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2016 in review: Duterte courts controversy over change

In the Philippines, the past year has been about one individual: Rodrigo Duterte, who is both beloved and despised for his rabble-rousing persona and hard-hearted leadership. No one else comes close.

Back in August, three months into his term as the country’s new president, he made a promise in a speech delivered to an audience of military generals. “There will be an ongoing purge,” he said. “And sadly, many people will be unhappy. At the same time, I’m sure that many Filipinos will be happy.”

Since winning the presidential election in May with a landslide that shocked even his most loyal supporters, Duterte has indeed been a polarising figure both in his nation and abroad.

His temper has been often fiery and volatile, particularly when castigating his critics: in less than half-a-year in office, Duterte picked fights with the local and foreign press, Mexican people, the United Nations, Pope Francis, and Barack Obama, after the outgoing president of the United States said that he planned to discuss Duterte’s war on drugs with him at the Asean Summit last September. Duterte interpreted Obama’s statement as a slight to his governance.

“I am no American puppet. I am the president of a sovereign country and I am not answerable to anyone except the Filipino people,” Duterte told reporters, before cursing.

Such outbursts have also unnerved investors, triggering the collapse of his country’s economy, with the Philippine peso at a seven-year low.

Duterte’s policies have been controversial, but also deadly: his campaign against drugs, the centrepiece of his office, has resulted in police forces killing more than 1,800 drug suspects and about 2,600 others in unexplained circumstances linked to the crackdown. Duterte has repeatedly insisted that the police are only killing in self-defence.

When the UN criticised the measures as “crimes against humanity”, Duterte told reporters: “I’d like to be frank with you. Are they humans? What is your definition of a human being?”

Despite his transgressions, Duterte remains astonishingly popular with the public, enjoying an 86 per cent approval rating, according to a survey conducted in October by Pulse Asia Research Inc. In the highly-stratified society of the Philippines, the national adoration of Duterte could be a reflection of a citizenry pining for change – in whatever shape or form, it seems – in order to shake up an establishment that has put them at a distance for years. “Change is coming”, after all, was the slogan of Duterte’s campaign. But at what cost?

Bucking widespread sentiment, former Philippine president Fidel Ramos called Duterte’s reign a “huge disappointment and letdown”, with the country “losing badly” due to a prioritisation of a war on drugs at the expense of issues such as poverty, employment and foreign investment.

Duterte’s drug campaign and incendiary rhetoric have certainly overshadowed his successes, which include cutting red tape in government agencies and increased spending for infrastructure projects.

In recent weeks, some have turned their backs on Duterte after his approval to bury former dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a cemetery reserved for national heroes. Marcos died in 1989 and his body has been stored in a crypt in his hometown, Batac, since 1993. Many Filipinos, particularly those who experienced torture and imprisonment during the Marcos era, have expressed outrage against Duterte for yielding to the desires of the Marcos family, who have supported his rise to the presidency.

Thousands have already protested at the People Power Monument, the site that commemorates the peaceful revolution that ousted Marcos in 1986.

Estrellita Calderon, a public school teacher in Manila who praised Duterte in an interview with The National back in September, was present at the protest. “Like many of my friends and family members, I’ve had enough,” she said. “I’ve given him a chance, but I think our country is in a worse state than ever. Who knows what else he is planning to do to our country?”

It has been shaky and contentious six months for Duterte, and he has five-and-a-half years to go. What could possibly happen next? With a leader who seemingly bases his policies on personal fancies and feelings, the future does not look so bright for the tropical nation.

James Gabrillo is a frequent contributor to The Review.

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