The Philippines

Strongman at helm

Print edition : June 10, 2016

Supporters of the President-elect, Rodrigo Duterte, at a campaign rally before the elections, in Manila on May 7. Photo: Romeo Ranoco / Reuters

Duterte speaking to the media after claiming victory, at Davao city on the island of Mindanao on May 15. Photo: TED ALJIBE/AFP

The Spratly and Paracel Islands remain a bone of contention between China and the Philippines.

The Philippines has elected a President who not only is a grass-roots politician but is also known for his anti-U.S. politics. Balancing ties between the U.S. and China will be one of his main challenges.

The Philippines, long used to dynastic politics, has for a change elected as President a grass-roots politician, Rodrigo Duterte from Mindanao. The two previous occupants of the Malacanang Presidential Palace, Gloria Macapagal and Benigno Aquino, were children of former Presidents. Mar Roxas, who stood second in the elections, is also the son of a former President. Duterte, the tough-talking long-serving Mayor of Davao City will be the first Mayor and the first resident from Mindanao to occupy the highest office. He won more than 38 per cent of the votes polled, leaving his rivals far behind. The outgoing President had backed Roxas, saying that electing Duterte would mean the return of the authoritarian Marcos era. He had called on the other candidates to unite against the 71-year-old Duterte. There were of course no takers for his appeal.

Under Aquino, the country’s foreign and security policies had taken a pronounced pro-United States and anti-China tilt. He strengthened relations with the U.S. by signing the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The U.S. military was allowed back into the bases from which it was kicked out in 1992. Under the agreement signed last year between the U.S. and the Philippines, the U.S. military will also gain access to other key military, naval and air force bases in the country. The Aquino administration embraced the U.S.’ military pivot to the East and, along with Japan, played a key role as the U.S.’ main ally in the territorial dispute over the South China Sea.

Even by the standards of the Philippines, where elections are usually raucous, Duterte ran a no-holds-barred campaign. He vowed to eliminate crime using unconventional means. He said last year that his crime-fighting strategy was “kill them all”. In a recent campaign speech, he said that he personally would hunt down those who broke the law. Rising crime, unemployment and poverty were the emotive issues of the 2016 presidential campaign. While campaigning, Duterte said that, if elected, he would prioritise these issues. Twenty-five per cent of the population in the country is below the poverty line. Only 58 per cent has full-time employment.

Communist association

Another of his top priorities is ending the war that has been raging in southern Philippines from the late 1980s. Duterte is known to have good relations with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New Peoples Army (NPA). The founder-leader of the CPP, Jose Maria Sison, and the new President-elect have known each other for a long time. Duterte was Sison’s student in the University of Manila, where Sison taught political science. The veteran communist leader who has been in exile since the mid 1980s has said that he is willing to return to the Philippines if peace talks start in earnest. More than 30,000 people have been killed since the insurgency led by the NPA started.

Duterte has already re-established contact with his old teacher. He was shown talking to Sison, who is based in the Netherlands, on Skype. In the transcript of the video, Duterte is seen telling Sison that he would follow the “path of socialism”. He went on to add that though he was not a CPP member, he “belonged to the Left”. Sison had earlier praised Duterte’s determination “to wipe out corruption and criminality”. Some observers believe that the CPP’s support was a crucial factor in Duterte’s election victory.

A right-wing Senator, Antonio Trillanes, who once was part of a failed right-wing army coup, has warned Dutarte that sections of the army view his relations with Communists with a suspicion. Some right-wing politicians and army officers are accusing the President-elect of planning to form a coalition government with the CPP. Duterte has said that he plans to meet with Sison before formally taking office. He has already said that he is not averse to the idea of releasing long-incarcerated Communist prisoners and kick-starting peace talks with the CPP once again. The peace talks were restarted after President Aquino took over in 2010 but called off in 2013 with both sides accusing each other of insincerity.

Tough stance on corruption

But it was his tough stance on tackling crime and corruption that seems to have struck a chord among the voters. In many of his speeches, he vowed to launch an all-out drive against criminals in the first six months of his presidency. He said that the streets of Manila would “be very bloody”. Human rights groups have been critical of his extrajudicial methods in Davao City, but that has not stopped him from promising more of the same on a grander scale covering the whole country. As Mayor of Davao City, his tough approach eliminated violent crime in the streets. Before he took over, the city had the reputation of being the most violence-prone in the whole of the Philippines. Today it is considered among the safest cities in the world.

