The life of Rodrigo Duterte, mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippines, reads more like that of a mob boss than a mayor. The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has investigated Duterte for his alleged links to a vigilante group called the Davao Death Squad (ties he later admitted), as well as threats made to kill village chiefs who did not support his government programs. He has expressed his support for extrajudicial killings as a means to fight corruption and crime. And in case you don’t think he’s serious, suspects have turned up dead after Duterte issued an ultimatum to all drug dealers to either leave his city within 48 hours or be killed. The man is rumored to have pushed a drug dealer out of a moving helicopter, and has openly stated that he would like to kill all criminals himself and throw them into Manila Bay. The most terrifying thing about him? He’s running for President, and he’s winning.
Duterte’s success can be explained by a number of factors, but one of the most troubling reasons for his popularity is that Filipinos have become so disillusioned by corruption in politics that they’ve become attracted to dangerous, zero tolerance policies. Duterte has stated that he would like to bring back the death penalty for the crime of plunder, and while he back-pedaled on his support for extrajudicial killings in the last presidential debate, Duterte still admits to having killed in the past, with a new ominous and unclear caveat: “It’s always bloody, but I never said extrajudicial.”
The popularity of these extreme policies reflects how frustrated citizens are with corruption in the Philippines. Corruption is incredibly widespread, and plagues the country’s politics, courts, and police forces at the local and national levels. Many voters view Duterte’s approach as necessary to combat this immense problem, which persists despite years of promises from many so-called anticorruption candidates.
While I understand this frustration with Philippine corruption, Duterte’s zero-tolerance approach is short-sighted, misguided, and incredibly dangerous. As voters prepare for the election next month, they should consider the troubling implications of Duterte’s violent approach to the fight against corruption.
Duterte’s violent and extreme policy to fight corruption shows a complete lack of respect for due process and rule of law, for which he has been widely criticized by human rights groups. And perhaps surprisingly, many of his supporters do not reject this characterization of his approach, but actually seem to believe that human rights abuses are justified because violent discipline is now necessary to rein in corruption.
What these supporters fail to consider, however, is that there are troubling costs that come with such an approach—costs that are likely not worth whatever benefits violent discipline would confer on the country.
- First, we should worry that throwing out the rule of law will result in wrongful convictions – or worse – not only of the politically powerful, but also of less influential local government officials. Corruption in the Philippines is not generally regarded as being contained to a particular political party or level of government. While disciplining national officials will attract widespread attention and scrutiny, a regime that disregards the rule of law could – intentionally or unintentionally – wrongfully punish officials at the local level, while suffering practically no political consequences. Given Duterte’s history of intimidating his dissenters with death threats, this is a very real concern.
- Second, even if one trusts that this one leader might be different, the success of his regime would depend on numerous subordinates—cabinet members, governors, local officials, and enforcement officers—resisting the temptation to exploit the incredible power conferred on them. Authority is already exploited so frequently in local enforcement, even in the petty bribery context, and the idea that we’d entrust the executive and enforcement officials with sweeping powers to bring corruption in line seems misguided. Without legal procedures, oversight over each of these individuals and the thousands of islands they govern will be nearly impossible.
- Third, maintaining the rule of law is an inherent value, one that is not separate from the anticorruption fight. A huge part of the frustration driving Duterte supporters is that politicians and other corrupt actors behave as though they are above the law, and not subject to consequences. While Duterte might argue that violence is the only means available to bring these actors to justice, it’s also important to recognize that his approach also advocates operating above the law. Duterte’s violent rhetoric minimizes the importance of rules when addressing one issue—but we should worry about it says about the importance of rules more generally.
In addition to these costs, whatever violence and discipline might accomplish in the short term, I do not believe that Duterte’s approach could deal with eradicating corruption in the long term. Philippine history has demonstrated that while violent approaches may be temporarily effective in upsetting the existing distribution of power, they eventually have the tendency to corrupt a new set of elites. During the reign of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and particularly during the martial law era, some of the President’s initiatives were effective in removing power from old wealthy families that monopolized the economy and politics. Soon, however, Marcos simply began to shift the power and wealth to enrich himself and his cronies, many of whom continue to prosper to this day.
Anyone who believes that Duterte is different – more disciplined, more humble, more nationalistic – must remember that no leader can function without some political allies willing to support him and do his bidding, particularly when purporting to fight against such a strong tradition of corruption. His ideals are unlikely to protect him from attacks from the existing elite, and eventually, he will need to find (or buy) cronies of his own.
The idea that doing away with due process is the only way to combat Philippine corruption is quite simply a myth; it is a rhetorical line that voters, despite their frustration with the current state of affairs, must scrutinize more carefully. Duterte’s message is not new. In fact, it was tried and tested barely two generations ago, and resulted in the suffering of countless individuals at the hands of a tyrant. Philippine voters cannot be so foolish to think that history will be different this time around.