Duterte’s Regime: Brutal But Effective

Photo courtesy of the EPA

Drug dealers and addicts alike languish in an overcrowded cell in Manila.

will not defend Duterte’s words. I’ll defend his actions. The things he says, at least the words that get reported internationally, range from ungentlemanly to despicable. I don’t especially care. Bluster is exactly that: bluster. Real change – making tangible improvements to ordinary lives – is what counts in leadership, a lesson Americans would’ve done well to learn in the past eight years. If words offend you, the fault is your own.

Duterte is the Filipino president, not a diplomat. I look at what he’s accomplished on the ground at home: stability, efficiency, lower and middle classes who for the first time believe they have a shot at a quality of life. I did not expect a guy with high-brow speeches and lofty ideals or talk of change that never happens. This is the opposite of elitist politics the usual Filipino way. Duterte is a street fighter, a colleague of Manny Paquiao, a rough-hewn commoner.  Nobody said he was finely educated or had any understanding of history, in the East or the West. Yes, he’s a rabble-rouser. Yes, he may eventually turn dangerous. Yes, he has instituted fundamental change in his society in a way that scares the corrupt elite as they see their selfish grip on power slowly slipping away.

What has he done in his first five months? I’m not talking about state dinners and fancy receptions. I mean the things that count to his people. Some are what we, in America, take for granted, but they represent significant change to the daily lives of people in a country accustomed to having 25% of the population in poverty, vast inequality, and government controlled by the wealthy. Suddenly, bureaucracy is trimmed and efficient; enormous lines at banks, public offices, and airports are disappearing as the new government ensures its workers fulfill their duties. Millions of people who never had any idea of how their untrusted government worked can now watch the first ever dedicated TV channel broadcasting from the country’s congress. Free public Wifi is expanding in all cities, a boon that cannot be understated in a country with basically no alternative telecommunications or information access.  With such dire prospects and strife at home, more Filipinos work overseas than in any country except Mexico ­— close to 15% of the population. Duterte has implemented huge changes, prioritizing more efficient processing of documents and reduced fees for this overseas labor, a pillar of the economy.

But most important to the masses, and apparently most objectionable to Westerners, is his harsh approach to establishing peace and security. It may not have made the front page of The New York Times, but before Duterte’s presidency, violent crime, fueled beyond any doubt by drug proliferation, was even more rampant in the Philippines. Duterte appealed to the masses about this issue and is now delivering the goods. Just two months into the new administration, nationwide crime is down 49% from a year ago. This is hope and change to believe in. The safety of Davao City, once the only oasis of calm when Duterte was its mayor, is spreading everywhere. There’s no confusion among ordinary people about the connection between drugs and crime. The recent crackdown on dealers and addicts, regardless of whether anyone thinks it is excessive or inhumane, has brought welcome stability to the streets and schools.  An overwhelming majority of Filipinos will tell you that the people who died before Duterte’s inauguration were the victims, and those dying now are the perpetrators.  Blood in the streets is never pretty, but for the first time, the Filipino people are looking at the results of an efficient and less corrupt government – and the people like it. 

Yes, extra-judicial killings are abhorrent to our society – because we enjoy civil society.  The Philippines never reached that stage; in truth, it has been an impoverished, crime-infested hot mess where only the wealthy are insulated and the masses lie low. If you want to demand a more careful and restrictive legal process against local drug trade, what you may really be saying is that you’re okay with the persistence of rampant crime. Ask the ordinary people. Ask why only corrupt politicians, drug lords, and the ultra-rich (the third often related to the first two) are speaking out against the president. The people’s love for this man is still growing. The lower classes feel all changes on the ground are to their benefit in a country whose government has never served them before. The middle class believes security and anti-corruption will allow them to build new businesses beyond the clutches of government-supported industries. Ask the people about extra-judicial killings and they’ll tell you that all they know is that in their neighborhoods and villages there are suddenly fewer rapists, killers, and drug-pushers. They’ll tell you children play in the streets for the first time and that universities are no longer synonymous with rape.

Ask these people if they care about their president’s disgusting street-vocabulary, misogyny, and rants about global issues he knows nothing about. They may be embarrassed, but safety and efficiency are prizes they value above all else. The rest is just background noise.  Liberalism isn’t automatic; it is built on stability and a government that responds to the needs of the many, not just the privileged few. The Philippines found a leader who, for better or worse, is producing results on these basic conditions. The results, not the methods, are what the Filipino people care most about. They will wait for improved methods later, because they know that without Duterte, their nation’s status quo would never have changed for the better.    

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