His rising numbers in the surveys suggest that Davao City Mayor Rodrigo R. Duterte is within striking distance of the presidency. That possibility demands a serious assessment of the prospects and implications of a Duterte administration, given his reputation as a street toughie who at least tolerates, if he does not actively support, extrajudicial killings and groups like the so-called Davao death squad responsible for the killing of suspected criminals in his city.
The mayor’s “punisher” reputation is widely thought to be well-earned; it is the main reason for his increasing popularity not only in Mindanao and the Visayas but also in the National Capital Region.
He has never denied that supposed criminals are being killed in his city. “The deaths are really there,” he said in reaction to a Human Rights Watch report. “I will not deny that there are killings that are happening.” He has also sworn to kill rice smugglers should they invade his turf, and only last week declared that there should be more funeral homes if he becomes president because he could kill “as many as 100,000.”
It is statements like these that resonate among Filipinos who want to see Davao city’s ranking as one of the most peaceful cities in the world replicated in their own crime-ridden communities. But the focus on Duterte’s admitted preference for the use of state-sponsored violence as a solution to criminality obscures what else he has done during his many years as that city’s chief executive — and no, it’s not just his successful firecracker and after-hours liquor ban in Davao.
In acknowledgment of the city’s multi-ethnic character, he was the first city mayor to designate deputy mayors for the Moro and Lumad peoples. Davao during his and his allies’ watch also introduced a children’s code, and passed an anti-discrimination ban. Duterte also favors peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, in addition to supporting the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Davao City also holds the National Literacy Hall of Fame Award in the Outstanding Local Government Unit Highly Urbanized City category, and has helped in the rehabilitation of Tacloban by providing medical aid to the victims of Typhoon Yolanda.
Despite these accomplishments, to which must be added the universally acknowledged decline in Davao city’s crime rate and the obvious social benefits from the firecracker ban (the fires and injuries that plague other cities during New Year’s eve celebrations are unheard of in Davao), Duterte’s cavalier attitude towards human rights and its implications on how he will govern the entire country should he win its highest post is seriously at issue. Corollary to this is the question of whether the Davao city model — which the mayor describes as his “exhibit A” in his campaign to win voters — can, or should even be, replicated across the entire country.
The main expression of the mayor’s disdain for the rights of people he claims to be criminals — presumed kidnappers, drug pushers and even drug addicts — are the extrajudicial killings that he has never denied happen in Davao city. These killings presume guilt without the benefit of judicial evaluation, and are unlawful and contrary to the oath the Constitution compels him to take should he be elected President. That oath commits the President to the preservation and defense of the Constitution, and to “do justice to every man.”
Extrajudicial killings are not only contrary to the oath to “do justice to every man,” they also carry out without any legal basis the death penalty that has been suspended in the Philippine setting — the revival of which Duterte has announced he supports for the crime of plunder. A Duterte presidency would in effect adopt a policy supposedly meant to combat criminality that would not only be contrary to law; it would also unofficially inflict the death penalty for such lesser “crimes” as drug addiction.
Far from being supportive of law and order — whether in Davao alone, or worse, across the entire country — the encouragement of extrajudicial killings abets lawlessness and inevitably leads to abuse.
Instructive, for example, is the possibility that the Tagum city death squad, the creation of which is said to have been inspired by its Davao city counterpart, has also been used to kill the political rivals of a former official as well as critical journalists. An epidemic of such killings — which could spread to include political activists, human rights defenders, and other dissenters, would send a clear signal to anyone with an interest in silencing critics and protesters that they can kill with even more impunity.
Duterte’s vice-presidential running mate Alan Peter Cayetano has described his approach to criminality as a mere quest for order rather than as an invitation to greater violence and anarchy, but replicating it in the rest of the Philippines would be a disaster to what remains of Philippine democracy.
Whether Duterte’s more rational approaches to governance could be adopted on a nationwide basis is another question altogether. Would the country’s many problems — with, among others, corruption, government inefficiency, nonexistent or limited social services, and the poverty that haunts the lives of millions — yield to better management, which Duterte adherents say he has demonstrated in Davao?
To address corruption, Duterte says he would impose the death penalty for plunder, corruption being, in his view, the cause of poverty. The thesis that corruption is the cause of poverty is exactly the same as that of the Aquino administration, whose supposed efforts along this line over the last five years have foundered on the shoals of its reliance on friendships and other feudal ties to run some of the most strategic sectors of government (such as transportation), and its tolerance of these bureaucrats’ most brazen offenses against the public interest.
Can anyone predict with some certainty that Duterte would not make the same mistakes? Assuming that his mailed-fist policies do minimize corruption across the entire bureaucracy, would that indeed end poverty? The reality is that public sector corruption is only one among other reasons for the persistence of poverty, the chief culprit being the skewed distribution of wealth that endows a few with billions while denying millions their most basic needs.
To remedy what numerous studies have documented as a fundamental cause of Philippine poverty, Duterte would have to go beyond executing corrupt officials. Based on a sound critique of Philippine society, he will have to devise and implement the authentic land reform that over the decades has eluded the country, and to adopt a policy of industrialization — the twin policies that have pushed the Philippines’ neighboring countries to prosperity and even First World status.
But like every other politician running in 2016, Duterte has offered no coherent platform of governance based on an assessment of the current state of the country. What has recommended him to many — his shoot-’em-up approach that he claims has worked so well in Davao — is limited to addressing criminality, provides no real solution to poverty, and is at the same time at odds with the very law he claims to support. Not only will he have to craft and implement a wholistic and workable national policy if he is to be the effective President he says he will be; to be true to his oath he will also have to renounce the very basis of his current popularity, unless he wants chaos rather than order to reign in this unhappy land.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.
Published in Business World
December 3, 2015