Is Duterte backpedaling on the drug war?

Is Duterte backpedaling on the drug war?

President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial war on drugs has often been the subject of international outcry. But until recently, it seemed as if his ferocious support of the extrajudicial killings could not damage his popularity at home. However, recent polls and protests in the capital suggest the honeymoon is over.

A growing number of Filipinos question whether the violent narcotics crackdown is making the country safer. This has pressured the President into reviewing policies, and could mark the beginning of the end for the bloody drug war.

Rising domestic opposition to the drug war

During his final campaign rally in May 2016, Duterte vowed to kill 100,000 drug dealers and dump the bodies in Manila Bay to “fatten the fish”. He later stated that, during his time as Mayor of Davao, he made a habit of driving around on his motorcycle to personally assassinate suspected criminals as an example for the police to follow. To date, an estimated 12,000 people have been killed by police and vigilante squads. In parallel, the President has pushed for a reintroduction of the death penalty, a move that would breach a number of international conventions to which the Philippines is party.

Domestic opposition to the drug war was limited during the first year of Duterte’s tenure. This changed recently, when leaked video footage showed 17-year old student Kian Delos Santos being dragged across a basketball field and shot dead by police on the night of 16 August. The event sparked the largest opposition rally in Manila since Duterte came to power, which led the Senate to hold an inquiry into the boy’s death. The Catholic Church, which is the church of 80% of the population, offered to protect police who testify about their participation in the war on drugs, reflecting the general shift in mood.

Drop in Duterte’s approval ratings

A poll released this week shows that Duterte’s popularity has dropped to the lowest point of his 16 months in office, with net satisfaction rates falling by 18 points to 48%.

Foreign critiques of the drug war have often been met with anger, and have had little impact within the Philippines. This was clear when Duterte called Obama a “son of a whore” in September 2016. It was reaffirmed this week, when he threatened to expel the entire EU Delegation in the Philippines following comments from the Party of European Socialists – even though the Party is unaffiliated to any official diplomatic representation.

This lack of impact may be partly because investors have been largely unfazed by the narcotics crackdown. The Philippine Stock Exchange Index has risen 20% this year, and GDP growth has consistently remained well above 6% for the past five years. Relations with China have improved under Duterte, providing a source of investment without human rights strings attached.

A change in public opinion within the country is a more sensitive matter. The fact that most of the drop in Duterte’s popularity has been attributed to declining satisfaction among the poor is not insignificant for the President, who was elected as an anti-establishment man of the people.

The end of the drug war in sight?

In a televised speech last week, Duterte announced the police would no longer be in charge of the drug operations, and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency would take over this responsibility. Considering the latter only has 1% the amount of staff the national police has, it could mark a significant turning point for the number of extrajudicial killings. What is more, Duterte declared he did not want anything to do with the drug war anymore, and that he will “not interfere”.

It would be premature to conclude that the extrajudicial killings will stop completely. Police drug operations were suspended once before, following the killing of a Korean businessman in January, only to be relaunched five weeks later under the name Project Double Barrel Reloaded. Duterte is still backed by a wide constituency, and has taken advantage of his comfortable position to consolidate power institutionally. But with the stage already being set for Congressional elections in May 2019, he will remain sensitive to the public opinion.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

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