September 23, 2016
As a candidate for the presidency he has proposed simple solutions for complex problems. He has stoked fear by exaggerating the level of crime and disorder in the country. He is said to have taken the presidential campaign to new lows. He appears to have little understanding of, or respect for, the Constitution. He has no problem with violence. Out of his mouth come vile insults to those he perceives as disagreeing with him. He manifests respect for a widely reviled dictator. At age 71, he publicly brags of his sexual prowess.
And although the country’s economic growth has been enviable under his predecessor, large numbers of his supporters don’t see any benefits to them.
Sound like anyone you know?
The above-described parallels have, indeed, caused more than one writer to describe Rodrigo Duterte (pronounced “dooTER tay”) as the Donald Trump of his country.
But there are differences as well. The biggest difference: Rodrigo Duterte has already won his election, in May, attaining 39 percent of the vote (Phillipine presidential elections normally have more than two candidates on the ballot, so the candidate with the largest plurality wins).
The Phillipine Constitution mandates that a president serve one six-year term.
Duterte took the oath of office as President June 30.
Most Americans know him (if they know him at all) as the guy who called President Obama a “son of a whore”, resulting in the cancellation of his first scheduled meeting with our President.
And unlike Trump, he already had a track record in public office. He had served as mayor of Davao, a city of 1.5 million, for 22 years. During that period, Davao went from one of the most dangerous places in the country to an island of serenity, named in a crowdsourced poll as the 4th safest city in the world.
As mayor, Duterte started the first effective 911 call center in the country. He converted Davao’s public hospitals from dirty, overcrowded places to clean and effective institutions while maintaining free care for the poor.
He campaigned for legalization of prostitution and once that was achieved the city provided free periodic health examinations for sex workers, even transporting them to the doctors.
He also campaigned for equal rights for LGBT people, unusual in his socially conservative (80 percent Catholic) country. He took food to minority Muslim families during Ramadan.
But his respect for human rights is narrow. It does not include due process, as he himself has admitted more than once. “There is no due process in my mouth” and “I don’t care about human rights, believe me” are just two examples among many.
Davao, once awash in crime and drugs, was cleansed by death squads. The respected international organization Human Rights Watch estimated that death squads had killed over 1,000 people in the city since the 1990s.
Duterte was asked about this in a 2015 TV appearance. He responded, “Me? They are saying that I’m part of a death squad? True, that’s true.”( He later retracted this admission.)
As president, Duterte has brought along his anti-crime, anti-drug policies and his one-time city police chief, Ronald De La Rosa, whom he has appointed director general of the National Police.
The message to those involved with illegal drugs is stark: At a campaign rally, Dutarte said, “All of you who are into drugs, you sons of bitches, I will really kill you. I have no patience. I have no middle ground. Either you kill me or I will kill you idiots.”
And he was not kidding.
In the 2-1/2 months since Duterte took office, nearly 2,000 people listed as drug-involved have been shot to death, either by the police (for “resisting arrest”) or by vigilantes, according to Time Magazine.
In response, half a million people have surrendered to local authorities.
But there is little drug treatment available for these people, so local authorities have been reduced to mandating such activities as Zumba dance classes. And while Duterte has increased the police and military budgets, he has cut the health buget by 25 percent, so prospects for expanding drug treatment are slim.
Dutarte also appeared on national television and read a list of 159 public officials, including seven judges. He “ordered” them to turn thenselves in to the Supreme Court within 24 hours. But the chief justice quickly countermanded the president’s order, and the list had its weaknesses; one of the judges named by the president had died eight years ago, and only four of the seven were still serving.
The president offered no evidence whatever that the named officials were involved with the drug trade.
Duterte has been no less blunt in his foreign policy statements. In discussing islands that are claimed by the Phillipines but being developed by China, he threatened to ride to them on a jet ski and dare the Chinese to stop him. But now that he has official responsibility, he has backed off, calling for quiet negotiations with China.
It is only 30 years since the people overthrew the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and began conducting relatively clean elections. Phillipine constitutional democracy is still fragile. Will Rodrigo Duterte
strengthen it or smash it?
is the author of Wounded Warrior, a recently published biography of former governor and Supreme Court justice John Swainson. He is also a retired Ingham County Circuit Court Judge and former legal advisor to Gov. James J. Blanchard.