Is the Philippines about to elect a dictator?

Four days ago I returned to Scotland after spending seven months in the Philippines. I have been visiting the country regularly for nearly twenty years, and I love being there. It is full of natural beauty, and the people are very friendly.

But, for the first time, I left the Philippines deeply troubled. There are elections throughout the country tomorrow (May 9th) and, if the opinion polls are correct, Rodrigo Duterte, who thinks the late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, was the best President the Philippines has ever had, is about to be elected President. And ‘BongBong’ Marcos, son of the late dictator, has a narrow lead in the Vice-Presidential campaign.

The Philippines is a poor country: more than 12 million people do not even have enough money to provide themselves and their families with three meals a day. Corruption is rife – many politicians steal public money, and the police and many public officials accept bribes in return for favours. The last President, Gloria Arroyo, has been in hospital detention since she left office in 2010, accused of plunder though she has not yet faced any formal charges. Her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, was found guilty of plunder, but was pardoned by Arroyo, and is now the Mayor of Manila. The current President, Aquino, whose father was murdered by Marcos cronies, and whose mother led the revolt against Marcos in 1986 and subsequently became President, has proved a lacklustre President. The Philippines has seen strong economic growth but, although there have been some infrastructure improvements, the rich not the poor are the main beneficiaries. Aquino has failed to fulfil his promise to stamp out corruption, and – like his predecessors – has failed to deal with the ongoing struggle by terrorists to create a separate Muslim state in the southern Philippines. The violence in Mindanao with regular battles between the Philippines army and the rebels has claimed more than 120,000 lives since the 1970s. Another rebel group, the communist NPA, is also regularly fighting the army, and runs protection rackets in areas where it is strong. There is also concern about crime generally in the Philippines, particularly about drug-related crime.

All this means that many Filipinos are looking for a tough President who, they hope, can sort out the country’s problems. The last such President was Ferdinand Marcos who was elected in 1965. He imposed ‘martial law’ in 1972 and instigated a reign of terror which lasted until 1986 when he was overthrown in the ‘People Power’ Revolution. Tens of thousands of his political opponents were imprisoned and tortured. More than three thousand were killed, their rotting tortured bodies being thrown onto the streets as a warning to would-be dissidents. Another 400 ‘disappeared’.

The Filipinos are a tolerant people, and they allowed Imelda Marcos and her family to return to the country and several of them have been elected to office. Imelda, now 83, is a Congresswoman and her son, BongBong, is a Senator and a candidate for vice-President. They, naturally perhaps, refuse to accept that Ferdinand Marcos did anything wrong. They remain an incredibly rich family because the Philippines Government has succeeded in getting back only $3.7 billion of the estimated $10 billion stolen from the Philippines by the Marcoses.

The Marcos family has also succeeded in rewriting history so successfully that many Filipinos look back to the Marcos era as a time of ‘discipline’, a golden age when the Philippines was doing well economically and there was little crime. This is a myth. Poverty increased dramatically in the Marcos years. Foreign debt increased twelvefold, reaching $28.3 billion. The Marcos years were an unmitigated disaster for the Philippines, the consequence of which are still being felt today.

Rodrigo Duterte has been attracting massive crowds during his Presidential campaign. His supporters are everywhere on social media. And they are adept at doctoring documents and photoshopping photographs, falsely claiming that President Obama and the Pope support Duterte. And it is not just less educated Filipinos who are backing him. Opinion polls show that he actually has support across all social classes. And they are fiercely protective of him. They see him as the solution to all the problems of the Philippines. They believe his most ludicrous promises. In their eyes Duterte can do no wrong. The man is almost worshipped.

Supporters point to his track record in Davao where he has been Mayor for more more than 25 years (with an interlude when his daughter was Mayor). It is claimed that Davao is one of the safest cities, not just in the Philippines, but in the world. That is completely untrue. It is not even the safest city in the Philippines. On the contrary, police statistics show that Davao is the murder capital of the country. During the period from 2010-2015 Davao had the highest number of murders in the Philippines – a colossal 1,032. And during the same period, it had the second highest number of rapes – 843.

