Why the Philippine public is getting behind Duterte’s death penalty bid

By: Logan Connor - Posted on: March 3, 2017 | Current Affairs

The Philippines is one step closer to reinstating the death penalty, the latest development in Duterte’s unyielding – yet widely supported – campaign to stamp out drug crime

Supporters of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte cheer during a gathering in support of the current administration in Manila, Philippines
Supporters of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte cheer during a gathering in support of the current administration in Manila, Philippines, 25 February 2017. Photo: EPA/MARK R. CRISTINO

On Wednesday, the Philippines’ House of Representatives sanctioned a proposal to reinstate the death penalty, further consolidating President Rodrigo Duterte’s iron hold on the country and emboldening the move in the Philippines towards hard-line, populist rule.

The bill has been all but passed, though it must face a third reading in the house, which is controlled by supporters of the president, before going to the pro-Duterte Senate. It would then have to be signed by Duterte himself.

So-called heinous crimes would be punishable by death under the bill. These include some forms of rape and murder, as well as drug offences including the sale, import, manufacture distribution and delivery of illegal drugs.

Despite fierce condemnation from human rights organisations since Duterte began his drug war in June of last year – on Thursday, Human Rights Watch was the latest to say his actions may constitute crimes against humanity – his administration has not slowed down in crushing what it sees as enemies of a healthy Philippine society. On 25 February, opposition senator Leila de Lima was also arrested on what are seen as trumped-up drug charges.

While Duterte’s drug war, which has led to the deaths of more than 7,000 suspected drug offenders, is not universally popular across the Philippines, the president still enjoys relatively high approval ratings. For Aries Arugay, an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman, the president’s appeal comes down to years of perceived government ineffectiveness by the Philippine population – a country that the ruling elite paints as suffering from endemic crime, corruption and drug use.

“It’s partly the exasperation with the inability of the state to address the public’s insecurity,” said Arugay.  “Public opinion might be open to shortcut solutions rather than long-term ones that truly address the roots of criminality ­– political and economic inequality, state weakness and corruption. Duterte comes across as the president of action rather than one of ideas and rhetoric.”

Duterte’s lethal methods began during his time as mayor of Davao City, a city in the southern Philippines that is often painted as being a lawless, wild west-type town prior to Duterte’s crackdown on drug use – with tactics similar to those being employed throughout the country now.

“It was one hell of a bloody fight here in Davao, but it was very effective,” said Ramon Beleno III, chair of the political science and history department at Ateneo de Davao University. “Drug pushers and drug users were so scared that they fled the city.”

But many say that the government’s drug war is built on a false promise. Instead of rooting out the big-time drug pushers, it is the poor who are often the casualties. A stark photo essay in the New York Times in December provides similar testimony: many of those left bleeding in the streets are from poor neighbourhoods.

But Roland Simbulan, a professor at the University of the Philippines, agrees that those at the top have largely gone unscathed.

“The government has been selling the idea that because the illegal drug problem is so bad, we need drastic, hard-line and extraordinary measures to go after the drug lords, pushers and users,” he said. “In reality, no big-time drug lord has really been arrested or killed.”