Opinion / How Duterte’s war on drugs feeds on his country’s worst fears

By: Khalid Tinasti - Posted on: May 14, 2018 | Current Affairs

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody crackdown on drugs is pushing the country’s most vulnerable people even further towards the margins, says Global Commission on Drugs executive secretary Khalid Tinasti

Men sleep on the steps of a staircase in Quezon City Jail, one of the Philippines’ most crowded prisons. There are 3,800 inmates at the jail, which has a capacity of 800, and conditions are getting worse as police wage Duterte’s war on drugs Photo: Noel Celis / AFP

The Philippines’ extremist response to drugs marks a return of ‘majoritarianism’ in the political space after decades of social minorities claiming their fundamental rights and benefiting from small but noticeable progress in the public debate.

This trend of majority rule is visible even in established democracies, where increasing parts of the electoral body cast their votes in favour of populist movements. They thereby explicitly or implicitly support the idea of an ‘illiberal’ democracy or a hybrid regime that provides a sense of safety and stability, even if it implies a decrease in personal freedoms and the election of figures leaning towards authoritarianism. And similarly to the Philippines, but to a lesser extent, policymakers in other parts of the world use crackdowns on people who use drugs as a tool to trigger political emotions in their constituencies and to please the majority over the rights of vulnerable minorities.

In the past decade, both young and established democracies the world over have experienced ‘democratic recession’, which manifests in restrictions of personal freedoms, democratic breakdowns, instability of democratic institutions or the rise of authoritarianism. In Southeast Asia, this trend can be observed with the 2014 military coup in Thailand, the survival over three decades of the hybrid regime in Cambodia, the semi-military government in Myanmar and the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, which marks the reliance of a political regime on the ‘war on drugs’ to condone and advance its own authoritarian tendencies.

As an emerging economy, the Philippines shows a rare concentration of contemporary social, political, environmental and economic challenges. The country is experiencing an exploding demography, an increase of already large economic inequalities, inequitable access to state-sponsored health and social services, as well as internally displaced populations due to climate disasters or religious and ethnic conflicts. Its political structures, with regions that are underfunded by the central government and with fragile or corruption-sensitive institutions, are struggling to control the increasing prevalence of methamphetamine use and undermine the organised crime-controlled illegal market of drugs.

Despite its negative impact on the democratic rule, Duterte’s war on drugs continues to benefit from popular support

But do these constitute valid reasons to be even harsher on drugs? Worryingly, extrajudicial killings, the desire to reintroduce death penalty for drug-related offences and the decrease of the criminal liability age to nine years old, have all created a situation in which the illegal market continues to flourish, but functions under more difficult constraints – exposing vulnerable and impoverished communities to more violence. Such a situation results in these populations defying their elected representatives and the state, and in itself increases the democratic recession in the country.

Yet despite its negative impact on democratic rule, Duterte’s war on drugs continues to benefit from popular support. This can be explained in part by the use of political emotion, playing on the fear of insecurity related to the violence generated by the illegal market of drugs, the anger of citizens at the government’s failure to provide safe and inclusive cities, and the hope that a harsher response to drugs will ultimately eliminate the drug market. The political discourse of the current administration, condoning and promoting extrajudicial punishments for people suspected to be using or selling drugs, remains easier to convey to the electorate than a sophisticated, evidence-based and nuanced position to reduce the harms of drugs without condemning those who use them. This has been showcased through the raw language used by Duterte on drugs and his calls to “kill criminals”, and how well the population received it.

There’s a rightful global outcry over the extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations in the Philippines under the guise of a war on drugs, but it remains necessary to consider this war as an impulse that threatens democracy itself. The use of majoritarian approaches leads to nationalism, which threatens the rights of vulnerable and targeted minorities, such as people who use drugs.

More worryingly, it is difficult to imagine brighter perspectives as we witness in the Philippines and elsewhere the conjunction of the strongman rule, majoritarianism and the impact of political emotions.

Khalid Tinasti is the executive secretary of the Global Commission on Drugs and an honorary research associate at the UK’s Swansea University

This article was published in the May edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.