Davao is notorious for its Death Squads. Duterte speaks warmly of their activities, and it is no secret that he encourages them. Indeed he has in the past boasted about personally killing alleged criminals. And on April 22nd, the Philippines Daily Inquirer quoted Senator Trillanes as saying : Duterte “told me that he made people get down on their knees and shot them in the head, splattering their brains on the ground”.

But it seems Duterte supporters are prepared to accept this. Several of them have said to me that they don’t mind if ‘bad’ people are killed. But in a civilised society, the rule of law must prevail. People must be assumed innocent until proved guilty in a court of law. It is not for Mayor Duterte or anyone else to act as judge, jury and executioner.

Human Rights Watch found that from 1998-2015 there were 1424 summary executions in Davao. The youngest victim was a boy of 12. Youngest female victim was 15. At least 14 of those killed were victims of mistaken identity.

“I do not have any tears for you if you die, you idiots!” Duterte said, referring to drug pushers. “You all deserve to die.” (Philippine Daily Inquirer). But many of those killed were petty criminals. “In March 2002, Duterte declared war against teenage gangs, which local police said were responsible for most of the crimes committed in the city. ‘If they offer resistance,’ the mayor told reporters, “I will not hesitate to kill them. I don’t care about minors’.” (Philippines Daily Inquirer, 22 April 2016).

On 25th April 2016, the Philippines Daily Enquirer reported a Priest’s revelations about Duterte: “Picardy said Duterte has been accused of human rights violations and extra-judicial killings, but he has not been punished because no one wanted to stand up to him……..Nobody comes out as witness because people feared for their lives”.

Duterte has said that, if elected President, he will eradicate ‘criminality’ in 3-6 months. This is a ludicrous promise. He has failed to eradicate crime in Davao in 25 years, and no ruler in history – even the most vicious tyrant – has succeeded in eliminating crime. But no doubt Duterte will do his best. He says frequently that a President must not be afraid to kill. He will give the green light to Death Squads throughout the country. Vigilantes will roam the streets, murdering suspected criminals. No one will be safe.

Duterte says he will also reintroduce the barbaric and ineffective death penalty (presumably for those who escape his death squads). There will be public hangings, he says. So the Philippines will go against the world trend towards abolition of the death penalty, and join the handful of authoritarian countries such as Iran who make the deaths of human beings a public spectacle.

Duterte has no respect for women. He boasts of his many girlfriends and wives, and made the sickest rape ‘joke’ I have ever heard. Discussing the gang rape and murder of an Australian woman in Davao, he said she was so beautiful that he wished he had been the first to rape her.

He is known for his liberal use of swear words in his speeches, and called the Pope ‘the son of a whore’, but even in this predominantly Catholic country, this does not appear to have done him any harm.

Duterte supporters often claim he is honest unlike most other politicians. But doubt has been thrown on his non-corrupt image in the last two weeks by the allegation made by Senator Trillanes that Duterte had a Bank of Philippines Islands account with P211 million. Duterte at first denied the existence of this account, saying it “is just a fabrication of Senator Trillanes”. But three days later he admitted “I have a (BPI) account but a little less than 200 million”.

Duterte failed, as required by law, to declare this huge sum of money in his annual SALN return. By the way Duterte’s salary as Mayor is 78,000 pesos a month. It would take him 213 years to save P200 million from that salary.

A few days ago, Duterte showed selected extracts from eleven bank accounts. One showed a balance of P128million.

Senator Trillanes said that Duterte had 17 bank accounts which have seen transactions totalling P2.4 billion over a period of nine years. Trillanes said that if Duterte were elected President, he would seek his impeachment. But Duterte retorted :”If they try to impeach me, I’ll shut down Congress” (Philippines Daily Inquirer, 1 May 2016.) This is not the first time Duterte has threatened to close Congress if it displeases him. As President he would not have the constitutional right to do this, and would presumably have to resort to martial law and rule as a dictator.

Filipino voters have been warned. If they elect Duterte as President, it might be the last time they vote. Democracy and human rights could end in the Philippines, and a Marcos-style regime of terror be imposed.

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