Duterte has been accused of using vigilante death squads to eliminate hundreds of criminals in his two decades as Mayor. At the same time, he has been given credit for being a good administrator by many women’s rights groups. Under Duterte, Davao City developed a “gender and development code” that tried to create equal opportunities for women in government.

As Mayor, he also set up a Crisis Centre for female victims of violence. Duterte, whose jokes on women and sensitive issues like rape may sound jarring and off-putting for an outsider, uses them as a ploy to distinguish himself from the other presidential candidates, who are from elite backgrounds. He himself, though, is a graduate from a top law school. It will be interesting to watch what shape the country’s foreign policy and security issues take under the Duterte presidency. He has taken a tough stance on the Philippines’ sovereignty in the South China Sea dispute. In his typical style, he said that he would take a jet ski to the Spratly Islands and plant a Philippine flag there. In a statement released after Duterte’s victory, the CPP, which professes Maoist ideology, “challenged Duterte to assert the national sovereignty of the Filipino people and defend the territorial integrity of the Philippines”.

Geopolitical issues

Duterte, however, is hedging his bets. He has said that if the multilateral talks supported by the U.S. on the dispute fail, then he is open to direct negotiations with China. President Aquino had taken the dispute to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). Beijing has said that it will not accept the judgment of the court on the maritime dispute. Duterte has said that he has a similar position. “I don’t believe in solving a conflict through an international tribunal,” he told the media. China has been a proponent of direct talks between the affected countries without outside involvement. Duterte said that if talks with China materialised and were successful, he would invite Chinese companies to invest heavily in infrastructure projects in the Philippines. One of his dream projects is to build a railway connecting Manila and Mindanao. “Build us a railway just like you built in Africa, and let’s set aside disagreements for a while,” the President-elect said in what is viewed as a conciliatory message to Beijing. Duterte has also said that he is open to collaboration with China on oil and gas exploration in the disputed area.

Duterte will in all probability seek to balance ties between the two superpowers with influence in the region, the U.S. and China. Many Filipinos are justifiably of the view that they are caught in the middle of a conflict essentially pitting the U.S. against China. Duterte has expressed doubts about the U.S.’ commitment to protecting Philippine sovereignty. He said that the warships that the U.S. has deployed in the area could have prevented the Chinese takeover of the Spratly and the Paracel Islands. The U.S. has reasons to be worried about the Duterte presidency. If Manila walks out of the military alliance with Washington, the Obama administration’s military rebalancing to the East will be in jeopardy. The Philippines is the lynchpin of the U.S. military pivot to the Asia Pacific.

On an individual basis, Duterte has a long-standing grievance against the U.S. More than 14 years ago, an American, Michael Terrence Meiring, was found injured after an explosion in his hotel room in Davao City. A suitcase full of explosives he had checked in with had exploded in his hotel room. He was charged by the Davao police of illegally importing explosives.

Meiring, however, did not have to face justice in the Philippines. A couple of Americans flashing Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) badges barged into the hospital where he was being treated and spirited him away first to Manila and then out of the country. It was an affront to the “tough guy” image that Duterte had cultivated in Davao City. He was angered by the fact that a criminal suspect was allowed to escape under American protection.

Duterte admits to feelings of “hatred” towards the U.S. stemming from that episode. U.S. officials have never denied that they helped Meiring to flee the country. Meiring, it is speculated, was on a clandestine mission in Mindanao. Around the time when he was there, the island of Mindanao was rocked by mysterious explosions. An explosion in the city of General Santos, 150 km south of Davao City, had killed 15 civilians. The government forces were fighting the NPA and insurgent Islamist groups such as the Abu Sayyaf during that period. The Bush administration was itching to deploy U.S. special forces in the conflict. The mysterious bomb explosions helped to persuade the Philippine government to call for American military help. Many Filipinos believe that Meiring was behind the mysterious bombings.

In 2013, Duterte refused permission to the U.S. to base its military drones in Davao City. He said at the time that U.S. drones had a reputation for targeting civilians. U.S. special forces are now actively engaged in the fight against the Abu Sayyaf and other militant groups. The Abu Sayyaf has recently sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. For relations to continue as before between the two countries, Duterte will expect a full revelation of what exactly transpired in the Meiring episode. Meiring died some years ago in the U.S., taking his secret to the grave. The U.S. historically has been the main ally of the Philippines. The ruling class and the oligarchs who control the economy have a pronounced pro-American bias. At the same time, they also know that there are economic benefits to be had by engaging with China.

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