitly giving the police the license to kill them like animals. With the Congress controlled by Duterte’s own party and a Secretary of Justice who appears to be willing to engage in legal machinations, Duterte is slowly becoming a feared president. Many suspect that he was behind the imprisonment of Sen. Leila de Lima on charges that she took bribes from imprisoned drug traffickers. De Lima has been a leading critic of the president way back when she had the president, as then the mayor of Davao City, investigated for his involvement in extrajudicial killings. De Lima at that time was the Chairperson of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights. You have in Duterte a compulsive vindictive president and a controlled Congress, the majority of which are not willing to oppose him for fear of losing political favors. As a result, he can get and do anything he wants. Duterte is not even afraid to wage war against the Catholic Church. Criticized by the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) for his “reign of terror,” Duterte shrugged off the criticism and instead challenged the bishops to “join him in hell” as he continues in his war on drugs. He said, “You Catholics, if you believe in your priests and bishops, you stay with them. If you want to go to heaven, then go to them. Now, if you want to end drugs … I will go to hell, come join me.” As if to show the Catholic Church his “don’t care” attitude, he campaigned hard to legalize the death penalty contrary to the traditional position of the Catholic Church. It’s this bravado and Duterte’s tough method of governance that keep his base loyal and his approval rating from bottoming out. But it does not really do anything except to boost his ego and sow fear among those who are opposed to him. His intention is so conspicuous. A presidency run this way might work for a short period of time. But it is not going to work forever. The Filipinos have a history of toppling presidents who do not understand the limits of their power. Once the people collectively get to their senses, like what happened during the historic People Power Revolution, Duterte’s presidency will be politically impotent. I believe the president can probably still pull himself out of the quagmire he has slowly put himself in. After all, he campaigned on popular issues that affect the daily lives of the people. But he better act quickly before it is too late.