As controversial Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte marks the first anniversary of his presidency, one of the country’s academics argues there are some positives from his time in charge but fears “pernicious polarisation” could tear the country apart

Not many world leaders would mark the end of their first year in charge by threatening to eat a terrorist’s liver.

But Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is far from an ordinary leader, as demonstrated when he warned Islamic State militants: “Give me salt and vinegar and I will eat it [your liver] in front of you.”

Duterte has created a storm of headlines since assuming office in late June last year, largely due to the results of his bloody war on crime.

Aries Arugay, an associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines visiting New Zealand as a guest of MFAT and the Asia New Zealand Foundation, says Duterte’s first year in charge is most aptly described as “action-packed”.

“This is not how a typical Philippines president conducts his first year in office, because it’s more like, ‘I’m surveying the terrain, I’m seeing what the presidency is like’, it’s supposed to be more laidback, more setting the agenda, more strategy, less implementation.

“This is an administration headed by a president who is not willing to take a breather and just goes immediately to fulfilling the campaign promises.”

Those campaign promises included a pledge to eliminate drug traffickers and fatten the fish in Manila Bay by dumping bodies there.

While the world has been shocked by the thousands of extrajudicial killings, Arugay says there was no “bait and switch” by Duterte.

“He did say that the war on drugs will be bloody, the critics I did not believe it until they saw it. He did say that it will be relentless, that it will not stop.

“Again Filipinos were sceptical about this because they’ve been so used to politicians making promises but not fulfilling them, so now they have a president who walks the walk.”

High risk approach to foreign policy, peace process

The war on drugs is not the only area where Duterte has brought an unconventional approach.

Arugay points to an unexpected focus on foreign policy, with Duterte working to distance the Philippines from traditional allies like the United States in favour of closer relations with China.

That has been done in an unorthodox manner – Duterte labelled former US President Barack Obama a “son of a whore” last year – but Arugay believes that bluster is designed as a show of sincerity to the Chinese.

“I distinctly remember that when someone asked, ‘Why are you hugging the panda too much?’, [it’s] because we say, ‘We need to be able to communicate to the panda that we are open to hugging because the impression is we’ve been petting the eagle for too long’.”

Duterte is also working on what Arugay describes as “the most ambitious peace strategy of all post-dictatorship governments”, trying to resolve decades of conflict between Islamic factions and the Philippines government in Mindanao by negotiating with all the different groups.

He says the president’s approach is high risk, but with the potential for a high payoff.

“That requires a lot of political savvy, that requires a lot of commitment, credibility as well because you’re talking about promising something during negotiations, giving up something as well as asking for something, but if it’s successful then we’re talking about ending the longest running Maoist-inspired communist insurgency in the world, we’re talking about putting a closure to centuries of conflict in the southern part of the Philippines – we’re talking about legacy-like outcomes here.”

Even in one of Duterte’s weak spots, the economy, Arugay says there has been progress, with a significant boost in infrastructure spending.

“If you visit Manila, there’s so much construction work going on, and I’ve never seen public infrastructure conducted in an accelerated place – normally it takes years.”

Business confidence within the country has not only held steady but increased – perhaps in part, he says, due to a sense of stability from Duterte’s focus on security issues.

Government ‘complicit’ in drug deaths

The positives do not absolve Duterte for the more horrific aspects of his time in charge.

Arugay says people are being killed arbitrarily as part of the war on drugs, with the government “at the very least” complicit in the murders due to its lack of investigation.

“You have a state under Duterte that summarily judged, for example, those involved with illegal drugs as people not deserving of rights, not deserving of the protection of the state simply because they have violated the law.”

Why then have Filipinos continued to support him? Arugay says some of his colleagues in academia have described the public as “cruel and violent”, but he disagrees.

Instead, he says the willlingness to accept Duterte’s hardline approach is due to the significant inequality in Philippines society, and the desire of the poor to have someone advocating for them.

“Despite being mostly the victims of the drug war, a lot of them think Duterte is their ability to take control of their own communities.

“The trade-off [between human rights and security] only happens if you possess both – unfortunately Filipinos do not possess both, they’re not giving up human rights because in their world they’ve never had human rights, and they don’t have security so at least they would have some, one of the two.”

Arugay also takes aim at previous administrations, saying they “dropped the ball” by failing to live up to truly democratic principles.

“I always said Duterte never should have become president – there should be no space for Duterte if we are truly a liberal democracy, he should have been shut off like Marine le Pen [in France] or [Geert] Wilders in the Netherlands, but he got elected because Filipinos had no other alternative.

“Duterte is our soft landing – Duterte becomes the leader that Filipinos pin all their hopes to the point of desperation, simply because those who have been in power for decades have short-changed the people.”

Risks ahead for Duterte

Arugay says that level of hope for Duterte could weigh him down in future, with his current levels of support unlikely to be sustainable.

“We’re not just talking about support by the poor – in fact if he’s losing public opinion it’s from the poor … we’re talking about a president who has support across social classes, and that is unprecedented.

“The pendulum will have to swing either way – he can’t continue to have cross-class support, that is impossible.”

Terrorism is also a serious threat, with a siege continuing between Duterte’s government and Islamic State-linked militants in the southern city of Marawi.

Arugay says the president’s strongman attitude is unlikely to succeed in tackling the terrorist threat, with a more nuanced approach required.

“Terrorism breeds terrorism … if you treat terrorism alone through a scorched earth policy, you’re basically reproducing the conditions that bred terrorism in the first place.”

Yet Arugay’s most serious concern is about the risk of what he describes as “pernicious polarisation”, with Filipinos taking starkly contrasting attitudes on Duterte and proving intractable.

“There are some situations like Venezuela or Thailand or Egypt wherein there’s no more grey area, that you are forced to choose one side and both sides demonise one another to the point that conflict will occur.”

To ease that risk, restraint is required on both sides: Duterte must become humble and more grounded, while his political opponents must be patient and refrain from using “extrajudicial means” of unseating the president.

Arugay warns it is too early to say for sure whether that polarisation will occur, but he is in no doubt about the threat it presents.

“If I’m wrong then it’s just my career, if I’m right then my country’s in trouble.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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