TOUGH guy weathered a stormy 2017.
President Rodrigo Duterte marked his first full year in office amid a surge in Islamic terrorism and the proliferation of prohibited drugs in the country, testing the mettle of his leadership.
But weather the storm he did, with his popularity seemingly resistant to a torrent of events and issues hounding his administration. And having focused on improving public security, his administration’s overall performance remains good.
“It’s a tough performance,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Manila-based Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, referring to Duterte on how he had handled the Marawi crisis and the drugs war. In an interview with The Manila Times, he added: “There is clearly a political will in dealing with issues, just as he did when he was mayor [of Davao City]. It got quick results, although the jury is still out if the results are lasting.”
In a separate interview, Antonio “Butch” Valdes, a political analyst, lauded Duterte and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), for having quelled the rebellion in Marawi. “We were inexperienced in urban warfare which accounted for the high casualties, massive damage and length of warfare. But considering all these, credit to the AFP is warranted.” Valdes, who heads the Save the Nation Movement, noted that Duterte’s war against illegal drugs “is still a big question mark,” citing “doubt on the effectiveness” of the President’s strategy.
Duterte pulled the police out of the drug war after several law enforcers were involved in suspected EJKs, or extrajudicial killings. He issued on October 10 a memorandum directing the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) to spearhead the campaign against narcotics. A little later, however, he allowed the police and other government agencies to return to the drug war, but under PDEA’s supervision.
“The trophy successes of PDEA make good copy but still leave serious doubts on the effectiveness of government’s strategy,” Valdes said. “It feels like we are chipping away at the tip of the iceberg, not knowing how massive the drug syndicate monster has grown to be.”
While Duterte remains highly popular among Filipinos, he has yet to achieve accelerated economic growth, one of his key election pledges.
Duterte’s “Achilles’ heel” will be in economics, Valdes said. “The issue will be rising prices and jobs. The new tax bill, especially on oil and fuels, will dramatically impact on the cost of living and erode his popularity.”
Duterte, therefore, needs to address the elephant in the room, Valdes emphasized, such as the Epira, or Electric Power Industry Reform Act, and the public utilities, which have to be privatized in order to improve their services.
“If he banks on GDP growth rates alone, as bannered by his incompetent economists, the President’s ratings will suffer,” he said.
Despite being criticized for focusing too much on his drugs war when he was supposed to be tending more intently on other aspects of governance, this appears not to have dented Duterte’s public standing.
His administration scored 71 percent approval and just 13 percent disapproval in a third-quarter 2017 survey by the independent Social Weather Stations pollster. His decision since then to impose martial law in Mindanao because of the Marawi crisis—a five-month-long armed conflict in the capital of Lanao del Sur—has provoked only limited criticism.
For his part, Palace spokesman Harry Roque Jr. highlighted the President’s resolve to stop terrorism and completely rebuild Marawi City completely during his term. “I think everyone agrees that the best performance of the President so far is in the manner by which he dealt with the international terrorism in Marawi,” he said in an interview. “And it’s going to be better because we will show the world how fast we will rebuild Marawi.”
Since last year, Duterte had been warning of the growing IS threat. But Philippine government security forces still appeared to have been caught unaware by the scale of the Marawi siege, which started on May 23 between Philippine government security forces and militants affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) of Iraq and the Levant, including the Maute and Abu Sayyaf Salafi jihadist groups.
In countering these insurgents, Duterte declared martial law on the whole of Mindanao, pushing ahead with the cleanup operations that even involved airstrikes. But these operations had struggled to make headway, partly because the Maute group had taken many civilians hostage to use as human shields.
As a result, the President was forced to ask Congress for an extension of martial law, originally put into force with a 60-day limit, until December 31, which the lawmakers approved by an overwhelming majority on July 22, showing that Duterte still enjoys solid support from the legislative branch. Five months later, on October 23, combat operations were terminated. The military, however, was still conducting clearing operations in the Islamic city of Marawi.
On December 8, or roughly three weeks before martial law was set to expire, Duterte asked Congress—and got it—to extend martial law by another year, or until December 31, 2018, raising the possibility that this would be expanded to also cover Luzon and Visayas.
Since taking office on June 30, 2016, Duterte has pushed forward with the much-publicized measures to improve public security. During the campaign, he promised to rid the country of illegal drugs in three to six months and repeatedly threatened traffickers with death. But he had missed his deadline and later declared he would fight the menace until his last day in office.
“To me that’s a major accomplishment,” Roque said, referring to a 35-percent drop in crime rate as an indication of the success of the administration’s war against illegal drugs. “It’s been hugely successful. I think the communities are safer and our young people are better protected against drugs. What can I say other than the President really wants the most efficient means of conducting a war against drugs.”
There have been 29 deaths in its operations from July 1, 2016 to November 3, 2017, PDEA claimed, while police data showed 80 uniformed personnel and 3,933 drug personalities were killed in their drug ops from July 31, 2016 to October 10, 2017.
Human rights groups have reported a higher death toll and called for an independent investigation of Duterte’s possible role in the violence.
In April, a lawyer filed a complaint of crimes against humanity against Duterte and other officials in connection with the drug killings before the International Criminal Court.
An impeachment complaint against the President, meanwhile, was dismissed in the House of Representatives, which is dominated by Duterte’s allies.
Duterte is thus teflon-proof as his administration tries to fulfill his promises in 2018.